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How to Recession-Proof your IT Career

Aidan Finn

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Datacenter networking servers

In this article, I will share my recommendations on how to build a recession-proof career and protect it against the effects of an economic downturn.

In summary:

  1. Assess your current position.
  2. Update your skills.
  3. Get certified.

Winter is coming – recession proof your career now!

You don’t need to be a Stark to understand what is happening in the world right now. The news at the moment reminds me of what I heard in 2007-2008 before Lehman Brothers signaled the start of the last global recession.

  • Microsoft executives are “changing” recruitment.
  • Facebook is telling employees that job cuts are coming.
  • Google is going to have a “hiring slowdown”.
  • Subscription services are seeing subscribers leave.
  • Console game sales aren’t doing as well as they were.
  • The cost of living is rapidly increasing (inflation).
  • To “calm” down inflation, central banks are increasing interest rates – crippling normal people and small/medium businesses.
  • The purchase/rental cost of property has returned to or near record levels.

All of the above is a perfect storm for a recession.

I grew up in an Ireland that many alive today might not recognize if they only know Ireland from the last 25-or-so years. Most people were poor. Unemployment was common. Even though many never completed secondary or high school, education was seen as a way to elevate oneself.

But many college graduates found they had to leave the country to get a job. I was lucky to enter the job market just as the tech industry helped the Irish economy turn the corner. But even with the “job security” of being college educated, and deemed pretty good at my job, I’ve been unemployed – the first time was a real education.

You should recession proof your career now
You should recession-proof your career now

Assess your current position

There’s a saying:

It’s better to jump than to be pushed.

In other words, it is easier to get a job when you have a job, than to get a job when you don’t have a job. For some reason, recruiters seem to place a stigma on people that don’t have a job. You do not want to be in that position.

I found myself there one week after 9/11. I joined a consulting company in 2000. A large customer even followed me, guaranteeing many months of higher-than-normal rates. The directors of the company fell in love with the dot-com boom, the parties, the endless buckets of money, and the fast cars.

But they decided one day to stop all sales of consulting services and refocus on becoming a hosting company. The dot-com bubble started to leak in March 2001 and it eventually burst. Countless companies that were dependent on the ceaseless cash suddenly starved. That was the case for my employer.

I made a fatal mistake. I should have realized that when my employer told my rich customer “we’re not that interested”, something was wrong. I should have noticed that work for me and my colleagues had dried up instead of laughing about it over 2-3 hour lunches. I should have left that company before they made me redundant – and soon were closed down.

Evaluate:

  • Your position: Is your job stable? Does the company need you or are you one of the people that will be on the chopping block? Remember that everyone is replaceable. And the decision-makers have no concept of what an IT person does.
  • The company: We have just gone through a boom in the IT world, driven by cloud adoption. The business should see IT as an asset. For most organizations, however, IT is seen as a cost center. And job cuts in that department are high on the agenda when the belt must be tightened.

The question you should be really asking is – what is my future here if things get rough? Is it time for me to look elsewhere? If you are going to seek out other employment, then you need to do a good job at interviewing the interviewers to see what your future would be like there.

Assess your current position
You should assess your current position

Update your skills

So there I was in September 2001, without a job. I had 5 years of work experience. I was in demand when I previously put myself on the market so I didn’t expect to be out of work for long. I was wrong.

A lot of IT people found themselves out of work. When I searched for work, there was little being advertised. In fact, the typical job sites had:

  • Fake jobs that were being advertised by recruiters to harvest CVs/resumes.
  • Ridiculous ads for people with Cisco, Microsoft, and Oracle for less money than a college graduate would expect.
  • Nothing but depression after a few weeks of seeing the same thing again and again.

I evaluated myself. I had primarily been a product consultant for 5 years, working with niche products that were either made or resold by my employers. I had accidentally developed Windows skills. However, I did not have a good knowledge of Windows and associated technologies.

I had a big opinion of myself based on the customers I had worked with and the work I had done, but little of that was of value to my potential employers.

Satya Nadella and Microsoft started to use a term that I really like a few years ago:

Learn it all.

Coasting by on what you learned 5-10 years ago, or what you have accidentally picked up, will not prepare you for re-employment if things get bad. You need to increase your value for your current employer and for potential future employers. This will sound like study advice the night before an exam, but you need to train yourself.

Back in 2001, I went to a book store and purchased a series of books to teach myself everything that I needed to know about Windows Server, Windows client, Active Directory, and Microsoft Exchange. I sat down with 2 PCs, read, studied, and ran labs.

Today – things are easier thanks to online education (see Microsoft Learn), virtualization technology built into the OS, and free cloud subscriptions. My goal was to take my shallow knowledge and shape it into deep understanding and be able to put that on display in an interview.

If you are a Windows admin or consultant, then there is still demand for your skills, but not as much as there used to be. I am convinced that those skills will be like mainframe skills in 20 years’ time – essential and dying off. But in the immediate future, businesses are focused on the cloud.

Having skills in datacenter networking servers is important
Make sure to keep your skills up to date

Businesses are focused on ‘The Cloud’

Cloud skills are like water in the southwest US – hard to find. This is the area to skill up in. Cloud migrations are still happening – and struggling thanks to a lack of skills. Businesses will look to the cloud to adapt to the effects of a recession and eventually climb back out to profitability.

Those of you with on-premises skills that become cloud educated will find that they are a rare commodity – many cloud engineers/consultants today have no understanding of Windows or networking. If a virtual machine (VM) is lifted-and-shifted to the cloud, then it’s still got an OS that someone needs to manage and troubleshoot.

But don’t limit yourself to VMs – now is a great time to learn about technologies than can change IT and the business, such as containerization, IoT, data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

I feel safe in saying that being cloud educated will help you if, as expected, the economy cools down.

Get certified

I get emails every now and then from recruitment sites or recruiters with job ads. Sometimes, the ads will make me giggle – the company is looking for an MCSE – a retired (and reinvented and retired again) certification from Microsoft.

Educating myself to understand and be able to work with Microsoft technologies was not enough. I needed to prove that I knew the materials. Every job advert that I was interested in stated that a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification was essential.

The MCSE was an award granted to a person that passed a mix of mandatory and elective exams centered on Windows Server, Windows client, Active Directory (Domain Services), and associated technologies. I had studied, and now I needed to sit the exams.

One after another, I learned and did the exams until I had reached my goal. And not long later I had two job offers – one came after an interview where I was asked to prove my Active Directory knowledge by explaining how to troubleshoot a login issue. And each solution didn’t fix the problem, so I had to keep coming up with ideas.

There was no right answer because it was an opportunity to show how much I knew – and I went on and on, feeling quite comfortable with all that I had learned.

You’ll find that recruiters expect to see certifications for the technologies that you claim to know. The recruiters don’t know the technology. Many don’t understand that the exams are more like puzzles for those that are good at rote learning, and not really a good measure of work skills. Unfortunately, it is what it is.

I really don’t like doing exams. I don’t have a puzzle book mindset. The wrong answers and poor language of the questions frustrate me. Despite all that, I have sat and passed two Azure exams in the last couple of weeks because I had let my Azure certifications expire.

And I see what’s coming. I’m pretty sure that my job is safe, but I have a mortgage to pay and a family to feed, so I am not taking any chances.

You should not take any chances either. If you have the knowledge, then you should get the “paper” to prove it. If you are learning, use an Azure certification as a target. Get those things onto your LinkedIn profile and CV/resume so you are the one that is on top of the pile when you apply for a role.

If you have the knowledge, you should seek certification
If you have the knowledge, you should seek certification

Spring will come

As I said, I was working within a few weeks of getting my target certification. 18 months later, I was designing and managing a new Microsoft network for a global bank. The education of learning to educate myself – and to continuously learn – combined with that job changed my career.

And that came in very useful when that bank made me redundant not long before it went bankrupt for getting into the exact same mess as Lehman Brothers! I was back working within a few days and making more money than ever.

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