Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

Thankless jobs?

The pro and cons of accepting a year 2000 project manager position and help for sysadmins who want to transition to software development

July  1997
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One reader isn't quite sure whether "Year 2000 Project Manager" will look impressive on his resume or whether taking the position will actually harm his career in the long run. Another reader needs help moving from system administration duties to software development work. We offer both readers some options. (1,300 words)

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Dear Edgar,

I am currently considering taking the year 2000 project manager position at my company, but am concerned about career impact once it's "over." Since there is a lot of doubt as to the extent of the Y2K problem -- some doubt it exists at all -- my initial feeling is that one's performance in this role will tend to be measured by what does happen after 1/1/2000, not by what doesn't happen. Also, I believe strongly that there will be just as much a glut of "year 2000" resources on the market as there is a dearth now. How will "Year 2000 Project Manager" look on my resume three years from now?

Looking Ahead

Dear Looking,

There's loads of hype surrounding the imminent Doomsday that will arrive with the year 2000. One Web page devoted to the problem, "y2kinvestor" ( starts with these words:

"It's New Year's Eve 1999. At the stroke of midnight while the party reaches its peak in Times Square, things begin to go terribly wrong. One by one around the world, computer systems begin to malfunction and "crash." Life as we know it begins to lose framework. Commercial airliners begin to disappear from radar screens over the world's largest cities. Billions of dollars are "lost" as the global financial network begins to transmit information and ultimately meltdown. Wars break out as radar and other military surveillance systems begin registering an enemy that isn't there."

Don't believe the hype.

In order to look at the problem realistically we have to step away from this kind of gasping, end-of-the-world talk. Sure it could happen. But the aliens from Roswell could also happen to come back to earth, pick up their friends, and wipe out our networks while they're in town. The coming of a worldwide crisis in conjunction with the turn of the millennium is too much a good story for people to pass up. Particularly when the story seems to provide a fitting justice against a species which has come to rely too heavily on technology.


A real problem
This is not to say that there isn't a real problem. There is. And it's been gaining dust on companies' desks for years. Most major computer systems are fitted to understand dates only in terms of two digits, so the end of 1999 will flip the digital calendars to 1900. Some say that this problem will work itself out; but this is just wishful thinking from managers who hope that other companies or government agencies will step up and save the world for the rest of us. Regardless of whether or not some take the lead, companies that have the glitch in their systems now will have the glitch in 1999 if something is not done. These real companies will have to crank out real money to pay real people to fix it.

Cons of the job
Managers are not going to happily throw money at this problem; most companies that decide to put funds into it will do so grudgingly. And though you will be saving the integrity of the systems, you will probably be seen as eating valuable revenue -- just as many systems administrators are ignorantly viewed as "cost centers." The work may also become, at some point, more tedious than theoretical. As the page quoted above later notes, "For the most part fixing this problem is not a significant challenge, however, it is enormously labor intensive."

But the pros...
This is an altogether new job. The year 2000 problem is an interesting, quickly changing field that will surely be in the headlines for the next couple of years. You will probably have to make some important decisions regarding your company's position on the issue. You will have to manage others. You may also be involved in conferences with other bright minds, searching for efficient solutions. If the corporate community comes together on this issue, you may find yourself in some good company -- saving the world! (Besides, the title "Year 2000 Manager" is pretty cool.)

What do you want?
I wish I had a clear answer for you on this one, but I must admit, I'm about as clueless as the next guy when it comes to how this huge issue is going to play itself out. But if you like working on specific projects for a defined amount of time and you like the risk of doing something that's never been done before, then this may be for you. In the end, hard work and a job well done always looks good on the resume.

This ain't Sysadmin Appreciation Day

Dear Edgar,

After going through nine years of college towards a Ph.D. in Physics, I stopped with a Masters and have ended up as a sysadmin. I enjoy the work, but certain aspects of being a sysadmin grate a bit.

I've worked at several companies, large and small, and have found that universally sysadmins are treated as little more than uneducated janitors by users and "overhead" by management, and I've about reached my limit.

Given my extensive mathematical and scientific background, and some (not extensive) C programming experience, I'd like to make the move to development as my impression is that there's more room for advancement; and the treatment of programmers is a bit better. The problem, though, is that I've become pigeon-holed, and really can't afford to take an entry-level programmers job.


Looking for Advancement

Dear Advancement,

It sounds to me like this company that you work for is not in tune with the reality of systems administration.

The importance of sysadmins
Here at Pencom we've built an entire business unit around the idea that systems administrators are not only important, they are the oil that keep companies running (Pencom Systems Administration). As computers become more and more critical to business' success, it is increasingly the people who maintain, upgrade, and develop these systems who are responsible for a company's ability to stay ahead or fall behind. (The best way to show the value of IS to management: don't show up at work for a couple of days.*)

Have it all
Rather than making a cold start into entry-level programming, I recommend that you find a way to make a transition which allows you to do both sysadmin work and programming. As you know, sysadmins are fundamentally generalists. In most companies they do more than just administer systems and help users: they roll out new PCs and workstations, reconfigure the network, install and test new software, implement the security policy, etc. There are many places that also encourage their sysadmins to do some development.

Take new routes
You said that you like systems administration. Take a world view, using this as a starting point. You also said that your company treats you like a janitor. Now take my word that it doesn't have to be like that. My guess would be that you work in a manufacturing company of some sort that just wants you to keep the network up. I recommend that you start looking at more technology-oriented companies where you will have the access and freedom to explore new routes. Start as a systems administrator, then make it clear that you want to advance into other roles.

* This was, of course, a joke. This is a good way to prove a point, but an even better way to get fired.


[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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