10 Common IT Career Questions

When's the best time to schedule an interview, look for a new job, start freelancing? Here's what the experts say.

Unemployment has breached the 10 percent mark, and so now's the time to pay close attention to your career. No matter how secure you may feel in that job, there are always questions: When's the best time to ask for more money? When should I start looking for something better? When is it okay to go back into the break room and snag the last donut?

During troubled economic times, it may seem nonsensical to discuss quitting a job, but doing so may be appropriate, depending on your circumstances. But when is the best time to quit your job? Older conventional wisdom held that such a thing should never be considered, but times have changed. If you're still wearing a paper hat, then there's no time like the present. But regardless of status and company, having a job is no guarantee of keeping a job, and when layoffs seem imminent and the company's financials seem shaky, it's often best to quit the job before it quits you.

Let's take a look at ten of the most common "When's the best time to . . ." career questions, and see what the experts think.

. . . follow up after an interview? Right away! You don't forget to follow up, right? Following up is what gets results. When your mom made you send a thank you card to grandma after she sent your birthday present, for example, you were doing several things at once. You were making grandma feel good, you were being polite, but you were also setting the stage for continuing to receive birthday presents in the future. Following up after an interview is no different. It's a simple reinforcement that reminds the hiring manager that you exist.

When do you send that follow-up letter? Alan Narz, President of Auto-scheduler.com, says "immediately." And it shouldn't just be an email, either. Alan recommends pairing that email with a handwritten note. "Go spend a dollar on a thank you card. It has to be a custom note, with a reference to something about the interview you enjoyed, something you appreciated, or something about the company. I think everybody sends an email, but adding that personal touch goes a long way."

. . . start looking for a better job? When you've outgrown the one you have. When the lawyers start showing up in lobby with subpoenas, that might be a good time. But if you're not in that unfortunate circumstance, there are two things to consider. Todd Harootyan, a Senior IT Recruiter with the Chicago office of Hudson, says that "it's the equivalent of when's the best time your sell your house. It's when you've outgrown it." If you've realized there is a disconnect, and concerns over situations such as money, responsibilities, commute, hours, or other factors, then it's time to start looking.

Next, the actual time during the calendar year can be important as well. Harootyan says, "Q2 and Q3 are your major hiring periods within the calendar year. We're entering the slowdown and that'll last until the end of January. As balance sheets are balanced, and budgets are forecasted, there's not a lot of hiring in the tail end of Q4 and the early half of Q1."

. . . schedule an interview? As soon as you can get it. When's the best time for an interview? First thing in the morning? Maybe the hiring manager won't have had his morning jolt of Starbuck's yet. Mondays? What if he hasn't recovered from the weekend? Fridays? Too anxious to get to the weekend. That doesn't leave much. Do you want to be the first to be interviewed? The last? Too early, and they'll forget you; too late, and they'll have already made their decision.

Alan Narz, President of Auto-scheduler.com, has a common-sense answer: "As soon as possible." Alan says that when the call comes in, jump on it. "Those interview spots go away for a lot of good reasons. All of a sudden, that job may not be available any more. So schedule it as soon as possible, and as soon as you can be prepared for it."

. . . settle for less in your job search? When the job gap will hurt you worse than taking a lesser job. How the mighty have fallen! Your company's former VP is now sweeping streets. You saw your old boss working as a greeter at Wal-Mart, and the guy from Marketing with all those creative ideas is now wearing a paper hat. Is some money better than none? Or should the old adage of "you're only as good as your last job" guide your decision? Hudson's Senior IT Recruiter Todd Harootyan says, "It comes down to balancing the gap in employment, with that of potentially having a position on your resume that is a lesser role, and deciding which is the lesser of two evils."

Harootyan argues that a lengthy job gap on your resume hurts worse than will the presence of a lesser job, and that lengthy period of unemployment will create additional problems. "Then you fall into the 'you've been out of the workforce, and how do you get back in' scenario. You can always leverage the 'in now and promotion later' philosophy, and I encourage that in a lot of the roles I'm filling today. You never know what might present itself once the market corrects."

. . . go freelance? Only when you're firmly committed to the concept. The technology is in place, and more people are not only working from home, they are cutting ties to their employers altogether. "Freelance consultant" on your resume no longer is the equivalent of "jobless bum," it's a legitimate career choice. It's the result of the "perfect storm"—high unemployment and company cutbacks, an increased focus on outsourcing, and for the first time, a working infrastructure that makes the concept realistic and easy to carry out.

Brad Porteus, Chief Marketing Officer of Elance, a freelance B2B site where freelancers hook up with buyers of freelance services, says that it's not just something to do between jobs. "More and more people are committed to being independent as their full-time way of working. The idea of being self-employed is something that more people have embraced, and are living." Porteus noted the incredible growth on Elance, which saw 40% growth over last year. "It's a significant trend that is accelerating because of an appetite on the part of both the talent pool, as well as companies, as they discover that this is a viable and exciting way to get work done."

. . . ask for a raise? When the market's in your favor, or after you complete a big project. The CEO's taking in fifty million a year, but the rank and file has been asked to take a pay cut. The folks in the back office seem to be stagnating, and nobody you know has gotten a raise in over two years. Should you ask for more? When? There are a handful of optimal times, and the greatest time to ask for more money, according to Hudson's Senior IT Recruiter Todd Harootyan, is "when there's been a shift in the labor market in your favor. This year hasn't been a good time to ask for a raise, because the labor market has shifted out of your favor and into the employer's hands."

In addition to simple supply and demand economics, other times to consider asking for more money would be after completion of a major project or deliverable. Did you just get done streamlining an operational process that's going to save the company a million bucks? Then it's time for the boss to ante up.

. . . leave the Fortune 500 and join a start-up? When you decide you want more control and less corporate hierarchy. There's a school of thought that says "bigger is always better," but that philosophy is quickly breaking down. There was a time of course, when hooking up with the largest companies in America meant job security, but those days are long gone. But what about those start-ups? There was a brief time that almost all of Silicon Valley was powered by start-ups, but the dotcom boom is over. Or is it? In reality, it never really ended, it just changed focus—and start-ups offer great opportunity for those who are willing to take a little risk in the career department.

"If you consider yourself to have an entrepreneurial spirit and if you enjoy having more individual control, faster decision making and reduced infrastructure and corporate hierarchy you may be well-suited to pursue employment at an early stage or start-up company," said Rebecca Foreman Janjic, partner at executive recruiting firm Polachi. During a job search, especially when pickins' are slim, it's often advantageous to include start-ups in your target list. And you never know, that nimble start-up with offices in the unfashionable warehouse district may be next year's Microsoft.

. . . get temp work? When you're looking, and the regular job market is soft. You're part of the company, but then not really part of it. You're not an accountant, or a programmer, or a secretary any more, you're "the temp," and to some, you're at the bottom of the employment ladder. But as corporations seek more ways to be flexible, use of temp workers is on the upswing, and there may be opportunities there when the job market is soft.

According to Manpower Inc.'s research report, "The role of contingent workers in workforce strategy: Global key findings", 34 percent of employers said that temp workers, or "contingent workers" as Manpower calls them, "was, in fact, an important piece of their overall strategy. Manpower believes that over time, as companies emerge from this recession and ultimately recover, contingent workers will play an ever more strategic role in employers' workforce strategy."

. . . ask your boss about working from home? As soon as your company has the technology available. Telecommuting has become a major trend, and it's not just for people who are off the career track. Today, even high powered execs and professionals work from home at least on an occasional basis. The technology is available, it's practical, and it's economical, but yet many are still reluctant, even if the company has a telecommuting program in place. The fear of course, is that if the boss doesn't see your face every day, you're not considered "part of the team." But that face time is getting less relevant. Chances are, when you go to the boss to ask the question, you're going to be told "She's home telecommuting today." According to Cisco's 2009 Teleworker Survey, 40 percent of Cisco employees aren't even located in the same city as their managers, and the average Cisco employee telecommutes two days a week.

Cary Landis, CEO of Virtual Global, a company that specializes in developing the SaaS applications and cloud platforms that make telecommuting a realistic possibility, said, "Web 3.0 technology has forever changed the nature of the workplace, and even the very nature of what a job really is. Working from home, whether part-time or full-time, is no longer out of the ordinary. It's not an unusual request, regardless of where you are on the career ladder—and increasingly, it's just part of the job, and may even be expected of you."

. . . get more education?Any time you need more skills to move up the ladder. You thought you were done with it when you got that sheepskin and they booted you out of academia and into the real world, didn't you? No such luck. If you've been out of college for more than five years, especially if you're in IT, much of what you learned is now obsolete. And you need to refine your skills continuously, not only to be prepared for the inevitable axe falling, but also to take advantage of new opportunities with your existing employer—and just to keep up to date with what you're already doing.

John Udelhofen, CEO of Laurus Technologies, a leading Midwestern IT services and business consulting firm, notes that CIOs who put priority on education for their staff members during a recession often come out ahead of the game, and in some companies, educational opportunities are great tools for dealing with the struggling economy. For example, while training related to your present task is always relevant, Udelhofen suggests that "one way to maintain revenue may well be to train employees to begin selling into a new market. Smart companies, especially those in the technology sector, will train and certify employees in order to broaden business offerings during a downturn." Udelhofen has had good results already with this strategy. "We have started to cross train our employees on new products and services even in the middle of the current downturn. Those new capabilities are already contributing to our overall sales."

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