Originally published in the May 1995 issue of Advanced Systems.

Career Advisor

Positioning in today's market

Many companies often make drastic decisions to survive: new hardware, new software, and even new people. By Edgar Saadi

The letters keep pouring in, so I will take this opportunity to answer three of the most commonly asked questions. I regret that I cannot respond individually to every inquiry, but the following three letters cover a broad range of the most common issues asked. For a finale, I have added perhaps the most humorous interviewing horror story I have yet received.

Time for a change?
I am a systems administrator, integrator, and database administrator/programmer with Unix, DOS/Windows, OS/2, and Macintosh experience. I am making an average salary where I am now, but I really enjoy both the work and the environment. I have had a number of job offers (more than five) in the last year alone, offering pay raises from 10 to 25 percent. When is the right time for me to jump ship?

You are in an excellent position, considering that you like your job, work on cutting-edge technologies, and have interesting outside options as well -- it's a win-win situation. You are certainly in a hot field and can command a powerful salary if your skills are on the mark. (For example, in New York City, the top financial institutions offer well into six figures to their best talent.) Although the decision of whether to stay with a particular company is often balanced by a myriad of personal issues, I think it boils down to three criteria.

Career growth. Is your intellectual, career growth supported by the technology with which you currently work? Are your long-term prospects paved with new learning?

Personal satisfaction. Do you enjoy the environment in which you work? Do you respect your co-workers?

Company appreciation. Does the company appreciate the contribution you make to the firm? Are you rewarded fairly in terms of feedback, training, praise, salary, and benefits?

If you answered any of the above negatively, it is definitely time to reassess your situation. As you have obviously considered, a move based solely on a higher salary is never prudent, as it reflects a myopic view. Discretely explore other options and see what they have to offer. Since you like what you do, it is not necessarily a question of jumping ship, but rather, finding a better vessel to board. If an interesting offer comes in, a couple of in-depth interviews should give you an idea of whether or not it would work for you. Money is certainly not everything, but if you feel you are not justly compensated, it may be time to scan the wide seas.

New blood
How do senior software engineers stay competitive in the hot technologies compared with new college graduates? My colleagues and I are noticing that many companies are weeding out highly compensated senior software engineers in favor of energetic, but inexperienced college grads. Any thoughts?

In the wide world of commerce and industry, there are indeed those few unscrupulous executives who set out to cut the company payroll by ushering out the old and bringing in the new. Generally speaking, this is neither a normal nor a wise practice. When you see senior software engineers being shown the door, it's most probably for another reason: The given company has fallen behind the times and is in need of some major restructuring.

You refer to the young college graduates as "inexperienced," but -- more often than not -- these graduates are well versed in the cutting-edge technologies of the day. When a large business decides to purge itself of its older technicians, it is typically an issue of new expertise rather than money or youthful energy. If your company is still plodding along with hulking, proprietary systems, then beware. By not recognizing the sweeping wave of more versatile and powerful client/server networks, such an institution will quickly sink into a mire of outmoded systems. The necessity of being up to speed in the business world applies more drastically in the computer industry. To be valuable, you need to be versatile, flexible, and aware of the changing market. On the other hand, the change to fresh blood may not be indicative of a market trend, but of individual company problems. Take a close look at your company and the career path it's offering you.

Object industry hot spots
Can you tell me what is hot and what is not in object technologies in the current job market and what is perceived as a desirable skill set for a job in the object industry (object-oriented databases; object-oriented operating systems, like Taligent, NextStep, Cairo; GUI frameworks, like OWL and visual C++; object architectures, like CORBA, SOM, OpenDoc, and OLE)? Also, how helpful are post-graduate degrees in furthering a high-technology career?

The skill sets most sought after in the object-oriented marketplace fall into the following categories:

Development. Companies around the country are seeking programmers with strong C++ development skills and an emphasis on true object-oriented development methodology. Smalltalk80 offers strong growth and stands as the second-most sought-after skill set. Experience with ParcPlace's VisualWorks environment, which goes hand-in-hand with Smalltalk80, is highly desirable. Employers have become increasingly savvy when it comes to C++, the most popular object-oriented programming language. If you have been compiling C code with a C++ compiler and calling it C++ development, the object cops may set a trap at the interview. In Microsoft Windows environments, Visual C++ is very much in demand. And in terms of methodologies, real-world experience is more critical than having a specific type (i.e., Rumbaugh, Booch).

Architecture. There is strong demand for high-level architects to determine strategies, select technologies, and help lead downsizing and re-engineering efforts. In this realm, experience with CORBA is very marketable, as is a robust knowledge of all the available object technologies and tools. User organizations seeking to migrate to the object-oriented paradigm typically look for experienced engineers who have implemented working production systems.

Engineers with expertise in applying object-oriented techniques to client/ server architectures and distributed environments are the most highly sought after. The operating system environment is not as critical. Unix on the server and Microsoft Windows on the client is the most abundant configuration, but there is a strong market for people with NT experience, as well. There are also strong pockets of NextStep around the country, most notably in Chicago.

Furthering your degree will certainly increase skill sets and areas of knowledge. But if you are currently out in the marketplace, returning to academia is not necessarily the wisest path in terms of career growth or even salary potential. It's not in your best interest to go back to school if you are already doing intelligent, challenging work. (If your company offers to pay -- well, that's a different story.) For those who are still in college, it is certainly a valid consideration. But for those who are already out there in the real world, solving real-world problems, enjoy the fact that you are being paid to learn.

Interviewing nightmare
Underlining the point of my previous articles, the following story emphasizes the necessity of preparation for a job interview. My intention is not to instill anxiety, but insight. It's more fun to learn from others' mistakes than your own.

I was finishing my last semester of college and interviewing like crazy through the campus placement office. With the economy turning downward (early 1991), we students took advantage of every interview we could get. One busy week I had seven interviews -- four in one day! As you can guess, I did not take the time to be fully prepared for each interview. For one interview I simply skimmed the company brochure minutes before meeting the recruiter. I thought, "I'm pretty good at this, so I should be able to fake this one." What a mistake!

That one interview turned into a ghoulish nightmare. The interviewer asked me which of their two career tracks I was interested in. Both were identified by acronyms, each using the same three letters but in different order! Not really remembering which one it was, I guessed some combination of those three letters. Wrong acronym. The interviewer then told me the two acronyms, and I "picked" the one I was not interested in. Minutes later, realizing the incorrect guess, I made an attempt to clarify that the other career path was the interesting one.

The interviewer went ballistic. Voice raised, the interviewer stood slightly to clarify the transgression. "How can you come to an interview so unprepared!? Didn't you figure this out before the interview? I should at least get the courtesy of a prepared person! Don't you know what you want?" Interview blown, big time.

I left with three valuable interviewing tips that I have always, always used to avoid such a situation:

About the author
Edgar Saadi is senior vice president for Pencom Systems Inc., the largest open systems/advanced systems recruiting firm in the U.S. He specializes in guiding advanced systems careers and helping employees explore all staffing alternatives. Reach him at career@advanced.com.

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Last updated: 1 May 1995.