Stories by Mary K Pratt

Micromanagement a lose-lose approach

Former IT manager Eric Bloom, president of Manager Mechanics, a management training firm, saw leadership potential in one of his senior programmers. So he assigned her to work with an intern.

A methodical approach to job searching is a must

Now more than ever, career experts say, it is vital to take a strategic approach to the job search and application process. And you have to pursue that strategy all the time, not just when you're in the market for new opportunities. The best candidates are always taking steps to manage their careers, assess the market and build relationships to keep them employed during good times and bad.
Companies in this modern global economy will create or tailor jobs for top-notch workers, if you know how to look for such opportunities, says Sindell, co-author of The End of Work As You Know It. "Sometimes jobs are created for certain people, so that means talking to a former colleague about current initiatives and then saying, 'That sounds very exciting, and here's how I can help,' " she says.
But because most people don't get hired that way, Sindell says savvy job seekers pursue all channels to find positions that could be good matches for them. They check in with current and former colleagues, recruiters and search firms, visit job sites and attend career fairs.
Adam Alexander, vice president at career consultancy MasteryWorks, says IT professionals are generally open to switching industries, but many are reluctant to move to new regions.
While Alexander says staying put can be detrimental to career growth, he and others acknowledge that the decision to relocate is a personal matter.
Dave Willmer, executive director of Robert Half Technology, says the key is to be flexible. "Today's economy demands flexibility to a certain extent," he says. If you're not willing to move, you might have to be more flexible on, say, the industry you work in or your salary.
However, while flexibility is still important, Willmer says it's not as crucial as it was just several months ago, particularly for those who have in-demand skills, such as business intelligence expertise.
Résumés still matter, says Ryan Erving, a director of business development. He points to one quality assurance tester who was perfect for two recent job openings but didn't initially attract the attention of potential employers. Erving says the tester's CV was too generic, so he pushed him to write up a few points on his deep experience in performance- and load-balancing web servers. The hiring managers took a closer look, and one quickly extended an offer.
"This is a worker who thought his résumé was good enough and didn't spend time to articulate what set him apart," Erving says.
To make sure you don't get lost in a pile of CVs, it's important to translate your tech skills into top- and bottom-line business values, says Robert Half's Willmer.
"You have to be able to speak to what the business impact was in terms of your responsibilities," says Willmer. Hiring managers want to know that your skills can deliver business results, whether it's reducing downtime because you resolve help desk calls quickly or because you can deliver a web product that will help generate more sales.
But getting the right job means more than knowing what you offer. You should also know what to expect when you get there. You need to make sure your next employer isn't going bankrupt or planning to offshore its IT services. You want to ask about managers' styles and company culture, so you don't end up in an unsuitable environment.
You can get much of this information in advance, Sindell says. Financial statements, industry reports and news stories provide insight into the stability and structure of the company.
Your network can help, too, Sindell notes. Chances are you know someone who can connect you with a current or past employee who can get you the inside scoop. From there, be sure to ask pointed questions during your interviews so you can get information on the things that matter most to you.
Continually managing your career will give you a better shot of securing the right job when you need or want it, says Adam Alexander, vice president at MasteryWorks, a career consultancy.
"A career plan should be an ongoing process so you're always in a good situation or trying to improve your situation," he says. That means thinking about what positions you want next, determining whether you can find them at your current company, getting the skills you need to move into those positions, and building relationships with people who can get you there.
"Everyone has to take an active role in their careers, whether they're looking or not," Alexander says.
That approach paid off for Luis Illanas, a 20-year IT veteran who was unexpectedly laid off in November from his job as a systems administrator. He quickly contacted more than two-dozen former colleagues to let them know he was in the job market. As a result of his solid network, he landed a position as a senior IT consultant within two weeks.
"I can't say enough about having someone who knows how you work and how much that helped," he says. "That's why, when you're working with anyone, you have to make a good impression. You never know when you might call that person for a job," Illianas says.

Email diet results in leaner organisation

CIO Tony Murabito surveys workers at his company every year about the IT systems they use. The responses usually focus on technical issues, which is why last year's comments about email shocked him. One comment, "Let's blow up the Reply-to-All key!", summarised many users' sentiments.
"There was just an overwhelming sense that there were no controls [on email] in place," Murabito says.
After seeing the comments, Murabito decided to cut the number of emails at his compay, Cubist Pharmaceuticals, by 25 percent, by training employees how to better use email.
This email problem is not unique to Cubist, says Dianna Booher, CEO of Booher Consultants and author of E-Writing: 21st Century Tools for Effective Communication. "I hear a lot of complaining and there is not a lot of people doing something about it," she says. "But I think people will have to do something, because it's blocking productivity."

Don't sign away your future with a non-compete

Can signing a standard workplace document derail your career plans? Yes, says Jerry Luftman, executive director of graduate IS programs at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. He says a former student almost lost out on a big break because he'd signed a noncompete agreement.
When he gave his notice, the former student's original employer threatened to go to court to enforce the noncompete agreement he had signed when he first took the job.
"The company was willing to fight to keep him from going to this new company, even though he had accepted the new position and given his resignation," Luftman says.
The new company was also willing to fight for him, though, and its lawyers helped settle the dispute, in part with assurances that the IT manager would disclose no proprietary information regarding his former employer.
Luftman says this happens often, because workers happy to be starting a new job will sign a stack of paperwork without considering the potential consequences down the road. "It's the kind of thing people don't think about until they get into this situation like this one," he adds.
Lawyers say they see plenty of workers who don't know what they've signed.
"People come in and say, 'I signed a noncompete,' and I look at it and say, 'No, it's not really a noncompete. It's a nonsolicitation,' " says Brad Schleier, managing partner at Schleier Law Offices.
In addition to having workers sign noncompete agreements, companies often have them sign nondisclosure agreements, antiraiding agreements and/or computer-use policy statements, says C Forbes Sargent III, co-chairman of the employment law group at law firm Sherin and Lodgen.
Although these are all legal contracts, each one puts different restrictions on departing workers, Sargent says. A nondisclosure agreement says you can't divulge proprietary information, while an antiraiding agreement says you can't hire your former colleagues to work with you at your new job. A nonsolicitation says you can't seek out your current employer's clients once you depart.
Your employer can't dictate whatever it wants in all situations, lawyers point out.
Courts aren't going to blindly enforce noncompete agreements, says Susan Joffe, an associate professor at Hofstra University School. They look at how long the noncompete lasts, whether the prohibited work is defined and whether the geographic area where the work is prohibited is fair. They also consider how the relationship ended, since they're less likely to enforce a noncompete against a laid-off worker.
"Fairness is a very, very big issue, and courts are looking at just how much companies are trying to restrict someone," Joffe says.
In theory, a noncompete agreement is a contract negotiated between two parties — both of whom should feel free to clarify terms, Joffe says.
"But in the real world, there are many more pressures when people are out of work and the job market is shrinking, and some employers might be tempted to take advantage," she says.
So how much leeway do you have in negotiating a noncompete? It depends, Joffe and others say.
The higher up you are, the more you can negotiate the terms, Schleier says. You also might have some pull if you have unique skills or were recruited.
If you're going to negotiate, you should start by finding out what your employer really wants to protect, says Sargent. For example, if your boss wants to ensure that you won't disclose proprietary work when you leave, you might be able to get the company to agree to just a nondisclosure agreement, he says.
Even if your employer is set on having you sign a noncompete agreement, Sargent suggests that you might be able to negotiate the length or geographic restrictions or even additional severance to compensate for the time you might be sitting on the sidelines.

When job interviews go off-tangent

Santosh Jayaram always heads into interviews prepared to answer questions about technology and how it can be applied to business problems. So it’s no surprise he was caught off guard when an interviewer asked him instead either to tell a joke or discuss something he’s passionate about.

Consultancy skills pay off for in-house staff

Jeff Ansell is trying to think less like an IT guy and more like a business person. “There are times when I’m in a conversation with a client and I have to step back and think, ‘If I were that person, would I know what I’m talking about?’ Because they don’t care about servers; they want to know they can click a button and pull up what they need,” he says.

Managing storage requires tools and skills

It’s a simple equation: as data storage needs grow, so do storage costs. In fact, even as prices continue to come down, storage equipment now accounts for 19% of IT hardware budgets, according to a report from Forrester Research. And that figure doesn’t include costs such as energy and management.

Work-life balance works both ways

Companies that promote a healthy work-life balance generally have corporate-wide policies and guidelines that allow individual employees and their managers to set up flexible work arrangements.