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Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

How to deal with non-technical headhunters

The rush to find Java programmers,
Webmasters brings out novice headhunters

July  1996
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A reader complains to columnist Edgar Saadi about rude treatment received from headhunters looking for people with Windows NT experience. This prompts a series of questions about NT, recruiters, and gaining experience in one field while working in another. (900 words)

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Dear Edgar,

I am starting to get a lot of calls from headhunters looking for Windows NT. I am frustrated for three reasons: One, these guys don't seem to know what they are looking for, mangling all the wrong buzzwords. Two, they rudely hang up on me as soon as they learn I don't have "direct" experience. Three, how the heck am I supposed to learn something new without actually using it in my work? Signed,

Dear Annoyed:

These are some excellent questions and legitimate reasons to be annoyed. I've never heard of recruiters hanging up on potential applicants, but those who work across many industries are often abrupt when they're in a mad rush for something specific -- particularly when they don't understand exactly what they're looking for. You could be a super candidate and it is their loss not to recognize that.

Yes, the need for Windows NT skills has taken off within the last year. Pencom NT Recruiting reports demand coming from three groups: software vendors, computer manufacturers, and end-user companies. Each has very different skill sets that they are looking for:

Software vendors
Software vendors want programmers skilled in porting existing applications.

Computer manufacturers
Hardware makers are searching for programmers who can migrate NT to their specific platforms.

End users
Brokerage firms, banks, oil companies, etc. are searching for NT people to help set up the new systems infrastructure, networks, tools, and department applications.

As usual, Wall Street is leading this adoption process aggressively. Although there are not many companies yet involved in full-blown development for NT, this area will experience the greatest growth in coming months. I think big firms building information systems based on NT will soon look for people skilled in SQL server, Visual C++, Visual Basic, and so on.


The recruiter rush
Much of what's true for the Java and Web job market can be said for the NT market, too. (See my columns in February, May, and June for my thoughts on Java and Web careers.) Let's review the laws of supply and demand. Remember what happens when the demand for software skills exceeds supply? Just like in the early days of Unix, the job market overheats and companies panic. Nontechnical recruiters get assignments they don't understand. Salaries jump. And most important for our readers, excellent career opportunities open up for the savvy.

There is no excuse for a rude recruiter, but let me try and explain what goes on in their nontechnical minds. First, because they don't understand your business at all, they think there are thousands and thousands of Windows NT and Java software engineers and Webmasters eager to change jobs! These recruiters are panicking because their office managers don't understand why they can't fill a position as quickly as the last finance or clerical assignment they had.

Second, these recruiters don't realize that a person with a strong background in one area can bring many valuable skills to the table in another. For example, because NT is a true multitasking operating system, Unix professionals, we have found, pick up NT much faster than PC programmers who think of the world only in terms of a single machine. Nor do they know that Lisp and C++ programmers are natural Java programmers, or that system administrators often make dandy Webmasters. But these recruiters don't understand the technology, and thus don't know where to look to find the skill set.

To answer your second question, since these knuckleheads don't know what skills they are looking for, they are inadvertently passing over some excellent talent -- further delaying their already troubled search and frustrating their client.

How you can profit from the skills shortage
To address your last question, you are actually fairly well equipped to capitalize on the surge in demand for hot new technologies. Here's a list of steps we recommend to the engineers:

  1. Training If you haven't attended a training session yet, don't delay. Go even if you have to pay for the thing out of your own pocket -- get with the program!

  2. On the Job Look around your company and locate the leading-edge project teams that are working with the technology you're interested in. Do whatever you need to start working with these teams! Even if it involves long hours, late evenings, volunteer help, get involved now. Within six months you will find your work significantly more satisfying and financially rewarding.

  3. Get Networking Take a friend and hit the user group circuit in your city. Take a look at some of the links listed above to find a user group in your area. Networking and referrals are one of the most effective ways of learning about the hot new-technology projects and assignments in your area.

  4. Change Jobs If your company is doing some work in your new area of interest, this is the best place to start looking. Oftentimes, however, companies are unwilling to pull someone out of his/her work to train in a new field and you may have to pick up and change jobs to get the experience you want.

If you are a good developer and truly adaptable, start-ups can provide some of the best environments to quickly ramp up new skills. Such smaller companies usually offer a wide range of growth opportunities: unlimited responsibility, bleeding edge applications, opportunities to flex your creativity. Just remember to thoroughly check out a start-up's backing -- who's behind it. (See my column "Start-Up Fever" for details.)

To summarize, get more active in flexing the Unix skills you already possess! When a recruiter calls you, take control of the conversation, "tech" them out, and explain both the Unix and other experiences that relate. If you sense confusion on the other end of the phone, maybe it's your turn to hang up. Start networking and plotting your technology options!


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