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In a perfect world, your work would speak for itself, your genius would be universally recognized, and your job would never be at risk. It’s not a perfect world.

The economy’s in the tank. Millions of people have been laid off, and IT jobs are not exempt from the axe. Your company’s undoubtedly having a sales slump, if not free-fall, and job cuts could well be coming.

Don’t sweat it.

There are two types of layoffs. The huge reductions where entire departments or units are sent packing at once are beyond your control. Corporate management decides that a large part of the operation is unprofitable or can be outsourced, and out you go. This type of layoff can’t be planned for. You find out one day that all twenty of you are out on the street, and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it.

More likely you’ll face a more selective layoff, and you won’t even see it coming. Usually, a department or unit manager will be told, “You have to reduce your staff of twenty by three,” and it’s up to her to find the three least-profitable members in the group.

That’s the layoff you can avoid, by actions that you take now.

How to keep your job

Assuming you’re happy with your job, your task is to keep it. I’m going to tell you how.

Your goal is to be the best programmer, the best sysadmin, the most profitable addition to the bottom line that you can. You want to be in the top tier of performers in the group, so that your boss says to herself, “There’s no way I’d get rid of him.”

Treat your retention as a hire

You know that when you’re working to get hired at a company, your job is to show how you will add to the company’s bottom line if you are selected, often by citing examples from your past. When you’re looking to keep your job, it’s the same: You show the value you bring to the company, and what you’re working on for the future.

How should you do this? Keep track of what it is you do every day, and how you help the company. Be consistently aware of what you’re learning and how you’re improving your company’s bottom line. When you make things better, make sure your boss knows it.

Always look to the future. Think about how you can improve the department and the company, and talk about it. Make plans with others to make things better.

Update your résumé

When you’re tracking your value to the company, and documenting what you’ve done, put it in your résumé. Use your résumé as a tool to track your performance. A good résumé has work history as its headings and achievements as the supporting detail.

A good résumé tells what you did, not what you were. The “what” should have numbers associated with it. Instead of:

Yoyodyne Intl, 2006-2009

  • Wrote application code in Perl for various projects.

  • Worked both on teams and on solo projects.

  • Strove to introduce new technologies to the department.

Give detail that describes the value you provided, quantifying to give the reader an idea of scope:

Yoyodyne Intl, 2006-2009

  • Designed, coded and tested Perl applications for customer-facing web applications using Catalyst, DBIx::Class, and Moose.

  • Worked on teams of two to eight, depending on project, as well as on solo projects.

  • Taught myself Ruby and ran a pilot project for a simple user maintenance application using Rails. Project completion time was two weeks, instead of the expected six weeks.

Don’t worry about having your résumé be too long. You can trim it later before sending it, but if you don’t capture the detail up front, chances are you’ll never get it back. You may also want to keep a scrap file of items that can be added to your résumé as necessary.

Don’t wait until you need your résumé to spend the time to improve it. Tend to it as you go, and when it’s time to harvest this critical tool for job hunting, you’ll be rewarded.

Don’t keep your head down

Conventional wisdom has it that if layoffs are afoot, you want to keep your head down, not make waves, and reduce your chances of getting on someone’s Bad List. This is exactly backwards. It might make sense if all workers were interchangeable, but you’re not.

Keep your head up, and let others know about what improvements you’ve made and value you’ve added. It’s no good to improve your backup process and reduce the number of tapes required if you keep this fact to yourself.

You have to let your boss know, but don’t stop there. As you build your reputation in the organization, you’ll be working with others, so let them know about your valuable work while you find ways to help them as well.

Be valuable beyond your department

The only thing better than being a valuable asset to your boss, to your team, to your department is being valuable to those on the outside. Assuming that you’re doing a good job in your department, accolades from others in the organization are music to your boss’s ears.

Don’t suck up

The worst way to survive a layoff is by sucking up to the boss, or relying on a good personal relationship.

First, it won’t work. The boss is not going to keep you in favor of a stronger performer just because he likes you. His job is on the line as well, and it does him no good to keep a weaker employee. Spend your time on improving yourself instead.

Second, it will backfire. Sucking up shows weakness and desperation, two traits that are never good. The boss is not stupid and will not be fooled by your sucking up. Worse, the boss may be more inclined to axe you rather than be perceived as showing favoritism.

Finally, it’s degrading to you. Hold your head high and make it through tough times by your intelligence and hard work.

Start looking for your next job

You may still lose your job. You can still minimize the impact of being laid off. Here’s how.

Don’t wait for the axe to fall. Start looking now for your next job. Find another job that’s interesting, and assess your likelihood of landing that job. Get a feel for the market. Understand the skills wanted and opportunities offered in your job market.

You should be doing this, layoffs or not. Unless you’re nearing retirement age, chances are good you’re not going to stay at your current job until you retire. Since you know a job change is going to come some time, whether by your choice or your employer’s, you might as well keep on top of the market.

Make contacts who might be able to help you

If there’s one part of your business portfolio that needs to be cultivated and can’t be rushed, it’s building a network of helpful friends and contacts.

I was fired one Tuesday at 11am. By 4pm I had two job prospects with people I knew, and one with a company that a contact referred me to. That sort of network can’t be thrown together at the last minute. It came from years of working in the open source community, making connections, and keeping in touch with these valuable people.

When you get tossed on the street, it’s too late to start building your contact file. Start today.

You should be doing all these things anyway.

For everyone who’s reading this but isn’t expecting layoffs, listen up.

These rules should apply to how you live your work life anyway.

All the rules above apply every day, even without the specter of layoffs. Whenever performance reviews come around, you’ll want your boss to know your value. When the boss needs top performers to work on a sexy new project, you want to be at the top of that list. When upper management starts considering whether to outsource your department’s operation, you and the rest of your department should be making it clear that your provide value no other group can.

By the time you need to harvest, the best time to plant has passed, and you’ll be scrambling to do what you can to catch up.

When you get laid off anyway

If you follow the guidelines above, when the worst happens and you’re out on the street, you’re ready to move on. You’ve planted the seeds for an effective job search that puts you above most other candidates for whatever job you may apply for.

Since you’ve been thinking about your value to the organization in terms of impact on the bottom line, you’ll be ready to analyze your skills and how they can apply to any future employer.

Since you’ve been working to let your boss and others know about the good work you’ve been doing, and what improvements you’ve made to your department, you’ll be more comfortable with talking about these achievements in your interviews.

Since you’ve been keeping your résumé current with your achievements, you don’t have to go through the frustrating step of being in a rush to update it and remember everything you did at the job you just left.

The law of the farm: Why you must start now

Start now. Plant a tree, grow a farm.

The law of the farm says that you have to plant, water and tend your crops, and wait until they’ve grown to maturity, before they’re able to be harvested. There is no short-cut for this. You can’t work extra hard at planting and have the crops show up early. If you wait until autumn to plant your seeds, you’ll have nothing to harvest.

When it comes to the quality of your work, and how you’re perceived on the job, the law of the farm holds as well. You can’t slack off for a year, then pull off a heroic super-project, and expect to be seen as a great programmer. Your users’ perceptions of you as an aloof, uncaring system administrator cannot be changed in a day, a week, or even a month.

To make yourself be seen as the best member of the team, you must start today, and keep it up always.

Don’t fear the Reaper

I hope you’ve noticed a common thread running through this article.

Everything that you need to do when expecting layoffs is something you should be doing anyway.

You need to build contacts, improve your skills and make yourself useful outside your department even if you’re not expecting layoffs. Partly that’s because it’s just good career management, but mostly because there is no such thing as job security today.

Living in fear of losing your job also lowers the quality of your job, and your enjoyment of it. If you’re worried about getting canned, it means you’re less likely to take chances, to make bold decisions, or to try crazy new ideas. It also means you’ll enjoy your job less, and life’s too short spend time at the job that you’re not enjoying.

So bulk up your skills, make your achievements known, and build a network of valuable contacts. Start today, and keep at it always. Together we’ll get through this rotten economy doing the work we love.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Pete Krawczyk for his input and insight to this article.

Andy Lester has developed software for more than twenty years in the business world and on the Web in the open source community. Years of sifting through résumés, interviewing unprepared candidates, and even some unwise career choices of his own have spurred him to share what he has learned in a nontraditional book on the new guidelines for tech job hunting Land the Tech Job You Love, as well as on his website, The Working Geek. Andy is an active member of the open source community, and lives in the Chicago area.