Techno itinerancy and surviving the professional apocalypse

TR member Todd Fluhr provides some survival steps for freelance techies who have little or no resources to work with. Additional tips for survival are welcome in the discussion thread.

It's the worst case scenario for any career - that is, finding yourself in an unexpected career-cataclysm that leaves you without the resources or ability to maintain the basic technological tools required for recovery. In the most extreme cases, it means struggling with keeping your virtual presence alive even while facing physical homelessness and real survival issues.

What are the tactics and resources available to reboot strap a career from the worst case scenario of having lost everything?

There's an old saying that many people are only one missed paycheck away from homelessness. While that may seem like an overstatement, add in a few debts, missed payments, and losing a bank account, and it quickly goes from bad to worse.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is represented by a pyramid with the most basic needs at the bottom. At the bottom or foundation of the pyramid are the physiological needs (such as breathing, food, water, etc). The next layers proceeding upwards are Safety, Love/belonging, Esteem, and finally Self-actualization at the top.

Finding yourself at the bottom of this pyramid represents a day-to-day struggle just to survive. If all of your time is spent simply trying to find food or a place to sleep that night, then how do you rebuild any semblance of a professional life?

The collapse of a career is much like a slide down the side of Maslow's pyramid. You start at the top of self-actualization where all is right in the universe. But fall from that apex and you're suddenly riding an ever-increasing downwards slope. The Self-Esteem level slides right by almost before you know it's gone; then the love and belonging, as no one likes a loser; the security of savings, property, transportation, and all the things needed as a foundation to work from; and finally you hit the bottom, where you don't even know where your next meal is coming from.

It's a lot like losing your wallet and luggage in a third-world country, but worse.

From a freelance tech person's viewpoint, it's a seeming inescapable catch-22. You need certain basic things to seek work, but none of these things are available to you without a baseline income provided by work. How can you possibly escape this trap? As a freelance tech person, how can you keep yourself employable with little or no resources to work with?

Let's establish a scenario of despair to work from. Assume that you've been unemployed for X amount of time. During this time, you've lost your home, sold your car to pay debts, and are living out of a backpack. At best, you have friends or family who've kindly offered a couch to sleep on. At worst, there are homeless shelters in most cities. You have an amazing resume and past work record, but the job market has proved itself to be a capricious friend to say the least.

There's one tool that will become your Swiss Army knife in your struggle to survive. That's your laptop. It's more important than a car, cell phone, or even a roof over your head if it comes down to it.

But let's start from the worst possible place and say you've lost your laptop. It's either been taken in a divorce or stolen by thieves, which some may consider to be the same thing. Further, we'll assume that you don't have a cell phone or a bank account.

Without computer access, you're in a stasis of inactivity, hoping for some residual outcome of past effort to find a job. Maybe that resume you sent out last month will yield results, but how will the potential employer contact you if you have no cell phone or email access?

Your first step is to find internet access and establish an email address that's stable and doesn't require financial upkeep. Public libraries are a great resource, as they typically have computers and internet access that you can use during their business hours. If you don't have one already, get a Gmail or Hotmail account. You now have a way for people to contact you, regardless of anything else.

Now, prepare your resume - from scratch, if need be. When your situation is so dire that you can't even afford a cheap thumb drive for your data, use your email account to send your resume to yourself for future use.

The next order of business is to update your social network. If you don't have a Facebook page or online blog or profile somewhere, now is the time to establish it. This is your new face and presence as you rebuild your life. It will serve both as an online point of contact and an online portfolio. If you're a graphic artist, post your work as photo galleries. Add friends - lots of them. If you're normally a reclusive person, that must change. Social networking is a powerful tool that you must learn to use in your fight for survival.

Start using your social network for more than just sharing videos of funny cats. It can help provide leads to jobs. Let your network know what you're looking for. More importantly, sensitize your network to what you need. It's possible you may find someone with an old laptop to donate to your cause.

Think of your social network as an opportunity for synchronicity. If you tell a large enough network that you're looking for a red rubber ball, it increases the odds are someone has an old red rubber ball sitting on their kitchen table.

In the meantime, turn your attention to Craigslist and other job-seeker networks. Post your resume, search the daily listings, and hunt your prey like it owes you money.

These are the very basic steps that can be attained with little or no resources other than time and access to a computer. Results may take a considerable amount of time, but without these basic elements of online presence, social networking, and reliable email, survival will be much more difficult.

If no laptop has become available through your network but you're successful in finding a bit of freelance work, then require a deposit and secure a laptop to work from. Now, your chances are exponentially higher for success, because it allows you to be productive and start moving forward - whether you're designing web pages, programming, or writing.

With a laptop and wireless access, you can literally monitor your email and scour job postings 24/7 and respond swiftly to leads, plus several new tools and strategies become available. For example, if you don't have a cell phone, there are several online alternatives, including CounterPath's X-Lite, which is a software-based phone for your laptop.

Do you need business cards? There are several printing companies that offer first-time specials of free cards, such as VistaPrint. Arrange with a friend to accept delivery and you're set.

Almost. You're moving into new territory now and some kind of online payment is needed for shipping. How do you overcome the obstacle of internet payments without having a bank account? For as little as $30, you can purchase a Walmart MoneyCard, which can be loaded with money and used for online payments.

If you've been able to follow these rough guidelines - and you've had a little luck - you may be able to establish and keep a semblance of online existence from which to build your job search. Even if your day-to-day survival includes finding your next meal or sleeping under bridges, your only hope to rise above is the ability to pursue a job and keep in communication with the world.

My next article will focus on how to actually deliver freelance work from the edge of homelessness, what happens when a bad client's non-payment threatens your very survival, and the consequences when circumstances conspire to keep you from delivering a project to a good client.