Information Technology Dark Side

Struggles of a Self-Taught Coder

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Three Things You GOTTA Do if You Want OUT

December 9th, 2008 · 6 Comments

One of the career mistakes I made as a denizen of Corporate IT was abandoning a technical role to go into project management. At the time I thought it was a good idea – lots of my friends were doing it, and it seemed like an exciting way to “grow” in a new way. Also, I hadn’t yet given up on corporate IT as a career that would provide me a sense of satisfaction, engagement, and success. The true bitterness of Corporate IT’s greatest failings had not yet sunk in.

I soon discovered that becoming a project manager made it easier for me to find other jobs within the Corporate IT world – I was called almost weekly by head hunters for the next four years. I looked at quite a few opportunities, but I always walked away. Eventually I understood that the reason none of the opportunities appealed to me was because they were the same problems in different packaging. Corporate IT stinks everywhere, not just in my little world.

I tried to get the attention of real software companies, but they hardly noticed me. I realized there were two problems with my experience: I had left the technical world and I worked in corporate IT. Both of these were a strike against me when pursuing a position with a real software company.

At one point I asked an acquaintance who worked at a hosting company what he thought the prospects of a corporate IT wonk getting a job outside of corporate IT were. He confirmed what I had grown to suspect: it’s hard.

Leaving corporate IT for a job in the software development industry is not just a job change. It’s a career change! You’ll be better equipped to make that move if you understand this. The secret of a career change, as bloggers like Penelope Trunk and Pamela Slim have pointed out before, is to find ways of demonstrating your cross-over capabilities in smaller ways that are possible to do while you do a reasonably good job in your full-time position.

There are three things I did to demonstrate my cross-over potential from project manager to Rails developer/tester that were critical to getting a job working for Collaborative Software Initiative on the TriSano project. There’s nothing unique about what I did – everyone should be doing each of these things, especially if you want out of corporate IT. Of course, if you’re content where you are, you might consider doing these things anyway given the economic uncertainty we all face.

#1. Blog and Twitter
Corporate IT is generally suspicious of employees that blog and apprehensive about the potential risks bloggers pose to the company. As a rule of thumb, the software development industry doesn’t share that suspicion, although they still expect their employees’ blogs to paint them in a positive light. In fact, most companies in this industry view blogs as an asset. But blogging isn’t important for impressing a potential employer so much as it is important for finding that potential employer.

You see, blogging is a natural way of extending your social and professional network. By blogging, you expose yourself to others with with similar points of view and relationships with organizations that value whatever it is you blog about. In a sense, your blog becomes your resume.

Make sure to blog about something that intrigues you. You don’t have to be an expert to blog about your subject – some of the best blogs are those that portray a learning experience. These blogs are often incredibly helpful to others attempting the same thing.

Twittering is helpful in the same way, but twittering doesn’t replace blogging. It complements it and makes it better by adding another facet to your networking prowess.

#2. Contribute to an Open-Source Project
Corporate IT is often years, sometimes decades, behind the software development industry in terms of technology. Employers you would enjoy working for are going to wonder if your behind-the-times tech experience will be a hindrance to joining their team, particularly if it is a startup that is obsessed with being on the “edge” all the time.

Contributing to an open-source project is a way to demonstrate that you are hep. You can still code with the new kids, no matter what you work on eight hours a day. It also demonstrates that you are special – that your passion for your profession goes beyond a bi-weekly paycheck.

Here’s another reason to work on an open-source project: they might hire you. Is there an open source project you think is cool? Would you like to be paid to work on it? Then start working on it. As Mike Herrick likes to say, do good things and good things will happen. I worked on TriSano part-time for nine months before they hired me.

#3. Find a Bunch of Second Jobs
Corporate IT is stressful, tiring, and soul-consuming, but it’s often relatively easy to get by on about forty hours a week. And, even if your job requires more, it often takes a very long time and a whole lot of paperwork to get rid of a slacker. If this is your situation, you might consider whether you can work part-time in the area you’d like to transition to.

This is easiest to pull off if you have been blogging for a year or so. After about a year of blogging, opportunities should start to emerge. For me, it started with magazine articles, then conference talks, consulting gigs, and finally training opportunities. If you’re not blogging – go back a few paragraphs and start there. Finding short-term part-time opportunities without the blog network is difficult, but not impossible.

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Tags: Job Advice

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mike Herrick // Dec 9, 2008 at 10:44 am

    2 comments since I witnessed this & have a cameo appearance in the blog post.

    1. Ethics/Honesty: Dave has these in spades. He cleared what he did with his former employer’s appropriate authorities. Repeatedly.
    2. This hurt a lot: Dave worked obscene hours for 9 months. His ethics prevented him from cheating the system. It was not at all uncommon for Dave to work 80 hour weeks. Dave has been rewarded with a full time super intense job doing what he loves :)

    My point is you could get yourself if you didn’t do this ethically. Dave doesn’t have this problem.

    Secondly, you can only do this if you truly love the craft of software. All of it. Not just kinda, but really love it. Its the only way you can have the kind of passion it takes to make a transition like this.

  • 2 David Christiansen // Dec 9, 2008 at 10:49 am

    Thanks Mike. I really appreciate that comment.

  • 3 Troy Tuttle // Dec 9, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    I’ve missed the ‘soul-crushing, corporate IT’ posts I came to really enjoy a couple of years ago.

    Thanks for returning to the topic–it’s your best writing because you make it very real.

  • 4 Catherine Powell // Dec 9, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    I’ve seen this problem, too, when someone is right on the cusp of management – that Senior Foo, Foo Lead, Foo Manager area. I’m often interviewing on behalf of companies looking to start a QA team, and they almost always want someone who can build and manage a team but who can also do hands-on work until the team is hired and comes up to speed. That leads to rejecting people for not being able to manage and also for being in management “too long” or “too manager-y”.

    It’s a rough spot for a candidate – too fresh to management to be able to get a management job, but too much management to get a contributor job. I think the cross-training you mention applies here, too. After all QA engineer is a different career from engineering management (even if one often follows the other). So you’re a junior manager? Show you can be hands on – test something (open source or not), keep a blog, contract. And hone your management skills – take on organizing a conference track, lead a user group, run a mailing list.

    Thanks, Dave, for a good reminder that being able to work both where you have been and where you’re going still matters.

  • 5 Allen // Dec 10, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    I’m glad (and a bit envious) to see your happy transition. One thing about it: The Pajama theme has been consistent throughout 😉

    Thanks for the “3 things you gotta do” article as well. I would add that having side coding projects can also help demonstrate your skillz.

    In general most jobs I ever got – including those in IT were related to the side project from the prior position.

  • 6 Dennis Gorelik // Dec 15, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    So, the price of making transition from corporate IT to Software shop was 80 hours work weeks for 9 months?

    What are your working hours now?
    What are the benefits (except moral satisfaction)?

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