Monday, September 25, 2000

Developer Career Tip #0016 ---Can you afford to take a pay cut to get into IT?

Developer Career Tips #0016

Can you afford to take a pay cut to get into IT?

I just received the latest edition of PhillyTech, a monthly magazine devoted to IT professionals in the Philadelphia area. Its cover story, "Shortage doesn't equal jobs", is at first glance a somewhat depressing look at the up-hill battle to find entry-level positions facing graduates of Computer Tech schools. The article examined the success, and sometimes lack of success, of several recent graduates.

I must say that I wasn't surprised to see the results detailed in the article (You can view it online at, neither was I particularly depressed with the findings. The schools mentioned in the article are all fine schools, and for the most part, make their money training students with little experience for entry level positions. The graduates mentioned in the article were disappointed in their potential starting salaries.

I guess it's a matter of whether the glass is half filled, or half empty. Graduates of these programs need to be realistic. Getting a promising job with a good company should be their primary goal. The high salaries that they see in IT salary surveys are for workers with several years of experience. When you graduate from one of these programs you need to have one goal in mind---get your foot in the door.

One of the graduates mentioned in the article indicated that, upon graduation, he was offered an entry level position in IT for $22,000. He was currently making about $44,000 in his job at an incinerator and he was unwilling to take a pay cut. He decided to stay with his current job. Needless to say, he was pretty disappointed.

I wish I could have counseled him before he began the training program. I would have told him that most likely he would need to take an initial pay cut to begin his IT career. (Finding an entry level position paying $44,000 isn't very realistic--unless you happen to be a graduate of a 4 year Computer Science program from a prestigious school or university.) I also would have told him that I've seen people who have doubled their salary in two or three years after the initial sacrifice. Unfortunately, taking a pay cut is something that "goes with the territory" of a career change.

By the way, this kind of sacrifice isn't limited to IT. Any time you make a career change this can happen. I remember some years ago a friend of mine working in IT decided to attend Law School at night. Her first job out of law school paid half of what she was making in IT--but it was a sacrifice she knew, up front, she would have to make, and she's very happy she did. Over the years, she's more than made up for the initial cut in pay she took.

The bottom line is that you need to be realistic when making a career change. Be aware that you may need to take a pay cut to get your foot in the door. But once you're in---you may be well on your way to a rewarding, well paying career.

Monday, September 18, 2000

Developer Career Tip #0015---Consulting---getting started

Developer Career Tips #0015

Consulting---getting started

In my September 7th Developer Career Tip entitled "Is Independent Contracting For You", I discussed the pros and cons of becoming an Independent Contractor. I'd like to continue my discussion of Independent Contracting by answering the question I am probably asked most often by those wishing to pursue it--how do I get started. The answer to this question really depends upon how "independent" you really wish to be.

For instance, there are companies in my neck of the woods (the Philadelphia Metropolitan area) who will find you Independent Contracting Work. Essentially, these are work brokers who are paid a fee by the company for whom you eventually work. Some of these companies also offer some useful support services--for instance, finding you a group health insurance plan, investing some of your earnings in a cash management account to provide you with 'paid' vacation and sick days. The problem, if you want to call it that, with these work brokers is that their requirements for work experience may be even more stringent than those of a prospective employer---so if you are trying to get your foot in the door, this is one door you may find nailed shut.

If you have no experience, but plenty of knowledge, what tact should you then take to get started with Independent Contracting?

Forget 'cold calling'--it's just not going to work. The chances of someone hiring you off the street are next to nothing.

Advertising in a local newspaper or the Yellow Pages as a Software Developer is something that some of my associates have tried---but more often than not, the calls they receive are from other developers looking for work, or from vendors trying to sell them office equipment.

Word of mouth and networking is a fair possibility. Let your friends, family and associates know that you are now working on your own--among that group, perhaps one of them knows someone who needs some programming work done.

Personally, I don't advertise, and I've never used a work broker to find me work. Over the years, the best method I've found for finding new work is teaching.

I do a lot of teaching, both within colleges and universities and also in computer training centers. Out of a typical class of 20 students, I typically have one or two students who later contact me to come in and lend their company a hand with the subject matter I'm teaching. In fact, two of the largest contracts I've ever landed were a direct result of my teaching.

You might be saying to yourself that this sounds great, but you don't have a teaching certificate or the prerequisite degree to teach. While it's true that a teaching certificate may be required for elementary or secondary education, and you may need a Masters Degree to teach College Credit course, many colleges and universities now offer Adult Education, Professional Development or Certificate programs in which the requirements for teaching are merely a good knowledge of the subject. In my area, colleges, universities, high schools even my local YMCA are offering courses on program.

The bottom line is if you can get up in front of a group of people and convey your knowledge of a programming topic well enough---you might find one of your students giving you your first big break into the world of Independent Contracting.

Monday, September 11, 2000

Developer Career Tip #0014---Follow up on SetFocus

Developer Career Tips #0014

Follow up on SetFocus

In my August 10th Developer Career Tip entitled "No Experience? No Problem!" I discussed a company called "SetFocus" located in Parsippany, New Jersey, about 45 miles outside of Manhattan. The company advertises that they will provide you with a 13 week intensive Visual Basic training program---in exchange, you agree to work for them for the next 9 months as a paid consultant. It sounds like a great idea--but I cautioned you that I had no personal knowledge of anyone who had gone through their training program, nor had I spoken personally with anyone from the company.

About two days after my tip was published, I received a call from Stacey Landau of SetFocus---several of her students saw the tip. Stacey and I spoke for quite a while, and I was impressed with her obvious dedication to providing outstanding Visual Basic (and now Java) training to individuals looking to get into the marketplace quickly.

Over the course of the last month, I've received several emails from current students and graduates of SetFocus attesting to the quality of the program and their satisfaction with it. One of these emails came from a former student of mine from ZDU---and his resounding endorsement of the SetFocus program means quite a lot.

All of the endorsements carry the same message--the program is demanding and intense. There is plenty of work, and you can expect an assignment every class day with at least one major project due each week. You'll also need to relocate to Parsippany for at least one year. But all of this hard work comes with a reward--at the end of the 13 week program you'll be working as a consultant for a SetFocus corporate client---some of which are located in Manhattan, a hotbed of IT work.

Once again, I think this program is great for those individuals who have IT talent and who are looking to get into the marketplace quickly. If you would like more information, check out their Web Site

I'd love to hear more about similar programs---it's hard to believe that SetFocus is the only one of its kind. If you know of any, let me know via email at

Monday, September 4, 2000

Developer Career Tip #0013---Independent Contracting for you?

Developer Career Tips #0013

Is Independent Contracting for you?

Over the course of the last few months, I've been writing tips on developing your programming career--all within the context of working for an employer. A number of readers have written to me and asked me to provide tips for going out on their own---Independent Contracting---and I'll be writing future tips to cover that topic as well.

I thought I would start off with this question: How do you know that Independent Contracting is for you?

Would you like to make more money (sometimes double) for the same services you currently provide to your employer?

Are you a person who likes a variety of challenging jobs?

Would you like to change assignments (and companies) periodically?

Do you have the ability to come into a new situation and pick things up quickly and get along well with those around you?

If you answered 'yes' to one or more of these questions, then Independent Contracting could be for you. Not unexpectedly, Of course, there are some downsides.

Independent Contractors tend to earn more money (sometimes double) for the same services they would provide to an employer, but there are good reasons for that.

As an independent contractor, you'll receive a check with absolutely no taxes withheld---you are responsible for paying Federal and any applicable State and Local taxes on your own, plus you'll also need to pay Social Security Taxes. But unlike the case of an employee, you'll need to pay not only your own share of Social Security Taxes, but the share that an employer would pay on your behalf (one reason that employers like to hire Independents).

Altogether, these tax payments can account for 40% or more of your negotiated contract fee---and for those of you who don't like to be bothered with paperwork, don't discount the time and effort involved in keeping track and making timely payments to the various governmental authorities. Many of my Independent Contractor friends find the task burdensome enough to hire an accountant.

Something else to consider before making the jump to Independent Contracting is the lack of employer benefits. As an Independent, you'll receive no Health Care benefits. Finding a Health Care plan on your own is possible (I'll discuss finding a plan in future tips), but it can be very expensive.

In addition to the lack of Health Care benefits, any time an Independent Contractor takes off for Vacation, Holidays, Sick Time or Personal days means no revenue. Many of my Independent Contractor friends find the thought of taking time off without pay so abhorrent that they go long periods of time without taking a formal vacation--a very bad idea. In addition to no paid time off, there's also no friendly Employer sponsored 401K or pension plan for Independents---if you want to contribute to a 401K or a Pension plan (and you absolutely need to), you'll need to create your own (not a big deal, and I'll cover this in a future tip).

Still, taxes, paperwork, and the lack of benefits aside, the thrill of working for yourself is what drives many Independent Contractors. In future tips, I'll provide guidelines for setting fees that can ensure that you cover all of your expenses---and allow you to take time off without guilt.