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Hot careers in a cool market

Ask not what business can do for you; ask what you can do for business. Cover story hed: Hot careers in a cool market dek: ask not what business can do for you; ask what you can do for business. dek: don’t run to an unfamiliar field just because there might be jobs there.

The geek had his heyday during the mid-to-late ’90s. A young programmer could walk into an interview, toss his Doc Martens up on the interviewer’s desk, and ask, “So, what can you do for me?” IT professionals were as gods in those days. If you could write code, you wrote your own ticket.

Those days are gone. Doc Martens have been traded in for footwear that yields more comfort while standing in unemployment lines. The decade of the nerd may have been the shortest tour of Mount Olympus ever taken by the gods.

Every day the employment numbers bring greater shocks. Jobs cuts in a single month in 2001 (September) hit nearly 250,000. In 2001, more than 200,000 people lost jobs in the telecommunications industry alone, and more than 115,000 layoffs were reported by computer firms.

To be fair, the crash of the high-tech culture was not really the fault of the geeks who wrote its programs. Companies were wildly overvalued in the stock markets, venture capital flowed way too freely, and a few clever ideas were thought to be all one needed in the way of a business plan.

The American economy was already reeling and headed on a recessionary path when a war was touched off following the devastating terrorist attacks in September. In a business climate that was already uncertain, the tragedy sent a chill through the notion of business as usual. The world is now a colder place, and the once-hot high-tech labor market has cooled considerably.

“A lot of [hiring initiatives] have been put on hold since the terrorist attacks,” says Cynthia Morgan of Minneapolis-based techies.com.

Gone are the days when IT workers dictated terms to a prospective employer and perks included stock options, a new Mercedes, a personal trainer, and an oxygen bar in the office. For the first time since the Internet boom began, supply exceeds demand. It’s time to leave behind dreams of becoming an instant millionaire or retiring at the age of 30. Those who do survive in these turbulent times will have make their money the old-fashioned way–by earning it.

What’s hot

Even in the midst of a slow labor market, in which downsizing is the norm and dot-coms are going belly-up, some areas of the job market remain hot.

One area that still has legs is eXtensible Markup Language (XML). XML has been called a meta-language, designed to create and process information rather than simply display content, à la HyperText Markup Language (HTML). XML’s flexibility is a metaphor for the kind of go-anywhere-do-anything attitude required in today’s job market.

Exposure to XML implementation combined with a knowledge of e-business architecture will give the job hunter a leg up, but there’s more to it. Knowing the language is part one; applying it to making money is the all-important second part. Enhancing XML are Microsoft’s .NET technologies. The .NET technology is Microsoft’s platform for XML Web services. It allows applications to communicate and share data over the Internet without regard to operating systems or programming language.

Allan Hoffman, technology jobs expert at New York City-based Monster.com feels the .NET technology is just starting to boom. “Companies are actively seeking people with skills in this area,” he says. Hoffman adds that embedded services programming, which incorporates C++ programming, is another area that’s growing rapidly. “Devices like digital cameras, microwaves, VCRs, and even locks on hotel room doors have microprocessors, and all these devices need the skills of C++ programmers,” he says.

Security in heavy demand

Security was already an area of intense concern to most firms even before the events of Sept. 11. “The week after the attacks, we were hit by the Nimda virus, which in some ways had just as much impact,” says techies.com’s Morgan. “Nimda bombarded huge sections of the Internet with e-mails, and affected access to the point that even if you didn’t have the virus, you couldn’t get through.”

Keep in mind the words of author/cryptographer Bruce Schneier: “Security is a process, not a product.” It’s not a firewall-it-and-forget-it proposition. It’s a complicated area, but it can also mean remembering things as basic as making sure that the boss doesn’t use his wife’s name as a password.

The advent of the war against terrorism has other implications as well. “A lot of employees in high tech are young and tend to be draft age,” commented Morgan. “Those who have skills in data encryption, security, and data recovery–skills that are in heavy demand right now–may wind up being called to active duty.”

Companies are reviewing their IT policies and projects to see whether key people could one day be called up by the military. A war needs soldiers, but not just those who carry a rifle. Intelligence and support personnel will be just as necessary in fighting America’s first war of the 21st century.

The private sector will also need personnel with an understanding of computer security. Viruses and worms are now more than the work of hackers–they could be weapons of war. “There will be a lot more reliance on protecting systems and locking them down against attack,” observes Morgan. “Computer security is a very strong field to get into, and it will get stronger.”

Data storage and recovery

Data storage and recovery are also hot areas for employment. Larger companies are putting contingency plans into place. If a company’s headquarters is destroyed, the only way to survive is with backups and redundancy. Data center companies, like CityReach International and Level 3 Communications, have long argued that off-site storage in secure, bomb-proof bunkers is the only way to guarantee the future of a company’s assets and records.

Several technologies–and the accompanied skill sets–enable storage infrastructure implementation. For example, Application Service Provider (ASP) technologies may come more into their own owing to their off-site locations for storage of data and software.

The experts also say that anything involved with keeping the basic infrastructure running–including communications systems and networks–will also continue to be in demand. A company may downsize, but it still will need personnel who can keep the basic systems operating.

Some other marketable career skills include the following: Knowledge of Oracle/SQL Server is valuable, as businesses and individuals conduct ever more business over the Web. Unix is an area that also remains strong for employment opportunities. Many see Unix as a more secure environment than Microsoft Windows, and they are working more and more with this older OS. Wireless is an area not to be overlooked. GartnerGroup Inc. predicts that there will be 800 million wireless data users by 2004, and recommends that companies begin putting wireless solutions in place now. Skills typically sought by wireless companies include Java, C++, XML, and object-oriented design. One should also take a close look at the 802.11b wireless standard. Of course, specific skill sets and requirements vary widely, depending on the project. If money is your main concern, technology management is near the top with an average salary of $97,400 for a worker with 10 years of experience. Project management is next with an average of $93,600 for a 10-year veteran, followed by systems administration at $78,400.

What’s not

“Areas that tend to draw professionals from the third world or half-prepared professionals from IT schools in the United States should be avoided,” advises Sam Adhikari, program director at the New York City-based IT school SySoft. As examples, he cites MCSE training, Cisco technologies, networking, help-desk personnel, PC repair, and software testing. It’s not that these skills won’t be needed, but the jobs they generate may have the turnover rate of cashiers at fast-food joints.

Techies.com’s Morgan notes that it may not be a very good idea to seek training in a totally unfamiliar field just because one hears that jobs may be opening in that new area.

“If you are a network administrator who shifts into programming, you will be considered an entry-level programmer and jobs will be hard to find,” she says. “In every field, there are ways to expand your skills and get into related areas that will make you one of these large-breadth kind of people. This way you can draw on the experience you already have.”

Other jobs to avoid include some obvious ones like programming in BASIC, DOS, Assembler, or COBOL, and some that are less obvious, like Web design/graphics, telecommunications, and computer sales.

A two-edged sword

High-tech layoffs have been tough not only on those who have lost their jobs, but also on the people who’ve managed to retain them. IT workers find their duties greatly expanded, sometimes into areas where they have little or no experience. For these folks, training is a necessity, not only to expand their skills sets, but also to keep up with new duties. The added duties often involve more business- and management-related tasks. Even if IT professionals have the time for training in these areas, they may have a hard time finding schools that teach them. In the absence of available training, many simply learn on the job.

Adhikari notes that many of the people who started and who run IT schools come from a technical, rather than a business background. “They can teach some programming, but to teach someone business programming is very difficult,” he warns. “[In our company] we have a zillion Web developers and programmers, but only a few who know how to write code that will generate revenue.”

To support their belief that the integration of skills is the best defense against the unemployment line, SySoft has formed an alliance with Rutgers University. In this unique program, computer sciences, management sciences, and the digital arts are completely integrated.

What can you do for business?

In order to land that dream job–or even one that will keep the wolves away from the door–you have to get prepared, get moving, and get real.

The thing IT professionals need to do in this new world is understand that a degree in computer sciences, or an MCSE certification, is not enough to guarantee employment. “Getting certified is easy,” according to Adhikari. “That’s why there are more certified network engineers than there are network hubs in New Jersey.”

In an era of downsized corporations, job security is obtained by developing integrated skill sets. When a company decides to eliminate positions, keeping your job means being able to do the job of several of your departed colleagues.

“The bottom line today is: No one is hiring unless they find that the new person can replace many (other employees) or eliminate some major expenses,” says Adhikari. Job seekers also need to articulate their vision for the company and communicate how their skills can increase revenue, decrease costs, or enhance profit margins for a potential employer, he adds.

In 1998 you could write code, eat junk food, and stay up all night–and still make a good living. Today you need to have some idea of how to fit what you do into a company’s overall picture, and this means knowing what that company needs. If you want to be in business, you need to think like a businessperson.

What’s hot

Security Data Storage and Recovery Systems Administration/ Integration/ Management XML (eXtensible Markup Language) Oracle/SQL Server Wireless Unix Librarian/Archivist ASP (Application Service Provider) Multimedia

What’s not

Public relations for Osama bin Laden COBOL/FORTRAN progammer Telegraph operator Pony Express Rider Campaign Manager for Ross Perot NorthPoint IT manager Firestone Tire salesman Technical advisor to Bill Maher (he knows it all already) Financial advisor to Bill Gates (what do you tell a guy who can lose $10 billion and still be richer than God?) Philosopher (the last one to make any money was Aristotle) Realtor in Silicon Valley Freelance writer

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