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Working out the kinks

For most Americans, life lacks meaning without work. But if techies get too comfortable with one employer, are they putting their self-respect on the line?

“Hi. I’m James, and I’m a workaholic.”

I have worked for as long as I can remember. I’ve had dozens of jobs over the years, not counting work for Mom and Dad or neighbors. In some cases, I’ve held five jobs at once while going to school. So it’s against my nature to be unemployed. And as this is the first extended period of unemployment in my life, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. Every day when I get up, I have to fight the urge to try to network with all my contacts at once.

My parents were big believers in chores–both paid and unpaid. And they had a willing labor force of 11 kids to do just about everything around the house. As soon as I could climb a step stool to reach the top of our windows, Mom paid me 10 cents a window to wash them. With 50 windows in the house needing cleaning once a month, that’s five bucks a month cash. Then there was the lawn. As soon as I could push our mower, I could get 50 cents to mow and trim the grass. Because Dad wanted it mowed twice a week, that’s four bucks a month. Of course, with 10 older siblings competing for the cash, I had to get up pretty early on a Saturday to score the work. Eventually Dad formally gave me the job so he could get some sleep.

And of course, there were paper routes. As soon as I was old enough to qualify, I signed up for routes in the morning and the evening. The morning routes started at 4:00 a.m.; the evening routes ended at 6:00 p.m. I loved making 20 bucks a month per route. Do you know how many Marathon candy bars that bought? But I had this bad habit of sitting down on a stone wall to fold papers and falling asleep (the crash after the sugar rush). When I didn’t get home in time for school in the morning or dinner at night, Mom would dispatch one of my older siblings to find me, help me finish the route, and bring me home. Invariably they’d find me nodding with a half folded paper in my hands. Though it seemed like I had only dozed off for a minute or two, I’d be hours late getting home.

When I turned 14, and could get a “real” job in my state, I applied at the local grocery store called Red Owl. I worked there through most of high school until a job at a wood shop came up. After the wood shop, I took a job at a bakery thrift store, followed by an office janitorial service, a learning center, a drug store, a YMCA, another bakery, an ice cream shop, a college department, a stone masonry company, a coffee shop, several other college departments, a housing complex, a daycare center, a student newspaper, a student magazine, a board-level technology shop, and finally, ComputerUser.

All told, including promotions and title changes at the various locations, I’ve had 44 jobs over 26 years. Most of the jobs were temporary in nature. Or, when I found myself overbooked with multiple jobs at one time, I left the least desirable. For example, when I was in graduate school, I lived in a student housing complex. I cleaned the complex’s daycare center while editing its newsletter, delivering the newsletter, writing and editing for the college paper, editing the college IT magazine, and grading engineering papers. When I took an internship with ComputerUser, something had to go. I can’t say I missed cleaning those tiny toilets at four in the morning.

I’m not exactly proud that I’ve taken so many jobs over the years. I know now that there’s a better way. Overextending myself is a bad habit; it leaves me tired and ornery. Perhaps my worst habit of all is not being able to say “No” and taking the first job available without really thinking about long-term issues. The worst case was the masonry job. The summer my wife Beth and I were married, my teaching assistantship job at the college was ending and I needed work. Her brother offered to fly me down to the Atlanta area to be a stone mason’s laborer for a month. He would pay my room and board and send back my wages to my new wife. “Sure,” I said. I managed to send her $600 and returned with a variety of medical problems that cost more than $600 to fix. I never knew mixing mud by hand in the July Georgia sun could do so much damage to a body.

I’m not alone in these habits. For most Americans, life lacks meaning without work. And few things are more satisfying than a job well done followed by a pat on the back. With the Department of Labor recently estimating that there are more than 212,000 out-of-work professionals in scientific and technical fields, I’m in pretty good company. Hundreds of thousands of techies who get much of their self-esteem from their employers are trying to develop confidence without employers. The tough thing is developing the basis for our own self-respect in something other than our jobs. It’s easier said than done.

I had been with ComputerUser for more than six years and only taken a few dozen freelance projects in that time. Perhaps I got too comfortable with one employer. Matthew Moran, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based freelance technology journalist and author of The I.T. Career Builder’s Toolkit says techies need to change fundamental attitudes about the nature of work. Techies can no longer expect to become a certain kind of technologist, say a Linux admin, and stay in the job indefinitely. “Tech skills are commodities,” Moran says. “As employees get more proficient at their jobs, employers want to make sure productivity continues to increase by either adding more work to their plates or reducing their employment levels to less than full time.”

Moran says that techies will better serve their careers by seeing themselves as free agents who can work for a variety of companies in a variety of roles and schedules. By not putting all their eggs in one basket, they’re ensuring their own career stability. And gone are the days when you can just list your skills without showing a strong ability to communicate technology to executives and put it in the context of their business. Being a well-rounded tech generalist will guarantee that I never need to worry about basing my self-respect in one job or one skillset again.

Now if I can only convince Beth that my window-washing skills are worth 50 cents a pop, I’ll be back in business.

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