% fortune -ae paul murphy

Advice for 2009: hug your job

It's going to be a tough year: so dig in, dig in deep; and make sure you have a "plan B" ready to go.

According to techcrunch.com about 115,000 IT workers have been laid off by American companies since the August polls made it clear that the people who brought us the sub-prime crisis, the Detroit meltdown, and four dollar gas would sweep the trifecta to gain control of the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches of the American government.

I think it's possible for the American government to fix this quickly - but my guess is that that they won't and therefore that things aren't going to get better soon.

If you're an IT manager with a clearly defined budget: proactively find ways to cut third party costs next year and embark on a mission to get that done - no matter what's in your formal budget.

Do stuff like canceling things you do for IT - like server room upgrades or experiments with virtualization. Know those pictures you see from the Cuban worker's paradise showing lots of American cars from the 1950s still in daily use? Be Cuban in your data center: changing only what has to be changed, making do where you can, and thinking outside the box, particularly the Wintel box, to find opportunities to conserve both money and user goodwill.

But don't get too carried away with cost containment: do the unthinkable too:

  1. assign one or two of your most technical (and possibly obnoxious) people to work in user departments, with your most hostile user managers, and give them a virtual carte blanche to do what ever it takes -including spending money- to support the user managers who generate the money keeping you employed; and,

  2. 2009 will be the year operations built around Solaris on SPARC start to leave work-arounds like virtualization and SANS behind. If you're not already up on this, start paying attention - don't necessarily run out and start doing things, but put a little bit of personal time into learning what's going on and thinking about how that could help keep your employer in business.

And when you do get forced into layoffs: reverse your normal thinking.

In good economic times you throw out the square pegs, the people someone has a hate on for, people hired for dead projects, and the occasional useless twit. In bad times you do the opposite: throw out the useless twits first (especially if they're popular), and then sort through the others reevaluating them for useful squareness before all other considerations. Remember that in tough times yes men sink careers -and remember too that people who think they're smarter than you, may actually be smarter than you and therefore just the guys you want around.

But what do you do if you're "just" an an IT employee with limited local responsibilities? You've got a job: try to keep it - but cover your bets because your employer is as vulnerable to someone else's actions as you are.

Do three main things:

  1. get better at your job;

  2. learn some serious new skills on the side; and,

  3. consciously set aside a serious chunk of time every week for social networking aimed at getting some job offers on the table the day you're laid off.

What skills will pay depends on you, on where you're starting from, and on conditions in the markets you're willing to enter. Just remember that when bosses gets forced to the layoff decision it's almost always the unpopular who go in the first round, but after that the focus either shifts to keeping the most competent or the company goes under.

Some people will, I think, be fairly safe: people with academic positions that aren't grant dependent; MCSE types deeply embedded in small groups with stable markets; suited staff in big data processing groups; and people in health care and compliance related data processing.

If, on the other hand, your employer competes with overseas labor costs or is vulnerable to being taken over by a bigger player looking to grab market share, you're probably facing above average employment risks - and if your operation exists because some government or Fortune 1000 executive suffered an episode of In Flight Magazine inspired decisiveness you should already be looking.

You should also be looking if your qualifications are a bit weak on paper and you work for a mid range company where consultants are looking at opportunities for IT costing reductions. These kinds of studies are typically trojan horses, embarked on because somebody has an agenda - and, trust me on this, when data processing moves in, killing off a few bodies whose credentials don't fit 1930s audit expectations is just part of the program.

And the bottom line as we move into 2009? Enormous uncertainty: meaning that whether you're a manager or an employee the right answer is to dig in: get better at your job, reach out to support the revenue generating side of your business - and prepare a personal Plan B.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.