The Great Flood and other IT Job-hunting Myths

Deb Shinder

I heard it again today:

I heard it again today: 'IT certifications are worthless. The market is flooded. I've got an MCSE, MCSE+I, MCSD, CNE, CCNA, A+, Network+, ten years of experience, a computer science degree and a partridge in a pear tree and I still can't get a job.' Excuse me if I have to wonder whether our overcertified complainant also has a B.S. in B.S.

"IT certifications are worthless. The market is flooded. I've got an MCSE, MCSE+I, MCSD, CNE, CCNA, A+, Network+, ten years of experience, a computer science degree and a partridge in a pear tree and I still can't get a job."

Excuse me if I have to wonder whether our overcertified complainant also has a B.S. in B.S.

Maybe I'm just lucky, but despite the fact that I was a mid-life career changer, a supposedly discriminated-against member of the "weaker sex," and still have not yet gotten around to ever actually looking for a job in IT (because I've just been too darn busy working), I've had way more job offers than I want or can handle. And the really funny thing is this: my husband and a large number of our friends and former students in the biz are in the same boat.

On the other hand, I keep hearing from people who have the very same certifications (or more), the same amount of experience (at least) and the same apparent qualifications, who are situated in the same or a similar geographic market, that there are no IT jobs out there anymore. That no one will give them the time of day. That they've tried and tried, but still remain despairingly unemployed. 

What's up? Why does one person's experience differ so drastically from his next door neighbor's? Whose reality is real? Or could they both be?

When I listen to these unsuccessful job seekers as they continue their stories (and they always continue their stories), a common theme emerges. Or rather, a set of common themes. I call them the IT job-hunting myths, and I find that most certified IT people who "can't find a job" in today's economy have bought into at least one of them. The most common relates to what I call The Great Flood.

Myth #1: I can't get a job in a flooded market, so there's no use in even trying.

By all indications, overall there are still far more IT jobs available than there are qualified personnel to fill them. But even if we accept the premise that in some areas, there is an oversupply of candidates and competition is stiff so what?

After all, you only need one job, right? I can assure you there is one opening that's still open, or will be shortly. And no matter how many people apply for it, somebody has to get it. Why not you? It's the defeatist attitude that does so many job hunters in before the search even begins.

In my "former life" I worked in a career field where the job market is genuinely flooded: I was a police officer. For reasons that are sometimes difficult to understand, everybody and his dog wants to be a cop (literally. K-9 units proliferate). For every advertised opening, the major police agencies in my area usually had 500-800 applicants. Talk about competitive! People are even willing to volunteer to do the job for free (reserve officers). And then as now, I was the "wrong" gender for the job. Despite all that, I had numerous unsolicited job offers throughout my career, and so did most of the good officers I knew.

You should never choose a career field because there's no competition. You should choose the work you absolutely love to do, and that you do well. Then the competition won't matter. The best rarely have a problem finding a job, whether flood or drought. The cycle works like this:

  1. Doing what you love almost ensures that you'll be good at it.
  2. Being good at it instills self confidence. 
  3. Self confidence is essential to success in this business or any other. Get some. If you try it, I can almost guarantee you'll like it. 

Just don't like it too much. That leads to the opposite problem: the Great Unflooded.

Myth #2: I am obviously the greatest thing that ever hit the industry, so all I have to do is send out my risumi, sit back and wait, and I'll be flooded with opportunities.

Well, maybe. On the other hand, maybe not. A successful job seeker always has a contingency plan. Sometimes jobs really do just fall into your lap (especially when you already have more of them than you need). But sometimes getting work is well, a lot of work. 

Be prepared to do what it takes. While you're unemployed, you should make looking for a job your full time job. Make calls. Go on interviews. Follow through. I have been told twice that the reason I was selected for a job was because I was the only candidate who sent a thank-you note to the interviewer afterward. 

Don't just flood the industry with your risumi. Include a personalized cover letter that will grab the attention of the reader and convince him/her that you are different from all those other anonymous risumi senders. Tell the hiring authority not what the company can do for you, but what you can do for the company. Way too many job applicants seem to think they can sell themselves by convincing the employer that they need the job more than anyone else. A hard fact of life is that the employer probably doesn't care what you need. The employer cares about what he needs. Show him (better than telling him) that you've got it. That's when he might just make you an offer you can't refuse.

But it may not be quite the offer you fantasized about. Which brings us to: Great Expectations.

Myth #3: I am a Certified Professional and thus I won't settle for less than $100K a year (plus stock options and bonuses).

There is a lot of money to be made in IT; that's not a myth. It's one of the few fields in which a kid who didn't even finish college can end up worth $50 billion dollars. But Bill didn't start at that salary, and neither will you. Holding out for the "big bux" is another thing that keeps a lot of people unemployed. Especially if you're new to the field, you may have to take a job that pays a lot less than you believe you're worth, to get a foot in the door. As in most areas of life, most of the "overnight sensations" in this business struggled for years prior to their "sudden" success.

Don't let pride prevent you from ever getting started. It's a lot easier to live on $30K than on $0K, which is what you have if you turn down all the jobs because the money isn't good enough. This is a field in which moving from job to job is almost the norm, so don't worry about getting a "job hopper" reputation. Take a low-paying position if that's all you can find at first. Get some experience under your belt. Show them how good you really are. Chances are your salary won't stay low for long. We've had numerous students actually double their starting salaries within less than a year. But before you can hit the jackpot, you've got to take a swing at it.

Just don't take a swing at the interviewer if you don't like the salary figure he names. Unfortunately, some job seekers do the verbal equivalent. Which brings us to: The Not-So-Great Ingrate.

Myth #4: People skills aren't important in the IT business.

You're a techie. You don't need no steeeenking people skills. Right?

Not exactly. The biggest difference I've noticed between the aspiring IT pros/newly certified MCSEs who get jobs and those who don't is - you guessed it their ability to win friends and influence people. Or at least to present themselves as members of the human race, instead of coming across as some sort of cyborg whose idea of a conversation is to mumble some code and order pizza and Jolt.

The Great Imposter

Myth #5: I can just memorize a practice exam, cram my brain full of what someone else dumped, cross my fingers, knock on wood, pass the test and get a piece of paper that will make me rich and famous.

In the past, there was a certain amount of truth in this myth. Because of the overwhelming shortage of IT personnel, companies have been guilty of making the assumption that anyone with a bunch of letters after his/her name must know his stuff. The cert was a ticket to a high-paying job, with few questions asked.

Unfortunately (or fortunately for those of us who have some real skills to go along with the paper), many organizations got burned and have become wary of candidates who are long on "letters" and short on experience. This means it's harder than before to get a foot in the IT door. It doesn't mean you have to stay caught in the old catch-22 ("got to have experience to get a job, got to have a job to get experience). There are ways to gain those skills: setting up a complex home network and implementing enterprise-level services; volunteering to perform network maintenance and troubleshooting for non-profit organizations like churches and schools; accepting a low-paying apprenticeship position with a local company. Experience doesn't have to mean paid experience. The skills you gain are the same, and when you have them, you will be able to demonstrate them in a technical interview something the "paper pros" can't fake.

Once you have those basic skills, don't be afraid to dream a little bigger. Evaluate job opportunities not just for the salary and benefits, but for the learning experience each provides. 

Getting that first job, like getting that first credit card, is the hard part. Remember how the "you've been pre-approved!" letters started pouring in after you had paid your bill on time for six months? All it takes is perseverance, patience, and the willingness to work hard for a short time to prove yourself.

So don't let those IT Job-Hunting Myths hold you back. In this business, as in other areas of life, success depends more on persistence than on genius. (If you happen to have the latter as well, there's no limit on how far you can go).

This article was originally published on Sep 18, 2000
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