Career Doctor: How to Get Back into Development Work

By Katherine Spencer Lee | November 2007


Dice is pleased to introduce a new monthly IT career column, Ask the IT Career Doctor, with Katherine Spencer Lee, Executive Director of Robert Half Technology. Robert Half Technology is a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Once per month, Katherine will respond to an IT career-related question from a Dice reader. This month, she responds to an IT professional who supports an ERP system that is being phased out.

Question:
I’ve been in IT for 21 years, the first 12 in various programming jobs. Nine years ago, I started at my current company with the understanding that I would do mostly ops work for a while, and then get more programming opportunities. These have turned out to be scarce.

I’m not passionate about the Tier 2 incident management I’m doing now. I’m midway through a software engineering master’s degree program, but it’s process-oriented rather than technical. I’m teaching myself C#. What else should I be doing and how can I get back into real development work?

Katherine Lee Spencer responds:
First of all, don’t be too hard on yourself. The "Rip Van Winkle" feeling of having missed out is common among experienced IT professionals. You might be surprised by the number of people with enviable skill sets who nevertheless wonder what their careers would be like if they’d only gone a different direction.

Though turning around a 21-year career won"t happen overnight, there are several things you can do to get yourself moving in the right direction immediately.

Clear the air
Your first step should be to make sure your boss knows you’ re not feeling challenged in your current role and eager to do more programming. If you haven’t done so already, meet with him or her for a frank discussion of your situation and goals. Rather than rehashing old promises or expectations, emphasize present conditions and opportunities. Given the stiff competition for IT talent crunch, many companies will go out of their way to keep good workers on board.

It might be difficult to work up the nerve for such a discussion, but it’s a prerequisite for your career turnaround. Whether it inspires you to stick with your current employer or start searching for a new job, you’ ll gain a clearer sense of where you stand.

Update your skills
Nine years is indeed a long time to have been out of the programming loop. The master’s degree you’re pursuing can help your career in the long run, but given the urgency you’ve expressed, you might also want to focus some of your efforts on gaining hands-on technical skills.

Technical classes or a certification program will likely do more for your present career prospects. Many employers provide tuition reimbursement and other perks to encourage employees to take part in such programs, so talk to your manager about leveraging these resources.

A certification, while no guarantee of a hot position, would show employers that you’re committed to technical learning. Two good areas to explore right now are C# – which you’ve already made a start on – and .NET. As companies strive to create dynamic web applications, staff with .NET development skills are in high demand.

Test the waters
Even if your discussion with your current employer convinces you to stick around, start exploring other opportunities. Reconnect with your network – your two decades’ worth of colleagues and contacts should provide you with some fresh possibilities, as well as advice from those who’ve overcome similar career challenges.

The career center through your master’s degree program also is a good resource. This office may be able to help you secure informational interviews, internships or even a full-time position. Many students overlook the career center and don’t realize the great assistance it can provide.

If and when you interview for a new position, focus on turning perceived weaknesses into strengths. Your long track record will immediately set you apart from most applicants – make sure you portray it as a storehouse of experience to draw on. Keep in mind that many IT hiring managers value soft skills such as communication and leadership over the up-to-date technical skills you lack.

Keep your options open
A real career change might require you to sacrifice some financial security, and even a little pride, in the short run. Your possibilities expand significantly when you open yourself to opportunities beyond a full-time position. Consider taking on project-based or temporary development work while you pursue your technical training.

This type of work can give you a feel for the current landscape before you commit to a full-time job – an important benefit for someone who hasn’t done real-world programming in nine years. Many staffing firms provide free training and can help you get your foot in the door at companies that use project-based positions to evaluate potential full-time hires.

You might find that your ideal job turns out to be quite different than the one you currently have in mind. If you’re not dead-set on development work, consider a mid-level managerial support position, which is well within reach for someone with your experience.

Relaunching your career requires more than just a change of scenery or a new degree or certification. By considering the full range of possibilities available to you, you’ve already taken a bold step toward a more rewarding career.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America, Europe and Asia.

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