Knowing when the time is right for a new or different IT job
I get lots of e-mail from IT professionals interested in improving and enhancing their IT careers, especially when that could also mean a bump in their takehome pay. Many of them want to cut and run right away, even if they haven't learned or done much new since landing their last new job.
There is plenty of due diligence worth doing before instituting a search for a new job, especially when the desire stems at least in part from hoping to discover a more interesting and better paying position as the pot of gold at the end of that particular rainbow. So this week I have some suggestions to help you figure out when the time is right to start looking seriously, and how to create reasonable expectations of producing at least modestly desirable results.
- Some time in grade on the job is necessary to establish ability, durability and persistence. I can vaguely remember the go-go years of the mid-1990s, when any fool with a good story to tell, some relevant background and experience, and a cert or two could talk his or her way into a new job even after working somewhere for as little as six-to-12 months. It's still a buyer's market for IT employment, so employers want to see at least 12-to-18 months at each prior place of employment in their candidates, with 2-to-3 years at each job a more comfortable sequence for them to digest.
- The right academic stuff counts more now than it ever has before. A bachelor's degree in computer science, informatics, MIS, or some other technical discipline matters most to those seeking work right after matriculation, but it continues to count for at least the first decade of one's working life. Better still to work for a while, then get a Master's degree in the same kinds of fields or areas. Ph.Ds in those disciplines (if you can stick it out that long in school) can pretty much write their own tickets to success, if they're smart about how they tackle the job market.
- Present a pretty package, and you'll have a much easier time of selling yourself as a strong potential employer to hiring firms and managers. This means a well-constructed resume with perfect spelling and grammar, interesting and relevant background and experience, desirable degrees and certifications and strong recommendations. You also need a carefully crafted cover letter, great interviewing skills, and, above all, close attention to the business, IT environment and needs of the organization where you wish to be hired. These days, any discordant or off notes in this symphony of materials are likely to knock you out of consideration, and keep you from getting an interview.
- Showcase soft skills: There's more to working in IT than just having the right technical skills and knowledge, and the best IT professionals exploit their soft skills to position themselves ahead of the pack. That means oral and written communication skills, presentation skills, people and project management skills, and so forth. Be sure to stress at least one or two strong points outside the purely technical aspects of the IT game. Be prepared to back up your claims with good stories about your soft skills, how you developed them, and what they've enabled you to accomplish. The higher you climb on either the IT technical or management career ladders, the more these matter, so build yourself out strongly and convincingly in this realm.
- Build a nice combination of skills and knowledge: it may come from classes, or certifications, special projects (or even skunkworks on the job), and additional academic accomplishments, but you need to create a strong and consistent portfolio of skills, knowledge, and experience to back up your technical interests and proclivities in IT. Employers swoon over prospective employees with well-demonstrated learning abilities, and the drive and interest to keep racking up ever more formidable technical accomplishments. This could — and should — be you.
As to knowing when the time is right, when you've hit the time in grade requirements and are getting comfortable with your current job, that's when it's time to start thinking about what's next. Often this means looking around at what else is available from your current employer — the best organizations already know that keeping good people means giving them ample opportunities to grow and excel.
If nothing attractive or compelling is available from your current employer, that's when it's time to start looking around, after you've put your "pretty package" together and have rehearsed your interviewing and storytelling skills.