Popular culture would have us believe that tech workers are recession-proof. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert explains why that’s not true, and what we can do about it.
Right before Thanksgiving, I met a bunch of my mates down at our local to talk about job opportunities in Dallas. Ten of my folks had just received their layoff notices and were staring down the barrel of a cold Christmas season with no pay packet. Here in the US, the end of the calendar year is one of the absolute worst times to be ‘made redundant’ since it’s hard enough getting HR types to schedule an interview on the best of days; it’s darned near impossible from fourth week of November until mid-January. Somehow, the key approval authorities are never in the office. As you’d expect, everyone’s morale was a bit subdued. Not grim, but there wasn’t a trace of Christmas cheer to be found.
Our regular hostess came round to deliver everyone’s preferred pint and picked up on the group’s mood. When one of us told her what was wrong, she immediately pivoted from being casually cheerful to sombrely empathetic. She told everyone how sorry she was for what they were going through, and suggested that everyone shouldn’t be so down. ‘After all,’ she said with a smile, ‘y’all work in high-tech. You’re sure to find something better in no time at all!’
I sipped my beer to mask my wince. Our hostess was being her usual genuinely sweet and caring self. I didn’t want her to mistake my pained reaction for some sort of personal rejection. She meant well, and no doubt believed what she said: all throughout the Great Recession, our local news community loved to talk about how tech sector jobs were the least affected by the downturn. Popular culture is quick to lecture us that a programmer can quit his or her job on Wednesday and start a new gig before lunchtime on Thursday. That’s… sort of true… for certain functions within the range of IT careers, and for certain geographic areas. It’s not a universal truth, though.
Outside of the IT world, most people innocently believe that all technologists are developers. I talked about this in my column High Tea Leadership (and in the book that it inspired): popular culture would have most folks believe that all we do is type like fiends all day long at a command line, sending arcane commands through cryptic graphical user interfaces directly into the heart of The Matrix. Since writing software looks an awful lot like movie hacking (in that, all you see is a hero or villain feverishly typing), people logically assume that all advanced computer use must be real-time code creation. As if we all thought clickable buttons were somehow beneath us. 
Along those lines, I’ve noticed that the same sort of cognitive blurring happens when non-medical people watch a television hospital drama. Viewers usually know that there’s a meaningful difference between a doctor and a nurse, but beyond that… Everyone on screen is assumed to have exactly the same skills. The neo-natal nurse can perform open heart surgery, the dietician can diagnose brain tumours and the anaesthesiologist empties bedpans. Every task imaginable falls under the category of ‘medical stuff’. So it is with my nerds and our ‘technical stuff’.
Having served in both professions, I’m both amused by and horrified by the general public’s lack of understanding of what-all it is that we actually do. We all stick to professional standards of practice by specialisation, even if we do occasionally dabble in other workers’ domains. I’m perfectly happy stringing cable and racking servers, even though those aren’t supposed to be my functions; I know how to do them, and I enjoy helping out where such help is welcomed. On the other hand, I can’t – and won’t – operate outside of my competencies. Specifically: I don’t write code. I’m not willing to mess about with a C compiler even if it’s the best way to dazzle a passing supermodel. I can write a policy, a plan, a deposition or a book, but I can’t write an application. Likewise, the overwhelming majority of people that I’ve worked with – including ace developers – couldn’t write a compelling narrative to save their souls. We all have our strengths, and we mostly stick to them in order to get paid.
That’s sort of obvious when you say it out loud, isn’t it? When you board a jet for a holiday trip, it’s obvious that the pilot’s skills are vastly different from the cabin attendant’s, but it takes both of them to crew your flight. Similarly, a developer’s skills are light-years distant from those of a circuit designer, but it takes both of them to build your iPhone. All of the team members’ contributions are necessary, but our skills are not necessarily interchangeable.
I say all that to provide the context behind why having some tech sector skills isn’t a guaranteed path to swift reemployment. Some skills – like application development – are almost always in demand while other skills – like radio frequency network equipment maintenance – are only needed in a few unique locations and only in limited quantities. Further, every sub-specialization within a given field has its own unique ebb and flow when it comes to employability. Developers overall may be in high demand, but there are probably no more than a dozen paying OS/2 developer jobs out there.
That’s why it can be bloody hard for a fully-qualified and experienced tech sector worker to find a new gig: yes, the sector overall may be doing well, but demand isn’t even distributed across all specializations. Take network engineers with server management experience, for example. I received an unsolicited job offer for one of those while I was typing the preceding paragraph.  The opportunity (as it was described) wasn’t a fit for me at all, but I happened to know a senior network engineer who’s looking for a new opportunity – so I immediately endorsed my mate to the headhunter’s attention and let them work out a start date and pay range. Lucky break for him.
That process right there, I submit, is how almost all of my people are going to wind up in new roles come January: a few will be fought over by headhunters and HR types for their desirable technical skills (e.g. the bloody devs), while most everyone else is going to need an endorsement from a trusted source before they get a chance to be considered for the right vacancy. No matter how great they are, their CV doesn’t have the right keywords or proficiencies listed to really catch a hiring agent’s interest. In order to get hired, these great folks need an advocate.
If you hadn’t already caught the literary joke in this column’s title, it’s a reference to E.B. White’s classic 1952 children’s book Charlotte’s Web. It’s the story of a runt pig named Wilbur that finds himself bound for the slaughterhouse. Wilbur’s life is spared after a friendly barn spider endorses his greatness to the passing humans by spinning words of praise into her web. In essence, one character in the story speaks for the other character who can’t speak for himself. The advocate inspires onlooker’s to re-evaluate the pig’s value proposition.
Bear in mind, I’m not suggesting that tech workers should be thought of as swine. Rather, I’m arguing that the most effective way to fit the right tech worker into the right opportunity is often through the endorsement of a trusted third party.
That’s usually where I come in. I keep track of all of my people’s skill-sets, experiences and interests. Then, when I hear about needs in the area, I introduce my qualified folks to companies in need. Everyone’s made happy in the end. In all honestly, that’s how around four out of every five tech sector jobs get filled: someone knows about both the need and the viable contender, and then connects the two parties that would never link up on their own.
In an ideal world, we’d trust third-party talent stables to handle all of this for us. God knows I’ve worked with a bunch of them over the years. Some of them have been stellar performers: folks that care as deeply about their network of candidates as I care about my employees. These top-shelf agencies bring me talented people with great attitudes when and where I need ‘em. These outfits run the gamut from temp agencies through executive search firms. The names change, but the function is essentially the same: knowing people and clients equally well so that the right match can be made in time of need.
There are awful third-party agencies, too. Lots of them. I won’t name any here, but I do maintain a list of crap companies that I’ll never do business with again. The bad ones earn their scorn by making no effort at all to learn anything about the bodies that they shop around. They don’t care what happens to the worker or to the client so long as they get their commission.
Frequently, though, the matchmaking occurs without a third-party firm ever getting involved. Just like in the network engineer example that I mentioned several paragraphs back, I’ll usually hear about a vacancy and realize that one of my people might be a good fit for it. I’ll keep advocating on my former members’ behalf for as long as I can stay in contact with them. I’ve found people new opportunities many years after we’d parted ways thanks to social media.
This isn’t something that I get paid to do (unfortunately); it’s something that I enjoy doing for my people. I take a great deal of satisfaction in helping decent folks find meaningful work. I aim to give all of my people a boost up: into a new career, to a better career fit, into a higher-rated position or into a leadership role. I endorse my folks wherever and whenever I can, because I want to boost their chances of standing out in a hiring manager’s memory. Whenever I see one of my folks’ quality of life take a huge swing for the better, it makes me feel like my time spent chasing TPS coversheets and dozing through PowerPoint slides hasn’t been a complete waste of my time.
I fervently hope that I’ve taught all of my folks to advocate for their own people in turn because this is how techs generally get hired in the modern world. Interviews are granted on the strength of a personal endorsement, not from the weight of a tightly-written resume bullet. Experience alone doesn’t ‘sell’ a candidate’s potential. Titles don’t make sense, keywords don’t resonate, hiring managers don’t know what they need and a thousand unqualified obstacles will get between a good fit and a good job. That’s where we go to work: championing for a deserving man or woman who has something worthwhile to offer.
Of course, E.B. White’s Charlotte was a spider, and died shortly after completing her endorsement. I don’t recommend conforming to that part of the story. Live up to the spirit of the tale instead, and make some connections happen over a coffee or a pint. With any luck, your investment will pay great dividends down the line for a bunch of great young techs that you haven’t had the pleasure to meet yet.
 Strangely, no one ever assumes that on-screen nerds could be tech writers instead of programmers, despite the fact that bog jobs share exactly the same visual manifestation (i.e. feverish typing and occasional swearing), even though they product wildly different outputs.
 That’s not a fabrication; I can show you the e-mail.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.