On The Job: Ten IT Job-hunting Truisms

Deb Shinder

Last week, I talked about the top five IT job-hunting myths, and how buying into any of them can hurt your chances of beginning or advancing a career in this industry. But some of the things you hear out there about the job search process are legit. This week, I want to discuss ten truisms that you should keep in mind as you go after the fame and fortune (or at least, success and sustenance) that you so richly deserve.

Last week, I talked about the top five IT job-hunting myths, and how buying into any of them can hurt your chances of beginning or advancing a career in this industry. But some of the things you hear out there about the job search process are legit. This week, I want to discuss ten truisms that you should keep in mind as you go after the fame and fortune (or at least, success and sustenance) that you so richly deserve.

Truism #1: Location, location, location

If you've ever been involved in buying or selling real estate, you've no doubt heard that the most important factor in determining the value of property is "location, location, location." For better or worse, this is also one of the biggest - if not the biggest - factors governing your marketability as an IT professional, as well.

When you listen to people in one geographic area lament about how they have fifteen certifications and years of experience and can't get an interview, and then you hear someone in another area talk about how they walked out the door of the community college with nothing more than an MCP and started to work for $60K, you may think somebody is exaggerating. But it's more likely both are telling the truth. The job market in IT varies enormously from one city/state/country to another, as do average compensation packages.

Those who say "there are no entry level IT jobs out there" may be right or wrong, depending on the definition of "out there." In cities with a fast-growing IT industry, jobs are plentiful. In places where the industry is not growing as quickly, or where the market is saturated with IT people, it's much harder to get hired.

The sad truth is: you may have to relocate in order to get your dream job. And going "where the jobs are" doesn't necessarily meaning heading to Silicon Valley. Sure, there are a lot of IT positions there - but there are also a lot of candidates for them, many of whom have a great deal of experience in "the biz." You may be better off looking in new IT "hot spots" such as Austin, TX. A good rule of thumb is "go where the jobs are - and the glamour factor isn't." And be sure to check out Truism #9 before you start comparing salaries in the two locations.

Truism #2: Experience matters

Although in a hot job market, you may be able to get hired based on certifications alone (in fact, if the shortage of personnel is severe enough, any warm body that walks in the door will do), in many cases it's true that employers want more than a piece of paper to prove you can do the job.

"Gotta have experience to get a job, and gotta have a job to get experience." It's the oldest job-hunting catch-22 in the book, but it's not quite accurate. You can get experience without having a job - at least, without having a paid job.

In fact, there are several ways. The first, and potentially the best - although also the most expensive and unfortunately, the least impressive to employers - is to "do it yourself." Set up your own network at home, and implement as many enterprise functions as possible (divide the network into subnets, set up multiple domains, implement a remote access server, create a VPN connection, use NAT, configure DNS and WINS servers, try both static addressing and DHCP, and so forth). Break and fix things, do unattended installations of the operating system and deploy and upgrade software over the network. Make it your job to run your network. You'll learn things no book can ever teach you and no exam can ever test you on.

After you've developed some real skills, if you want to add a little more credibility to your experience claim, actually start a home business. Can't get a "real job?" Become a consultant. Be sure to accept only those assignments that fit your skill level, but this will bring in a little income, confer some tax benefits, and get you some of that all-important paid experience in the process. Heck, you might become so successful that you won't even need to think about going to work for someone else. Stranger things have happened.

Another way to gain some experience without investing in a large capital expenditure for equipment is to sell yourself as an "apprentice" to a networking professional. If you can't get hired without experience in your city's market, and you don't want to move, work out a deal with a company that will let you do a low-paid or no-paid internship for a set amount of time. They get the benefit of your help, and you get the experience to list on your risumi. If you do a good job, they may even hire you themselves at the end of your internship period.

Another option may be to do out-and-out volunteer work. Non-profit organizations, churches, schools, and the like are often in dire need of networking assistance but can't afford to pay for it. You can gain valuable experience by taking on a "pro bono" project for such an organization, and get social credits for your charitable contribution at the same time.

Where there's a will, there's a way to get experience. And that experience will help you to get a job.

Truism #3: It's easier to get a job when you have a job

Strange but true, and not unique to the IT world, most employers prefer to hire someone who is already working. Although it might seem that you should be able to make a case for how loyal an employee you'll be because you so desperately need the job, that tactic is likely to do you more harm than good in the job search.

If you do get hired, your desperation will probably lead employers to offer you less money and fewer benefits than they might have if they felt they were competing with other companies to get you.

It's far better to negotiate from a position of strength. "But I don't have a job," you say. "That's the whole reason I'm looking for one."

Well, see #2 again. Maybe you should consider starting a consulting business, and doing your job search from that "employed" position. Heck, if even you won't hire you, how do you expect anyone else to?

Truism #4: A good risumi can get you in the door

Job hunters tend to fall into two categories: those who put way too much stock in the role of the risumi in their job search, and those who think it's not an important factor at all. The truth - as it so often does - lies somewhere in the middle.

Remember the old saying: "you only get one chance to make a first impression." Your risumi is often the first impression that a potential employer has of you, and if that impression is unpleasant, it may be the only impression. A hastily thrown-together list of your educational credentials and past job history, full of misspellings and badly formatted, will say to the employer: "I am a sloppy person who doesn't care about doing the job right."

Regardless of how great your technical skills are, a bad risumi may prevent you from ever getting interviewed. You'll never have a chance to show off your brilliance. Take some time to create a risumi that really represents you at your best. It may even be worth it to have a professional write your risumi. At least have someone else proofread it before you send it out into the world as your front-line representative. Too many IT people believe it's the content, and not the presentation, that matters. What they don't realize is that if the presentation isn't done well, the reader will never get to the content.

On the other hand, some people see the "perfect risumi" as some sort of magic talisman that can single-handedly get them hired. Regardless of how pristine the prose, how beautifully organized the information, how flawlessly engraved on gold-edged parchment your risumi might be, remember that it's only a risumi. Its purpose is to get you an interview - and that's all. Once you get in the door, it's up to you and your scintillating personality to sell yourself, demonstrate your skills, and keep yourself from being ushered back out the same way you came in.

This article was originally published on Sep 18, 2000
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