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IT job hunting? Mind your manners

In a job market like this, companies want a guarantee that you can play well with others -- even if you are the smartest kid on the block.

Suits and ties are back. So are hardcopy resumes and thank you notes. As the job market recovers, IT job candidates are sobering up to the new realities of job hunting. Forget the flash -- and stick with the firm handshake. In this market, everything old is newly appreciated.

Business has become so interconnected, and much of the work now requires IT people to have a much wider understanding of how things fit together.
David Foote
President and Chief Research OfficerFoote Partners LLC

"It's old-fashioned hiring," observes Patty Coffey, a partner in the IT permanent placement group for Winter, Wyman & Co., based in Waltham, Mass. "The processes are longer. It's suit-and-tie and thank you letters. People are more cautious because they haven't been able to hire in two years, and they don't want their first new hire to be a bomb."

One result of this cautious approach is that more employers are hiring temporary employees who might be recruited for a full-time job eventually. "The temp-to-hire trend has been more prevalent than before," said Sean Dowling, Winter, Wyman's division manager of technology contracts placement group.

"They don't have to go through as much red tape or budgeting, and they have the chance to evaluate the potential resource."

Common sense perks

With budgets still tight, companies aren't raising salaries to attract the employees they want. In fact, technology workers' salaries have risen just 2% since 2000, according to New York-based Dice Inc., a high tech recruitment firm. Instead, employers are turning to simpler and cheaper methods for getting and keeping IT talent. That's true even more so for small and midsized businesses (SMBs), which have less money for salaries and expensive perks.

"You won't see air hockey tables or free massages anymore. But you do see greater emphasis on cultural issues," said Bruce Hadley, founder of SoftwareCEO, a Web site for software executives and entrepreneurs, the majority of which represent SMBs.

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"It could be as simple as letting you bring your dog to work, or openly sharing the financial results every month, or going to a softball game. It's stuff that doesn't cost money -- just a little imagination and effort."

More 'hybrid' IT jobs

SMBs are also more likely to want "hybrid" workers rather than specialists.

Small firms have always needed the proverbial Jacks -- and Jills -- of all trakes. But that trend has spread to midsized companies and also now includes a need for business skills, said David Foote, president and chief research officer at Foote Partners LLC.

"Business has become so interconnected, and much of the work now requires IT people to have a much wider understanding of how things fit together," Foote said.

Lucille Wilson, who landed a job as an IT architect at Jenzabar, a higher-education Internet software company in Cambridge, Mass., agrees. "It's a combination of technical skill and business knowledge. I landed the job I had because I had a deep knowledge of the business the company was in and I had just enough Java to get the job.

Wilson was also willing to take a pay cut. However, she had to convince would-be employers that she would accept a lower salary. "I told them 'It's OK. I don't have experience programming in Java. I have other kinds of programming experience, but I don't expect you to pay me extra for something you don't need.'"

For more experienced IT workers, the past few years have likely been among the toughest in their careers. Those experienced in older technologies have had to take salary cuts to gain experience with newer software platforms and programming techniques. According to the Dice survey, earnings tend to decrease after age 50.

Age-old opportunities

Some older IT workers also feel that job opportunities diminish with age, although not everyone agrees with that assessment. Kevin MacKinnon, a systems administrator for a company in Eastern Canada, said the excess supply of IT talent there has made it very difficult for anyone older than age 45 to get IT work. "Here we have a glut of good people who've lost their jobs due to downsizing, offshoring, relocations, mergers, etc. It's driven down opportunities and flooded the marketplace with experienced people willing to work for a lot less than they did back in 1999."

Dowling agrees that managers, in particular, have been more susceptible than developers or other front-line staff to layoffs: "If a project was cut, they could put the developers on other projects in many cases. But they didn't need another manager."

Sue Hildreth is a freelance writer and editor based in Waltham, Mass. She can be reached at

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