Searching for a job during the Apocalypse

Whether “Apocalypse” is the right word or not is certainly up for discussion.  Certainly David Sirota at Salon thinks so in his article here.

What I can say is that Oregon is sliding in to whatever this is (recession, depression, economic event, End Times) at a rate in excess of the nation as a whole.  Oregon unemployment exceeds 10% now, which hasn’t been seen since the early 80s, I understand.

Many seem convinced that our new president is badly misjudging the necessary correction necessary, though since that judgment comes from the very people at the rudder for the last eight years and who bear a great deal of the responsibility for letting the greed of the market run roughshod over the country for much of the last eight years, I’m inclined to take it with a grain of salt and to remain hopeful.

It certainly is distressing when even a room full of economists cannot seem to agree on the necessary course for the very economy they are presumed to be experts in.

Going in to this, back in mid-November, I posited that my job search would be at worst a three to six month experience.  Sadly, it appears that events in the economy and world seek to prove me quite wrong.

After three months I am still looking and could not, in good conscience, tell anyone that I have a clue when this will be over for me or the country.

I am an engineer by temperament and by training.  In my experience what distinguishes an engineer is a critical mind that loves a problem, loves to take it apart and solve it.  What separates a good engineer from the pack is that their solutions are well thought out and stand the test of time.  I believe I am a good engineer.

With that comes a confidence that I can be successful in any position requiring software engineering.

Unfortunately, when a hiring manager looks at my resume, what they see on the engineering and development side is that my time actively developing software was something like eight years ago as I’ve moved in to management.

A staffing expert at a local agency stated that software skills more than eight months out of date are considered to be obsolete.  Such is the rate of change in software development, tools and practices.

Now, I don’t actually buy that.  I believe that I and any software engineer worth their pay can pick up the necessary language and specifics of a problem quickly.  What you are paying for, especially in an experieneed engineer, is not whether they were coding in that specific environment yesterday, it’s their ability to problem solve.

I’ve long believed that another characteristic that separates a good engineer from the pack is not that they can keep all of the details of the dozen or more languages they may be able to work in in their head at one time.  It’s that they know where to find the answers quickly and how to apply them efficiently and with a high level of quality.

When I was just out of college, I could work on a problem for 60 hours a week and generate a great deal of code.  Today I can create better, higher quality code in 30 hours because I know what *not* to do.  Energy does not equal productivity.  Time spent at a keyboard banging on the keys does not equate to quality code.

But, all that is moot if you cannot get in front of a hiring manager to seal the deal.

“People hire people they know or are comfortable with”

This is something I am hearing over and over again these last few months.  And, as I reflect on my own career, in all cases each job I took or moved to was made easier by the network of people I know and who can vouch for me and that I’m worth talking to.  So, networking is clearly critical, especially during a time when the market is saturated with people and resumes that all look much the same.

The other path I’ve been pursuing and will likely move to be my focus is to find a job managing.  This takes on several facets.  Apparently there is a hierarchy of management that goes something like this, from more to less difficult:

  • Engineering Management – Responsible for managing people, programs and product direction, often with input from Marketing and customers.  Responsible for schedules, task prioritization and delivery.  Main knobs on the process include the classics: Scope, Schedule and Resources.
  • Project Management – Much like the above but often without the people management.  Wikipedia describes it thusly:
    “A project manager is the person accountable for accomplishing the stated project objectives. Key project management responsibilities include creating clear and attainable project objectives, building the project requirements, and managing the triple constraint for projects, which is cost, time, and scope.

    A project manager is often a client representative and has to determine and implement the exact needs of the client, based on knowledge of the firm they are representing. The ability to adapt to the various internal procedures of the contracting party, and to form close links with the nominated representatives, is essential in ensuring that the key issues of cost, time, quality and above all, client satisfaction, can be realized.”

  • Program Management – Responsible for tracking the progress of a project, often without responsibility for the resources.  Often a collector/reporter of status without direct access to the resources doing the work.  Wikipedia differs with me somewhat, though:
    “Program management or programme management is the process of managing multiple interdependent projects that lead towards an improvement in an organization’s performance.

    Projects deliver outputs; programs create outcomes. A project might deliver a new factory, hospital or IT system. By combining these project with other deliverables and changes, their programs might deliver increased income from a new product, shorter waiting lists at the hospital or reduced operating costs due to improved technology.

    Program management is concerned with doing the right projects, whereas project management is about doing projects right. Successful projects deliver on time, to budget and to specification.”

  • Product Management – According to Wikipedia, “A product manager considers numerous factors such as target demographic, the products offered by the competition, and how well the product fits in with the company’s business model. Generally, a product manager manages one or more tangible products. However, the term may be used to describe a person who manages intangible products, such as music, information, and services.”  Further, “Diverse interpretations regarding the role of the product manager are the norm. The product manager title is often used in many ways to describe drastically different duties and responsibilities. Even within the high-tech industry where product management is better defined, the product manager’s job description varies widely among companies. This is due to tradition and intuitive interpretations by different individuals.”

By the way, I think these definitions are pretty subjective and likely would not be agreed upon by a room full of people who may claim to have done any or all of them.  It’s pretty fuzzy.

What I’ve discovered recently is that I am currently in a difficult position because my development experience is old and rusty by the above “eight month rule” and my management experience potentially over qualifies me for many of the jobs which are looking for Project/Program/Product Management.

In my time looking I’ve only seen a single job that I would call “Engineering Management” and it turns out I was competing with at least two friends who also are out looking.  In the end the hiring company had many, many people apply and were able to choose people with very close experience to what they were looking for and didn’t have to chance bringing on someone who might have to come up to speed in their specific technical domain.

So, I continue to work on tuning my resume, I continue to figure out how better to leverage my network and I’m looking in to some Project Management certifications which, though I’ve been doing the relevant activities for the last decade, possession of the certification will set my resume just one more skill above some of the masses.

It is a black box, though.  Since you don’t get feedback on why you didn’t get called or get the interview, you really don’t have enough information to figure out how to tweak the resume or the phone screen to do better next time.  Whoever might have that feedback has gone on their way and has no reason to make themselves available for that kind of feedback.

I do believe things will work out, but I also believe that the market has swung dramatically in favor of the hiring company in their ability to have a large range of talent to choose from and in possessing a very strong negotiating position when it comes to salary because there are a dozen people waiting to take that position at a reduced rate of pay.

Perhaps this will turn back around.  Certainly one hopes that is the case.  But, I would not hazard a guess about when that might be.

I had a friend tell me that when they were looking for work for seven months a few years ago, they were struck by how when you are working, you lament how you wish you had time to do all the things on your “to-do” list, be they chores or projects or hobbies.  Then yout find yourself without a job and suddenly you have all the time in the world (minus the considerable time you can spend looking for work), but you lack the means and you cannot enjoy that time because you don’t know when you’ll be working again.

Another friend made a similar observation: If someone could come up to you and tell you “The first day of your new job will be June 12th”, you could plan for that, relax and enjoy the remaining time.  Without that, all you can do is stress what you don’t know.

Much of this comes down to trying to be patient about the things we cannot control and that list is considerable.  But, another characteristic that separates a good engineer from the pack is a confidence in their ability to solve *any* problem if they can just figure out the buttons to push and the levers to pull.  So to be presented with a problem that doesn’t seem to amenable to all the button pushing and lever pulling I can come up with is close to intolerable.  That’s not how things work(ed) in my world.

That’s tough to accept.

There’s probably a lesson in there if I weren’t too stubborn to accept it.