Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

The market is booming for Unix contractors and consultants -- will it stay that way?

When is it time to make the move from contracting to a full-time position? Plus, the anxieties of a sysadmin and a new project manager who are longing to get back to their programming roots

April  1998
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Edgar counsels a Unix consultant who's looking into the future and wondering if the boom times will last. A fresh graduate asks whether to stick with sysadmin work or pursue his love of programming. And a new manager asks whether she's axing her programming skills by spending all her time managing projects. (1,550 words)

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Dear Edgar,

I am currently a Unix consultant/contractor who specializes in Solaris and networking. For the past three years I have found the market to be extremely good, and, as an individual with almost 13 years Unix experience and some unique Internet experience, I am finding the financial rewards most gratifying. Every company that I've contracted for has offered me a full-time position.

At this time I view a full-time, salaried job as being more responsibility with lower pay. I do, however, recognize that the current levels of demand won't last forever. When times get lean, managers will often hire low-quality, low-paid people over senior-level, well-paid people in order to make the bottom line look better.

Considering this, how long do you see the current conditions lasting, and what earmarks should I, and those like me, look for when deciding to leave the lucrative field of contract consulting for the security of a salaried position?

Looking long

Dear Long,

The current situation will be around for a while. The tech industry is strong, and the demand is high for consultants. You are very right about the trade-offs between consulting and full-time work and how the market will be affected when times are lean. But, a guess as to when things will change would only be just that -- a guess.

For the time being, you like what you're doing, and you seem to have an ample amount of work, so stay where you are. It will be up to you to decide when and if the benefits of a secure job are beginning to outweigh the consulting lifestyle. Just be sure to lift your head out of your work every now and again and take a reading of the market. Keep an eye on the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ and how the tech stocks are doing -- these are general indicators of the strength of the industry.

All the same, it doesn't look like the tech industry will take a nose dive any time soon. The technologies may change and more people may move into this work force -- upping the supply of human resources -- but the trends of computerization will only continue. If you are on top of new technologies and are good at what you do, there should always be work for you. Be sure to stay abreast of changes in the world of systems administration. Most importantly, be sure to retain good relationships at all the places you work. If you've been offered positions in these companies, they'll be the natural starting points for a full-time job search if that's what you decide to do down the road.


Programmer at heart

Dear Edgar,

I'm currently a sysadmin for a computer company. I'm new to this job and find it a little bit difficult, though I have been a Unix user for quite some time now. I used to be a programmer, and I'm planning to eventually shift back to programming. The support I'm getting in my present job is good -- my boss as well as my office mates are very supportive. What troubles me is that as I continue doing systems administration, my programming skills are coming to a stop. And there's very little demand for Solaris sysadmins in this city.

I'm a fresh graduate and am trying to take the larger view. Is a shift back to programming a good move or career suicide?


Dear Confused,

You say that you really prefer programming to systems administration. So go back to programming.

You are right that if you continue down a particular path, it becomes difficult to make the switch and get a job doing something else. People want to hire you for the skills you have. But you say your boss is supportive. Will he or she not let you make the switch to a more programming-oriented job within the company?

Being a fresh graduate you are lucky to have a job and the opportunity to gain valuable experience. If your company doesn't develop software, I recommend that you keep on for a little while longer and offer to do any programming-related tasks that fall into normal systems administration -- scripting with Perl, sed, awk, C programming, etc. Then begin looking for a new job that will allow you to use these skills full time, highlighting these tasks on your resume and in interviewing.

There is good money in both programming and systems administration if you have experience and know what you're doing. But don't worry so much about that -- first worry about doing what you like to do.

Caught up in managerial madness

Dear Edgar,

Through a friend's referral, I recently made a move from New York, where I was developing Web sites, to a software development company in Silicon Valley. I was attracted to the name of the company and its location. I always wondered what it would be like to live in California. Also, it seemed like the right time for someone who's been a software engineer for eight years to move on to management. I have a great technical background, and was hired despite not having much project management experience.

I soon found that being in a managerial position can be quite trivial sometimes -- creating schedules, driving them, coordinating and attending meetings, budgeting, planning, and dealing with people's problems. I'm not really using my software writing skills any more.

Dealing with management stuff all day long and being completely removed from programming is starting to concern me. Have I made a bad move? Will I eventually kill my computer career? My manager believes that if a program manager does engineering and management at the same time, she can only fail at both.

Though I thought of management as a different kind of programming, I'd hate to become a manager who can't do the real thing. How can I make this a successful career without compromising my programming skills? In a couple of years, I do want to go back to New York City. How can I ensure that I will still be marketable and have an even better career then?

New manager

Dear New,

It seems evident from your letter that you enjoy the hands-on aspects of being a programmer, and you don't like the paper pushing and scheduling that's involved with being a project manager. Some people love building software from a higher level, while others prefer doing the coding themselves. Recognizing what makes you happy is an important first step. If you want to program, then you should be programming.

If you still want to be in a managerial role, the position you're looking for may not be "project manager." Some software companies do things very differently than others. There are wide ranges of titles, and the work involved on any given project can be divided up any number of ways. Realistically, most managerial roles are going to involve some degree of dealing with scheduling, allocating resources, talking on the phone, and pushing paper. But there is always the high-level technical work that needs to get done. Someone will have to set up the specs, choose the right technologies, diagram how it will be done, and then work with the programmers to make sure that it's done right.

To get your hands into all levels of the work you will probably have to look to a smaller shop that doesn't divide up the tasks as much. There, you will be able to manage people as well as write code. If you stay within a large company you should consider getting into a smaller division or section of the company. In the large company, the kind of title you're seeking is "senior technical advisor" or "advisory consultant." (Though the latter title includes the word "consultant," you would not be contracting as a freelancer.)

Ultimately, if you really hate what you're doing, get out of it and back into the programming side of things. You'll have a difficult time advancing your career if you're doing something you don't like.


About the author
[Edgar Saadi's photo] Edgar Saadi is senior vice president of 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 Edgar at

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