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You need a Geek Disaster Preparedness Kit, and you need it now. By the time you realize you’re getting canned, it’s too late to start it.

Last night while I was playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 with my daughter, the lights flickered a few times, then went out. “Please go grab the flashlight,” I asked her. She threaded her way through the gloom to the kitchen, opened the first drawer, took the Maglite from its permanent home and lit up the living room. “Remember how I always make sure that if you use the flashlight, you have to put it right back in the Critical Drawer?” I asked her. “This is why.”

You get in the car, and before you turn the key, you put on your seat belt. Even if you’re only going a few blocks, and you’re not going very fast, you put it on. You may never need it, but if you do, and you don’t have it on, you’re screwed. No matter how good a driver you are, there may be times that you need a seat belt, and by the time you realize you’re going to be in a crash, it’s too late to do anything about it.

As I discussed in last month’s column, you can get fired, laid off and otherwise relieved of your employment for just about any reason. No matter how good a worker you are, there may be times you need a Geek Disaster Preparedness Kit, and by the time you realize you’re getting canned, it’s too late to start it. The time to start is now.

Your Master Résumé

What’s the first thing most people think when they have to find a new job? From my experience, it’s always “I need to get my résumé up-to-date.” Good thought, but there are two problems with that.

First, when you’ve lost your job, it’s the worst time to work on your résumé. You’re panicked. Your mind is occupied with a million things. You’re not going to be doing your best thinking. Worse, you’re facing time constraints. You want to get résumés out as soon as possible, and chances are you’re going to forget things about your past that would make fantastic selling points.

Second, you don’t have a single résumé. Each résumé you send to apply for a job is going to be crafted carefully for the specific position. The easiest way to do that is by having an exhaustive master résumé.

There’s an old joke about how it’s easy to carve a statue of an elephant. Get a big block of stone, and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. Your master résumé is going to be that block of stone. It will include every potentially cool thing you’ve done, no matter how obscure. It’s going to be two or three times as long as an actual résumé that you’d send out. Then, when you’re ready to send out a résumé, you’ll make a copy of your master résumé and whittle away everything that’s not relevant to the job for which you’re applying. This way, you have a powerful résumé with only your best material on it, but you haven’t had to play the panicked game of “What did I do at Amalgamated Widgets? I only have two bullets for them!”

An extensive master résumé takes time to build. You’re not going to build it overnight. You’re going to add to it a little bit every month or so with work you’ve done at your current job, and you’ll add older items as they come to mind. It is an eternal work in progress. That’s why you need to have it up-to-date well before the day you get canned.

A good master résumé is exhaustive. Maybe your expertise is with Oracle databases, but noting the little MySQL projects you did along the way may be helpful evidence of your skills for a MySQL-heavy shop. That little Perl program you whipped up to poll the company’s bank balance may help you in the door when you’re applying at a financial services firm. Keep track of each scrap of work you’ve done, and you’ll never have to rack your brain for it in the future.

The best way to keep your master résumé current is to add to it regularly. Set a monthly task in your to-do software to add a new bullet to your résumé. You can list the current project you’re working on, or a new technology you had to use. And if you don’t have something to add once a month? Then you’re not exercising your skills enough and it might be time to be moving on anyway.

Portfolio of Projects

Along with a résumé that tells of your achievements, it’s good to have a collection of work products that demonstrate your abilities for a future employer. Given the choice between two candidates who are equally matched, but one of them has code samples that show his ability to do the work, a hiring manager is going to see the one with code as less of a risk.

Assemble a collection of your work that you can print at a moment’s notice. When you go on an interview, you’ll want to be able to bring a sheaf of printouts of your code, network diagrams, project schedules, whatever. Don’t pass it off on the interviewer by saying “All my code is on github, my ID is slackerprogrammer, oh, except that I have some on SourceForge. I’ll mail you the URLs.” Instead, print out your best work and bring it with you.

What goes in your portfolio? Work products that show your ability to do and understand work that the employer will want. Maybe this will include:

  • Source code listings

  • Database schemas

  • Testing plans

  • Network diagrams

  • Security policies

  • Web pages

Your portfolio should not include proprietary information, of course. If you don’t have material that’s OK to use, then make some. Write some programs that do work similar to what you’ve done in the past. Open source is an ideal solution to this problem, because you can license it yourself and show whoever you want.

Few interviewers ask for code samples. Even fewer techies think of bringing code samples or other work products to interviews without being asked. Whether your portfolio includes work you did for an employer, or that you created for the portfolio itself, it can create a powerful impression on your employer-to-be, especially when you’re the only candidate who thought to bring one.

Network of Contacts

Having a good résumé and portfolio won’t do you much good if you can’t find the job openings, and your contacts can help you here better than anyone. Fewer than 10% of job openings are filled through use of job boards like Monster and CareerBuilder, so they’re of limited value in your search. Around two-thirds of jobs are filled through personal contacts. That’s where your network will help you.

Your network is that group of people who know you, know your skills, and like you enough to be willing to help you out. They’re also people you know about, where you’re familiar with their backgrounds, so that you know who is most likely to be helpful in your hunt.

The best people to have in your address book are people who:

  • Like you personally: They are willing to help you with your job search, even if it’s just answering email.

  • Are well-connected: They know what’s going on in your industry, your town, or your online community.

  • Have worked with you: This could be on the job or in an ad-hoc community like an open source project, or maybe a business group in your town.

These sorts of connections take months or years to cultivate, and have to be maintained over time. Someone you haven’t talked to in ten years isn’t likely to want to help you in your time of need. It’s also not helpful if he doesn’t know your current skills.

Don’t forget that your personal network is entirely opt-in. Nobody’s going to help you out unless she wants to, and unless you’ve proven yourself to her in the past. You can’t just ask someone you only barely know for help and expect much of a positive response.

Specifics

So what does your kit look like? Are you prepared if the axe falls?

  • Is your master résumé at least four pages long, or two pages if you have less than 5-7 years of work experience?

  • Is it exhaustive? Does it include side work that you’ve done on the job besides your regular duties? Are you a programmer who was pressed into stringing cable during a building expansion? Put it in there!

How about your network of contacts? Can you name in the following list people whom you know well enough that they’d be willing to help you out? Can you name:

  • Five people at your current company who are able to attest to the quality of your work?

  • Five people outside your company who know what you do?

  • Five people who are regularly pursued by headhunters or other companies?

  • Five people held in high regard in their field?

Do you have current email and phone numbers for the people listed above? If they got a call from you asking for help, would they be willing to go to bat for you?

I was once fired at 11:30 AM on a Tuesday. By 2:00 PM I had skimmed my address book, fired off emails to the most likely candidates, and had an interview lined up from one contact and promise of part-time freelance work from another. That’s the power of contacts.

Start Today

The three main parts of your disaster kit (master résumé, portfolio, contacts) all take time to create and maintain. They’re not going to be something you can power through in a day or two when the manure hits the ventilator. You certainly won’t be doing your best work when you’re under the stress caused by losing your job. You want it ready when you need it, like the flashlight in the kitchen drawer.

There’s a saying that my friend and inspiration Bill Odom taught me: “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is right now.” If your disaster kit isn’t ready now, start planting.

Appearing Live in Your Area (if Your Area Is Chicago)

If you’re in the Chicago area on July 13th, 2010, I’ll be speaking at Uniforum Chicago in Wheaton, IL on what’s new in Perl 5.10 and 5.12. I hope to see some PragPub readers there!

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 spurred him to write his nontraditional book on the new guidelines for tech job hunting. Andy is an active member of the open source community, and lives in the Chicago area. He blogs at theworkinggeek.com, and can be reached by email at andy@theworkinggeek.com.

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