Information Technology Dark Side

Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

Information Technology Dark Side header image 2

Slacking Your Way Through A Recession

January 22nd, 2009 · 8 Comments

Recessions are dangerous times for the denizens of corporate IT. Even seemingly recession-proof companies like insurance companies will find ways to reduce redundancy and inefficiency in their work force. Take my former corporate IT employer, which yesterday laid off 90 IT employees in a year in which they were reasonably profitable (too bad they didn’t lay me off three months ago – I’d still be getting paychecks from them).

For the average IT worker, getting laid off in this recession is going to be a serious problem. Many of you have invested heavily in a skillset that is very specific to the business you work for and may not transfer easily to another company. Often, IT employees are experts at technology that doesn’t have much appeal outside of the world of large, corporate IT departments. Even Java, which only a decade ago was the new hot thing, is almost never talked about as a platform for startups, software companies, or high-tech industries. Java, Cobol, DB2, CICS, etc, these are the skills that are going to flood the marketplace with excessive supply when the layoffs hit your town. Add on to that the non-technical IT peeps: PMPs, front-line and middle-managers, project management “office” robots. When crowds of these people hit the streets it becomes hard to differentiate yourself.

Here are a few of my thoughts about recessions and layoffs that I think are useful. Please note they are specific to corporate IT and may not cross over to other industries, just in case you googled your way here:

  • Aside from perhaps the first round, location is more important than expertise in deciding who goes. When your organization cuts people loose, they will be looking more at the group you are in than how good you are at what you do. Is there a group like yours in that new company the mothership just acquired? Are they more capable than your group as a whole. Poof – you’re gone.
  • Working “extra hard” probably won’t help you avoid a layoff. See the point above. It will only make you more bitter once you are laid off.
  • Corporate IT severance packages are often pretty generous. It’s important to know what they are long before you get laid off, because it will alter your attitude and stress level significantly. For instance, I knew I had almost six months of salary coming if I got the axe. I felt practically cavalier at that point. You can normally find them in your corporate handbook from HR.
  • Life in corporate IT for the “survivors” isn’t that great anyway. They now have to do their own job plus the jobs of the people who were laid off.
  • Differentiation in a supply-rich job market is about demonstrable expertise and high-demand skills. The market is going to be full of average java monkeys. You need to be able to prove you are at the top and/or have a skill that isn’t so common.
  • Investors still want a place to put their money even when the stock market stinks. Recessions are often good climates for startups because the stock market is seen as too risky. I mean, if your options are investing in a couple of guys with a great idea or losing another 50% of your net worth on the stock market, which are you going to choose?
  • Startups don’t generally need the skills from your old job, but they do need hard-working, intelligent, creative people who are happy to have engaging work.
  • Startups usually hire through their personal networks. They often don’t even take out ads.
  • I’m a little biased. In the decade I spent working in corporate IT, half of it was spent wishing I could get out. Now that I’m finally out, it’s my hammer to every nail. If you’re happy in IT, my advice may not apply to you. But… if you’re not so happy, if you feel like your talents are being wasted, or troubled that your skills are being eroded, or frustrated that market forces don’t reach down into your little corner of the IT world then this advice might be helpful to you.

    The best advice I have for corporate IT peeps in this recession is… be a SLACKER
    What? A slacker? Seriously?

    Yup. Be lazy. Take your time. Don’t stress about work. Don’t bring your laptop home. Don’t “rise to the occasion” and “suck it up” to make your project successful. Nope. Do none of those things, except for brief stints where it is absolutely necessary.

    Instead, do the following:

  • Treat your home life with increased care and sensitivity. Spend time with your family. Be fun and happy. This, combined with slacking at work, will give you more energy, which will help you prepare to escape corporate IT.
  • Be frugal and smart. Instead of eating out, buying a fancy gadget, or taking a fancy vacation, buy some extra supplies that will help you in tough times and won’t deteriorate rapidly, like a case of tomato soup, powdered milk, oatmeal, or lots of toothpaste. Find stuff on sale and buy lots of it with your extra money. If you have enough of this stuff, when times really get hard you’ll be able to skip buying groceries and pay your mortgage instead.
  • Use the increased energy you have acquired by slacking and improving your home life to work on the side in an area that is valuable to the software development industry in general, not just corporate IT. Are you a tester? Write articles about testing and consult for companies that need help. Start a blog about whatever it is you are good at, or want to be good at, and work on it at least three times a week.
  • Get involved in an open-source project. Contribute, contribute, contribute! Some Corporate IT hiring managers may not care that you have commit privileges on WordPress, but real software companies will.
  • Start a company. Find an idea – your own or someone else’s – and some buddies, and create your own startup. Use technology that is attractive to you and is growing, but perhaps not completely established (i.e. dying). For web application development, try Ruby on Rails.
  • Why do this stuff? Because it differentiates you. It shows that you are motivated, talented, and ingenious. It increases your attractiveness to hiring managers in and out of corporate IT. There is also potential that one of these activities will work out into something that will support you and might even make you rich. You don’t have to build an empire on the scale of Bill, Steve, or Sergei to have a happy and fruitful existence. A web site that generates $200,000 in revenue each year with a cost of about $50,000 is a pretty sweet addition to the life of three buddies who built it in their spare time.

    Now, a story.

    When I was in college I aced ONE class in my major (mechanical engineering). Oddly enough, it was software related: computer aided design. During the semester, I learned two things: that top students were going to be asked to interview for a high-paying summer job with a local manufacturing company, and that teaching assistants didn’t work very hard and made a relatively large amount of money. I wanted both of those jobs.

    I spent a few hours each week in the CAD lab on a project that I was only interested in as a way of getting these jobs: designing a monocoque recumbent bicycle. One of my friends was into bikes, even if I wasn’t, and it seemed like an interesting design challenge, so I started. I finished it right before the interviews for the summer job, printed out an exploded assembly drawing on 4 foot wide plotter paper, rolled it up and took it to the interview with me.

    We all interviewed on the same day, which meant we got to wait together. The moment I walked in with that rolled up drawing in my hand everyone knew that I had already won the first spot. It immediately became a competition for second place. Later on, another kid told me he didn’t even bother showing up for the interview because he knew I was applying and had seen what I was working on in the lab.

    The average person will only do average things. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to do more than average. But what you do needs to be chosen well. It needs to have value outside of corporate IT if it is going to benefit you. Going above and beyond inside a world that is on the verge of laying you off is NOT an effective means of differentiating yourself. Think outside the cubicle. Slack your way through the recession, at least until you get an opportunity you actually want.

    If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!
    Stumble it!

    Tags: Job Advice · Stories

    8 responses so far ↓

    • 1 Dennis Gorelik // Jan 22, 2009 at 5:43 pm

      What do you think — is it feasible to be above average level and work no more than 40 hours/week?
      Under "work" I mean both work and learning.

    • 2 davidray // Jan 22, 2009 at 6:21 pm

      I think there are at least two components to consider: being smart and working hard. If you are smarterER than average, you just have to work AS hard as the average Joe, IMO, to still be reviewed well. If you are not, you have to work hardER than average. Does that make sense? So yes, you can consistently be reviewed in the top 10% in corporate IT, but you will need to be smarter than about 90% of your peers.

    • 3 Dennis Gorelik // Jan 22, 2009 at 7:20 pm

      So, what do you think about "4-hour workweek" by Tim Ferris?
      Does it make any sense to you?

    • 4 davidray // Jan 22, 2009 at 7:36 pm

      I haven't read it. Have you?

    • 5 Dennis Gorelik // Jan 22, 2009 at 7:57 pm

      I mean "4-hour workweek" concept / blog, not the book itself.
      Yes, I got familiar with the concept:
      – Work smarter, not harder.
      – 20% of work create 80% of results, sot it's just important to select important work and drop less efficient 80% of the work.
      – Delegate if possible.

      What do you think — it 4 hour workweek target realistic?

    • 6 David Christiansen // Jan 26, 2009 at 8:58 am

      I believe in the idea in a general sort of way. I always have taken the approach that there is a difference between what we say we do as an organization and what we actually do. Knowing what we actually do is much more important than knowing what we say we do (process). In fact, I would frequently test the “official” process by intentionally dropping the ball on items that seemed to be of little value. I never once got in trouble for this, and I soon realized that, at least in the organization I was in, there were lots and lots of stupid, useless activities I could skip without ever getting caught. By caught, I don’t mean that NOBODY noticed. Some people did. But it didn’t matter, at least not in my annual reviews or my conversations with my managers.

      One thing to note: I believe I set the record for the lowest audit score of any project manager in our organization. I once got audit results in which I scored less than 1 point out of 100. It was, incidentally, the same year I got the best performance review, raise, and bonus, of my six years working in that organization. No one, aside from the auditor, ever mentioned that audit.

    • 7 Ash Groun // Mar 23, 2009 at 1:10 pm

      I've read your blog, which is really interesting. I've got a question for you. In this recession, I think its pretty good to have a job. But what if your co-workers are frankly brats and decide not to talk to you? This is a mature financial company in which the IT group I am in are children, so it suprises me that they will act this way even in a resession.

    • 8 Bamboozled // Sep 11, 2010 at 7:26 am

      Thanks so much for contradicting the received wisdom that working yourself to death will make you indispensable. Companies don’t really value worker drones, they are a dime a dozen. It is other ineffable qualities that are most likely to save you, or help you move on. All you get for working harder is more work! And if that is all that a company values, time to move on.

    Leave a Comment