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Swaine’s World

Gerbil, Interrupted

by Michael Swaine

Generic image illustrating the article

I was happily spinning my wheel when the call came from HR. Due to the economic downturn, the magazine I had been associated with for 25 years was ceasing print publication and all the gerbils were being set free.

I’d been running in place for so long I guess I experienced a touch of vertigo when the wheel stopped. Over the ensuing weeks, friends observed tell-tale signs: I was eating more, sleeping longer, and gnawing on the furniture. After a few weeks I did what you probably would have advised if I’d thought to ask you: I emailed Dave and Andy, we had a really nice chat, and they offered me this shiny new wheel.

Speaking of the economy, apparently there’s some sort of recession going on.

Venture capital spending was off over 70 percent at the end of last year. Just since January there have been major layoffs at AMD, Amazon, AOL, Autodesk, Best Buy, Borland, Bose, Broadcom, Circuit City, Cisco, Dell, Digg, Disney, Electronic Arts, Ericsson, Expedia, Freescale, Gartner Group, Google, Hitachi, IBM, Intel, Lenovo, Logitech, Microsoft, Motorola, Nat Semi, NEC, Nokia, Oracle, PBWiki, Philips, Razorfish, SAP, Seagate, Sprint, Sun, Technorati, Teradyne, TI, Toshiba, Unisys, and Yahoo, to name a few. In the case of Microsoft and IBM, we’re talking thousands of jobs.

Isn’t it fortunate, then, that you’re in a recession-proof industry?

At least that’s what conventional wisdom says, and in fact the jobs being cut at tech firms are likely to be anything but software development jobs. If you’re good, the same reliable source (conventional wisdom) says, your skills are in demand. Well, yes, but.

I mean it’s great if your skills are more in demand than ever, but what if the company you work for just went belly-up? Or your client list is experiencing embarrassing shrinkage? Or your existing clients are getting stingy?

Whether or not software development is a recession-proof industry, your skills may be proof against the economic downturn. But that doesn’t mean you won’t suddenly find yourself having to hustle more than you’re used to. Maybe you’ve never had to look for work. Maybe it has always come to you. And now you may have to (shudder) market yourself. I hope to convince you that tooting your own horn is not that hard, not that bad, and you’re already doing it.

The First Thing

Andy Lester identifies the first hurdle you have to get over. Don’t be shy about the fact that you’re looking for work. “Tell people you’re available. Online, that means blogging about it and mentioning it in some online fora. It also means telling family and friends. [You don’t have to say] ‘Please give me a job,’ but [do] let people know. Getting the word out is the first step in working your social network for potential leads.”

But can’t you just let your work speak for you? In some ways, you can. Your work on open source projects can carry a lot of weight with savvy employers. But be a significant and visible contributor. That says you’re not just a 9-to-5er, and it speaks volumes about your accomplishments. As Andy says, “Anyone can write Struts or Nant on their résumé. Very few can write Struts committer or Nant committer.”

But you must be sociable. For some of you, that’s not a problem, but for some of us, it’s a challenge. at least you can be selective about it and expend your social energy judiciously. Professional user groups can be great for networking and meeting potential employers in a low-pressure setting. If you can speak at a tradeshow or conference, do so. It makes you an accepted expert. Got to industry afterparties. As for the after-afterparties and after-after-afterparties, you’ll have to make that call yourself.

Work Your Social Network

As everyone knows, Facebook is now the eight largest country in the world. The recession has been very, very good to social networks. LinkedIn, which is all about professional networking, has seen a 65 percent increase in recommendations.

“Make sure you have recommendations on Linkedin,” my friend Paul Freiberger advises. Paul has helped a lot of people refine and promote their ideas, both at McKinsey Corp. and earlier at Paul Allen’s idea incubator, Interval Research, and is now helping people refine the way they present themselves at his own company, Shimmering Résumés. “Work your Linkedin networks. Participate in groups that share your interests. You may find people participating in these groups who are at companies that are hiring.” After passing along this advice, he reminded me to write him a LinkedIn recommendation. Nice to see the doctor taking his own medicine.

Yes, You Need a Résumé

You need a résumé. Also a blog. And they are not the same thing. “Résumés,” Guy Kawasaki says, “are… premature and unsentimental obituaries.” And they’re treacherous: a poorly-written résumé is a strong case against hiring you. Read Andy’s book; there’s a whole chapter on résumés. Visit Freiberger’s site. Google Guy Kawasaki.

Surviving Interviews

If you get called in for an interview, don’t freak. Be cool, be honest, and try to think like the boss. Understand the hiring process. Many interview questions are intended as opportunities for you to tell your story. Know your story. Tell it. In fact you will do well to treat every question as an opportunity to tell a story.

Marketing yourself, as Chad Fowler points out so elegantly in his book The Passionate Programmer, is not just for sluts. Selling yourself matters even if you have a job. It matters that your bosses or clients know the value of your work. And when you’re looking for work, marketing is crucial.

I’m just relaying the advice of people who know much more than I do about this stuff. After all, when I needed a job I didn’t do any of this; I just emailed Dave and Andy. Do as the experts say, not as I do. But marketing yourself is just one key to thriving in a challenging economy. Next month I hope to reveal other keys. In the meantime I’d love to hear from you. What have been your experiences in the Great Recession? Are you thriving? What have you learned about thriving in challenging times? Email me. Or join the discussion in our forums.

Michael Swaine is the editor of PragPub.