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Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

Managing your career in software development

Ten things you should know for starting -- and staying on top of -- your career

May  1997
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Worried about career mangement? We offer 10 tips for successful career development. Plus a listing of the hottest and coldest technical skills. (1,200 words)

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Dear Edgar,

I have been out of college for a year now. I enjoy my job as a programmer, but feel I really need some career advice for the long haul. Can you help?


Dear Wet,

That's a pretty broad question, but I'll take a crack at it. I e-mailed your questions to all the Pencom recruiters across the country and here are the top ten tips these professionals recommend for people starting and staying on top of their careers in software engineering (not necessarily in order):

  1. Stay current. The most important single piece of advice I can give you for this industry is to keep abreast of the rapidly changing technology. The best way to do this is to find a challenging job that gives you access to the latest software and hardware advances. But even the greatest job will not spoon feed you all that you need to know to stay current. Go through newsgroups and read magazines. While some people decide to continue their education through formal schooling and find classes and seminars to be useful, it is more important to strive for practical, hands-on experience (i.e. getting involved with leading-edge projects, seeking out technical user groups, etc.)

  2. Stay broad. It is imperative that you have a specialty. However, to keep your career healthy and flexible you must not become too focused and singularly capable. An example of some of the best-situated people in the industry today are Java programmers. This is not only because the language is in demand, but also because these people are usually proficient in the realms of networking, protocols, and object-oriented programming. Be sure to get some experience in various platforms: learn cross-platform technologies. And be sure to move around within a given field. For instance, if you focus on financial markets, be sure to work with mutual funds, derivatives, trading systems, etc.

  3. Develop a career path with progressive companies. As a part of any well-managed career you must keep an eye on the larger market trends as well as the specific technologies. It's important to talk to friends and recruiters and read publications to find out who the real players are -- both established and up and coming. You obviously want to be a part of the companies that are going to move forward and affect the market (and have IPOs that make you a millionaire many times over).

  4. Always take stock in your career. Managing your career is not what you do just when you are looking for a new job. You should always be looking at your skills, salary, and happiness and matching them against your changing goals. If you are having doubts about your situation and think you might be moving on soon, you must get back into the job hunting groove. Keep your eyes and ears open and learn to like interviewing, as this is one of the most important skills to have when it comes to positioning yourself in the right job. (If you are just having doubts about your company, then the worst thing that can happen from an interview is you come back more enthused than ever about your current job.)

  5. Keep a current resume. Update your resume with each new project or job and maintain an accurate list of past employment references. Lay-offs and company restructuring are a part of life. You may one day find yourself hating what you do and scrambling to look at the industry, what it offers, and where you should be heading.

  6. Don't fall into a job rut. Unless you are moving on the fast track up to where you want to be in a given company, chances are you will begin to stagnate after a few years. Most people in this industry hold several jobs throughout their career. This is because the industry changes, and corporate bureaucracies harden. People often complain that they've been at a job for ten years and newbies are coming in at nearly the same salary and are being given all the exciting projects. If that's the case with you, then it's time to move.

  7. Avoid annual job hops. In light of the previous piece of advice, it must also be said that changing jobs too frequently can make you look fickle and unstable. If you really like to work on different projects and in different environments, then you should seriously consider contracting work.

  8. Do not jump ship without another job. Many times people become so frustrated with their current job and the difficult job of searching for a new one that they just quit. Bad move! These people invariably find themselves explaining in each and every interview why they are out of work and why they quit. You will look infinitely more attractive as an applicant if you are currently working. This is simply human nature. Do not stay at a job for cosmetic reasons and rough it through, thinking that it will help your resume. If you have to get out, get out. Just be sure you have somewhere to go.

  9. Do not accept counter-offers. If you are dissatisfied at work, do everything you can to improve the situation. Communicate your unhappiness before you tell them you are resigning. But when you decide to resign, be aware that this should be a final decision. It means that the company you were working for did not value you enough to address your concerns -- you had to quit to get their attention. Do not let them buy you back. The moment you quit, you irrevocably broke their concept of trust and loyalty. No matter what miracles you perform, if you come back you will not be regarded as highly. It is always in your best interest to make the best of your situation and try to improve it, or stick with your decision to leave.

  10. Do not burn bridges. Whenever you change jobs, it's imperative that you leave on a good note. Try whenever possible to wrap up projects you're working on. Do not bad mouth your present manager and coworkers, thinking that they will soon be far behind. It is a small technical community. You may be working closely with these people one day again in the future.

As I mention in this list, managing your career is an ongoing process. You must often take stock in where you are and where you are going.

Good luck!

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About the author
[Edgar Saadi's photo] 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 Edgar at

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