Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

There's gold in them thar hills

You've heard the siren call of Silicon Valley and New York City; but when you factor in cost of living, is either city really the technological utopia for you?

September  1998
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This month, Edgar counsels a Texas-based C++ programmer about the upsides and pitfalls of life in two of the most talked-about parts of the United States -- New York City and Silicon Valley. Also, should you be daring and talk to management about what bothers you, or is it better to just move on? (1,600 words)

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Dear Edgar,

I'm a C++ programmer who was born and raised in Austin, TX. I'm now working for a software development company here, and although I like the job and the city is home, I'm considering moving to California or New York to see what all the hype is about.

I have two kids and need to really start thinking about my career and future earnings. They say the markets are really hot in places like Silicon Valley and New York City. Is it true that they pay more for comparable skill sets there? If so, what should I expect in terms of pay increase?

In Need of More

Dear In Need of More,

It's true that there is a lot of opportunity in Silicon Valley and New York. As far as the Valley is concerned, even Microsoft has finally come to the realization that it's a place to be and recently decided to build a campus next door to Netscape. There is no doubt that the Valley is the Mesopotamia of today's flourishing technologies. Likewise, New York is the epicenter for many areas of big business, which naturally encompasses large areas of the technology industry.

But even though there may be gold in them thar hills and on those streets, there are also pitfalls, charlatans, and potential costs. Like everything else, there's a trade-off.

Don't get me wrong, I'm proud to say I grew up in New York, and I now live in and love California. But you must consider all angles of a possible move to either area of the country, particularly if you're basing your decision on a single factor such as salary.

If you move to one of these areas, it's true that you'll probably make more money. But you'll also spend more money. It's necessary to factor in the costs of housing, transportation, food, and taxes.

According to cost of living data compiled by the Center for Mobility Resources, a person making $55K in Austin needs $100K to achieve the same standard of living in Berkeley or Boston. This is a huge gap to fill.

First you need to decide why it is that you really want to move. If it's for reasons of money, then start looking into salaries and cost of living factors and do the math. It may very well work out.

If you're really pursuing a personal drive to be somewhere where the climate is different, or the culture, or if you're looking to work in fields that don't exist where you presently are, those are all noble goals. Just be sure you know what you're looking for before you hit the road, because chasing salaries according to different markets is a tricky game to play, and often doesn't work out just as you planned.


Management's making me crazy

Dear Edgar,

I work for a hot Internet startup that does some good work and is generally filled with good people, but I'm beginning to get fed up with management. I was hired ten months ago to lead a technical team and was offered the opportunity to build a small lab to test new technologies and hire a few extra people.

Ten months have now passed, the company has grown, and I've been recognized for good work, but the resources (of both people and money) that were promised have never materialized. I'm beginning to think they either forgot or just don't care.

Throughout the industry and within this company employees pick up and leave all the time. I have some good friends here, but I've seen others become exasperated and leave. There's a lot of work out there, and burn out is high, so some don't even set anything up before they go, they just jump ship.

I don't want to get myself into a situation where I finally get tired of it all and no longer feel happy working here, although things seem to be slowly slipping in that direction. Should I just get out before it hits, or should I dig in and make an effort to change things around here? I fear I may be fired if I begin raising my issues, which could be a lot worse than just leaving.


Dear Frustrated,

In the hot industry you're in you could probably leave tomorrow and find a job the next day without a problem. But you will have probably left a few things behind.

The idea of an employee just picking up from a place where he or she likes the people and leaving without trying to effect any kind of change rings of lost opportunity. I suppose I'm one of those people who believes in complaining and taking the heat rather than just leaving without letting my thoughts be known. It may not be the easiest route, but it can bring a lot of respect. The big bad management types may seem as though they know it all, but believe me they want to know what's going wrong.

In our company, we pride ourselves on encouraging people to bring things to light, and in management we're always trying to open the channels of communication. If your organization doesn't have such a mechanism, it should develop one.

This kind of lack of communication represents a fundamental problem in many companies -- from startups to General Motors. In the recent GM strike, one of the main worker complaints was that the management wasn't listening to them. Those up in the insular, ivory tower weren't recognizing the value of input from the front lines. From way up there it's very hard to see what the people who are building the business day to day are doing. In some respects, these are the people who know best how to run the company. And smart management does recognize this.

If you like the people you work with, try and make some change. You may be surprised at the response you'll get.

Advice from personal experience

Last month I responded to a question from person with a doctorate and good skills who was entering a difficult job search and only turning up entry-level offers because he had no real-world business experience.

I offered encouragement and advice on how to get started, but sometimes there's nothing like the advice straight from your peers, those who have experienced and overcome the same situations you're working through. So, this month I'm including a piece of reader mail that follows up last month's question as sometimes only "Anonymous" can.

Dear Edgar,

The recent inquiry from a computer science professor seeking to move to industry really got my interest because I was in almost the same situation once.

My advice to him is to shoot for a more senior position at a smaller business. There he can gain the experience he needs and move up without having to endure life in the ranks. Once you get the experience, your academic background positions you above the rest.

I did exactly that: after three years of post-graduate school and two years of teaching, I managed to land a job as an IS manager for a local company; of course I was paid as an entry-level manager, but I skipped the programmer-analyst phase of the career path. To get the job I stressed my technical in-depth knowledge of the subject, as well as my overall advantage due to the PhD. From there, I've moved upward pretty quickly, basically doubling my salary every two years, and I now head a regional branch of the IS division for a multinational organization.

I also recommend your previous columns as an excellent source of advice -- they've worked for me in the job-hunting process. He shouldn't take it for granted that his degree is all he needs to land a job; he should learn to market himself and turn his apparent shortcomings into potential advantages. In my case, that made the difference.

Finally, if his ultimate goal is to become a consultant, why bother getting outside experience? He can simply jump right in.



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 US. In his many years in high technology staffing, Edgar has helped guide the careers of thousands of open systems professionals. Visit the Pencom Career Center & Online Salary Survey.

[Pencom Interactive]
Reach Edgar at

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