IT Careers: Making A Change

Is your IT job feeling a little stale? It's a great time to switch companies or even industries, and some emerging fields and technologies could make a change all the

April 24, 2006

12 Min Read
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Not long ago, Michael O'Brien, a man with 10 years of service as a Java programmer and software design expert for a major investment bank, started to reconsider his future. Departmental reorganizations, the pressures of working in financial services, and the specter of outsourcing all convinced O'Brien to seek a new position in a different industry.

Changing IT Careers

•  Introduction•  Where The Jobs Are•  Making A Switch

"I grew tired of constantly having to reapply for my job," says O'Brien. "Most of the coding work was getting sent to Houston, and later most of that work was going to India. I got stuck with project planning and started to feel like my programming skills were getting rusty." Within four weeks' time, O'Brien, who began his search in February, interviewed with several companies in industries spanning dot-coms, publishing, and technology. "There's a lot of hiring going on. It's a good time for IT job hunters in New York," he says.

In fact, companies across the country have expanded their hiring efforts. Dice Inc., an IT jobs Web site, saw a 2.1 percent increase in IT job postings last month to 85,381 positions, 10,496 of which were in the New York Metro area. Overall, job postings have increased 26 percent year over year, and over the last two years, they've more than doubled, according to Dice President and CEO Scott Melland.

Other markets including Washington, D.C. and Silicon Valley are also experiencing hiring increases. "A year or so ago, I heard from a lot of companies that they weren't hiring due to hiring freezes or outsourcing, but now the market is shaping up to be close to what it used to be," says Randi Blake, a senior recruiting manager for Next Search Group in New York. "It's getting back to the time when it's hard to find good talent," she says.

Unemployment among the IT segment averaged 2.9 percent for the four quarters ended December 31, 2005, based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And according to InformationWeek's National IT Salary Study 2006, which surveyed 10,425 full-time IT professionals, job security is on the rise, with only 12 percent of staff and 9 percent of managers feeling insecure about their jobs this year, compared to 15 percent and 11 percent last year.Job security was the number one concern for IT staff responding to the survey. The number two concern -- having a challenging job -- indicates that many IT pros might be willing to move on should the right position come along. Like O'Brien, who says he wasn't feeling challenged in his old position, only 34 percent of staff and 47 percent of IT managers felt challenged in their current position.

O'Brien was determined to find a position in a new industry, despite his 15-year financial services history. "To be honest, I never felt comfortable in the field dealing with all these financial calculations when I really didn't know what they meant," he said. But O'Brien found that most recruiters weren't willing to help him get a job within another industry. "Headhunters work on volume, and it's much easier and faster for them to place you in the same job you've got right now at another company," says O'Brien, who ended up getting his position at Condé Nast Publications by answering an ad on an online job board.

Blake, who helped O'Brien in his search, agrees that moving to a new industry can be difficult. "I could've gotten 20 jobs for [O'Brien] within financial services," she notes. But if the motive to make a change is there, and the right mix of skills is present, there are plenty of jobs to be had, whether you're looking to change positions, change jobs within a current field, or move outside to a new industry or geographic location.

Who's Hiring, And What Are They Looking For?
Many different industries are looking to snap up IT talent, including some emerging fields and technologies that might make switching industries all the more intriguing. The need for IT executives with supply-chain and global experience, along with increasing interest in Linux, XML, and RFID, are providing some interesting opportunities in several different industries.

Changing IT Careers

•  Introduction•  Where The Jobs Are•  Making A Switch

Financial Services: Looking to break into financial services, instead of break out of it? Blake says she's seeing an increased demand for Linux administration skills, with 10 different requests for those types of skills from financial services firms within the past month. "A few months ago, I had nothing," she says. "Financial services firms tend to look within when hiring talent, but there currently aren't a lot of folks with Linux skills in that environment so they're looking outside," she says.

It may be hard to find Linux experts outside of the financial services industry as well. Only 33 percent of respondents to the InformationWeek survey said Linux support was one of their IT skills. Dice Inc. has seen the number of positions requiring open-source and Linux skills jump about 70 percent in the last year, and 250 percent in the last two years.Manufacturing: The manufacturing industry has been hard hit by offshore outsourcing, but IT managers with a complex mix of business and IT skills can still be gainfully employed, and well compensated for it. "In terms of programmers, the bottom of the chain is falling off. It's hard to compete with someone who makes half your salary," says Umesh Ramakrishnan, vice chairman for executive search firm Christian and Timbers. That trend may spread to other industries. According to InformationWeek's survey, 30 percent of respondents' employers outsource at least some of their IT operations offshore.

As companies offload work overseas, they've increased their need to manage those relationships and deliver better services onshore, says Ramakrishnan. "For the IT executive to survive onshore [in manufacturing], you need a value proposition. Excellent marketing and sales and management skills coupled with strong IT skills, including XMLand global exposure to multiple cultures," he says. As a result of offshoring, supervisors are also expected to manage people across time zones. Ramakrishnan says more than 60 percent of his clients require that IT executives have global exposure. That kind of exposure isn't easily acquired, and would likely require IT managers to take a leap of faith, applying for positions overseas to get that global experience and build their resumes.

Online: For those looking closer to home, some very recognizable names are gobbling up IT talent. Internet giants Yahoo! and Google are currently hiring additional IT staff in New York, California, and a number of other metropolitan areas across the country. Google currently has more than 200 engineers in New York, and its "Silicon Alley" feel attracts interest from both experienced applicants working in various industries and those coming out of college, says Craig Neville-Manning, director of the New York Google Engineering Center in Manhattan. "We look for people who have a good background in artificial intelligence algorithms, and the ability to learn and be creative," says Manning. "We want people who would probably get bored working on the same thing for five years -- they'd want change, want to learn constantly," he says, noting that Google allows its employees to move from project to project.

O'Brien interviewed with Google, and says the 2½-hour phone interview with the search giant was "the hardest technical interview I've ever had. I flunked the interview," he confesses, noting the tough technical questions. But O'Brien was able to use that interview to help get him a position at another firm. "I wrote down every question I got wrong, and researched the answers," he says. On a subsequent interview with his current employer, O'Brien says he was asked some of those same questions, only this time he was better prepared to give the correct response.

Other companies across the country are also looking to improve their online presence and as such are seeking supply-chain experts, mostly poached from the retail industry, to create a stronger customer experience. A VP of Supply Chain can command a salary upwards of $500,000, according to recruiters. The reason is the need to meet increased consumer shopping and service expectations. "If you purchase baggage online, you just assume you're going to get an e-mail notification that the package shipped along with a tracking number. This used to be a whiz-bang invention, but now it's required," says Jeff Leopold, principal in Christian and Timbers' technology practice.
Government Projects: Increased attention to homeland security has opened the floodgates for private-sector vendors and services providers to garner more dollars from government-sponsored projects. The demand for technology related to intrusion detection (of the physical or cyber variety), IT security applications, and asset tracking utilizing RFID technology is on the rise. Companies like Siemens AG and Symbol Technologies are gobbling up talent in this field, says Martin Mendelsohn, partner at Christian and Timbers.

Changing IT Careers

•  Introduction

•  Where The Jobs Are•  Making A Switch

Pay can be as high as six figures and up for a VP of business development doing specific security applications, says Mendolsohn. Many government-sponsored projects require the private-sector companies they hire to have high-level security clearances from the Department of Defense, Department of State, or other government agency. "If you have the proper security clearances, you can almost write your own ticket," says Dice's Melland.

To get a clearance, applicants must be U.S. citizens and able to prove themselves trustworthy, honest, reliable, discreet, and loyal patriots of the United States. The process of doing that can take longer than a year. Oftentimes, individuals leaving government positions are in high demand at private companies because of the active security clearances they've already acquired.

Consulting firms and technology vendors working with government agencies in the Washington, D.C. area are anxious to hire, says Melland, pointing out that the Beltway has the lowest unemployment rate for IT workers in the country. Among the most common requirements posted to Dice's sister site, a site that matches IT professionals holding current Department of Defense, Department of State, and Department of Energy security clearances with private-sector employers, are professionals with aerospace engineer, network administrator, J2EE software administrator, and Oracle database administrator credentials.

Making A Switch
Recruiters say those considering a change of industry or a change of position should carefully consider their options and take note of what they really want out of a job. Different fields have different pressure and corporate cultures. A dot-com might provide a relaxed atmosphere, while a financial services firm will probably be more structured, with a more complex hierarchical structure.

As for O'Brien, he admits he's still in the honeymoon phase with his new employer, but he feels the change better suits his skill set, offers him a challenging environment, and provides him with a business he can finally feel comfortable in. With a little effort, those searching for new employment can find the same.

Put Your Best Foot Forward

If you're interested in jumping from your current IT position into one at another company, or another industry altogether, take these tips to heart:

Write it: Make sure you provide your potential employer with a cogent and complete resume, including all your experience and certifications. "Certifications will show you have a skill, and that will get you through the weeding-out process. What gets you hired is your experience," says president and CEO Scott Melland.

Practice it: Practice makes perfect. Technical interviews can be tough. Make sure to take note of the questions you answer incorrectly, and fix your mistakes before the next interview.

Sell it: Willingness to work hard, learn fast, and understand the business you're entering are key characteristics of any good hire.

Take it elsewhere: Don't be afraid to take a position in a different part of the country, or to venture outside the U.S. to get the experience you seek, whether it's global exposure or experience with an unfamiliar technology.Find it: Make sure to align yourself with the right recruiter. Find out what kinds of positions each recruiter specializes in and what clients they've worked with in the past. "And always take a recruiter's call," says Melland. "They may not have the right job for you at that moment, but if you maintain a good relationship with them, they'll remember your name when another, more appropriate position pops up," he says.

Jennifer Maselli is a freelance writer with more than 10 years of journalism experience covering information technology and business issues. You can reach her at [email protected].

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