Monday, October 26, 2009

Bored? Now what?

It's no secret that I've been unemployed since the end of May. And although I'm sticking by my decision to take my time and find the right position that satisfies both my responsibility to provide for my family and my desire for career growth, I won't deny that the past few months have been tough. In fact, with my wife having her own, home-based business, we are frequently ready to maim each other simply due to my ennui and our constant exposure to each other.

This "I'm so bored that I want to gnaw my fingers off" feeling can happen at other times too. Several years ago, during the last business downturn (or, more specifically, during the Internet bust that occurred earlier this decade), I was working for a small company that produced web-based software. Our pipeline was in the dump and there was little to do, which was scary considering that we had 150 people and a rapidly dwindling bank balance.

To put it bluntly, even though we had some small consulting engagements that kept my team busy some of the time, there was never enough work to engage all of us on a regular basis so we did things to keep us busy. There should be no surprises here: one colleague played an acoustic guitar; another (a foodie) took us to various (and excellent) places for lunch; the rest did other things like surf the net; I played games and chatted with my family via instant messenger.

Even though it was no surprise that the company was going down no one in the development side of the house seemed to take the news seriously even after two rounds of layoffs. And when the company finally made the really hard decision to let go of 50% of the remaining staff (starting with the resignation of the executive management team), we found ourselves wondering how we were going to bounce back.

Well, I didn't (not quickly at least). I was out of work for 4 months, used a significant portion of our savings, and only because a friend of mine had a lot of contacts did I start work again as an independent consultant doing application development at one of the media companies.

If I had the wisdom to do so, there were several things that I could have done that would have lessened the blow of my layoff.

Education. .NET was already in the late stages of its beta and was already generating huge amounts of buzz. I had not bothered to look at it (mostly due to Microsoft's never ending reputation of not being able to release something worthwhile in its first release; I decided to wait until version 1.1), yet I could have been on the cusp of one of the biggest software development movements in recent memory.

Adapt. My colleagues in sales, marketing, and other areas of the business were busy to some degree but not so busy that they wouldn't have been able to show me what their job entailed and especially how they fulfilled the responsibilities that their position carried. This exposure, while it would not have made me an expert, would have added to my overall value to the organizations that I worked for in the future.

Market. I knew that my position didn't have enough activity to warrant me staying at the company (unless the company's fortunes reversed), yet I didn't take the opportunity to sell my worth to the decision makers in the company. And while blogs weren't yet all the rage, there were still other ways to get on people's radar (namely the USENET groups, writing letters to the editors of major trade publications, etc.) that I didn't take advantage of.

Look. By the same token, I knew that my job was in jeopardy. I wasn't willing to admit that the job market, though, was in such a sad state that it would take a few months to find something comparable. Had I done so, I could have started looking for a new position much sooner.

My point is that in depressing times it is easy to allow yourself to give in to despair, yet this is exactly the time when you can take advantage of slower periods of activity to better yourself as a professional. Louis Pasteur once said, "luck favors the prepared mind." Prepare yourself, then, for changes ahead and you'll be able to focus on the execution when those changes occur rather than lose your focus as you wonder what to do next.

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