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Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

When should I jump ship?

Determining when to move on is never easy. Here's how to decide

March  1996
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When your career begins to stagnate it's probably time to start looking around -- but be sure to make careful, steady steps. Never burn your bridges and never jump ship without another vessel in sight. (1,400 words)

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Dear Edgar,

I have been working as a system administrator in a manufacturing company for about five years now. The pay is fine, the benefits are substantial and my wife likes the area. But I'm beginning to think that I'm being left behind. I'm was schooled in the most advanced networking technologies, and have spent most of my time here administering a system of about 25 HP's.

I know there are some big hubs of the computer industry in this country doing incredibly exciting work while I sit out here in the middle of nowhere making sure that this small network doesn't go down. Nothing is terribly wrong, but I can't help wonder if there are far more exciting and lucrative ways to apply my skills. Should I stay or should I go?


Dear Clash,

Decisions involving your career can be among the most difficult in your life -- particularly in this industry, which is all about staying ahead of the curve. There are many factors to consider, such as location, specific career opportunities, your family, and salary options; however, in the world of advanced client/server technologies, your worth in the marketplace is based on your competence in today's leading technologies. Every day, our recruiters are approached by dynamic engineers coming to a fork in their career path and trying to make sense of it all.


Look around

Even though your current position may not have reached crisis point, and today may not be the right time to pick up and move, if you are considering change, then you owe it to yourself to look around and take a reading of your options. You do not necessarily need to cut into your work time to take some preliminary steps in managing your career.

Revisit your resume

First, pull out your resume. Although people are often unsatisfied with or unwilling to even look at this two-dimensional representation of themselves, it is a plain fact that this sheet is the single most important document in advancing your career. On the other hand, realize that it will never get you a job, only an interview. At that point it is up to your three-dimensional self to get the job.

Talk to those in the know

If you have been plugging away at your job for years and never taken the time to look at the computer industry from a career perspective, talk to someone who has. Although I often make the caveat that there are indeed many shady recruiters out there, there are also many hardworking search firms with an eye on the marketplace, the hot technologies, and the real world range of salaries. A good recruiter will take the time to address all your career concerns, give you guidance, and help with your resume.


Once you feel that you have a solid resume and a good idea of where you want to go, begin to interview. Although this step may indeed cut into your work time and should probably come at the stage when you are more serious about making a move, interview experience is invaluable. A common mistake is to prejudge an interview -- oftentimes I see candidates underestimating or even skipping an interview because it does not match their ideal position. Some of our happiest clients in excellent positions, initially had doubts when they first interviewed. Only by interviewing will you learn to interview well. Only by interviewing well will you eventually get that killer job.

Never burn bridges

Keep in mind that you never want to burn your bridges. Don't forget that a job search is essentially an extra curricular activity. Regardless of how unfairly you think you are treated or compensated, your employer pays your rent and deserves your full attention. Some clients forget that this is a relatively small industry; colleagues and managers will invariably reappear at later times in your career. Keep up the strong work -- this is the record that will allow you to advance in the industry. Even if you have had it with your current job, never jump ship without a welcoming vessel in sight. Hiring managers are always suspicious of unemployed candidates, no matter how cutting edge their technical skills are.

Select your priorities

I hear from people making difficult career assessments all the time. Most often there are several pros and cons, with no clearly right path. Unless you're relying on your gut to jump up and lead the way, you must depend on the cognitive part of your brain to set priorities. Decide what is fundamentally most important to you -- the technologies you play with, the money and benefits, the opportunities for advancement, the location, the work environment?

If your dream is to live and work in the Silicon Valley and you're in a manufacturing town in Ohio, it may be time to rethink things. If you have the skills and drive to ride the leading edge, but find yourself caught in a low-tech, slow-moving company, your resume should already be in hand. If your company just completed some major upgrades a couple years ago and will probably sit idle for a couple more years, you want to think change -- otherwise that resume may soon be irreparably outmoded, as you move into another year of the same old tasks and technologies. In this fast paced industry time is warped, spending one year in the wrong place puts you two to three years behind.

The fast-paced environments

Every kind of company, from mom and pop start-ups to international conglomerates, is realizing the business sense of using computers. As you may have learned at your current company, some firms are just not cut out to ride the leading edge. Acme Tires may only need a customer and inventory database with some sophistication, as well as some Microsoft Office suites running off a few PCs. There may even be a few higher-ups talking about the possibility of putting up a home page.

This is quite a bit different from Goldman Sachs, where the higher-ups are musing about whether they have enough computing power to send their entire company to the moon. The high rate of return per computing dollar allows them to pump big money into the most sophisticated machines and software -- that in turn helps generate their income. Leading technology is a way of life for these financial institutions.

The same obviously holds true for big development companies, like Sun, Microsoft, and Apple (er, maybe not). Most manufacturing companies do not need high speed T1 lines or a staff of programmers versed in the nuances of object oriented programming. They don't require such sophisticated computing to make their business go. But if that's something that you, as an engineer, yearn to get into, then it may be time for a shift.

Ask yourself tough questions

When considering such an important career decision you must ask yourself the right questions: Many people refuse to ask themselves the hard questions for simple reasons of laziness or complacency. There is never any harm in taking a step back and reevaluating your career. You may find that you are indeed better compensated than you thought. Or you may find some information that will help you better renegotiate your contract and put you on a faster track. Or you may discover that the time is indeed right to move on.

Again, the first step to assessing your market value and career goals is to pull out your dusty resume. Take a look at your resume. After you've updated and fine tuned it, does it match your expectations? Is it pointing to where you see yourself in five years? If you can answer these questions, you will be able to better decide if and when to jump ship.

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