« Starbucks Valencia Syrup Gets the Boot | Main | Everything's Melting! »

January 14, 2007

My Unemployability

I recently finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich's book Bait and Switch, in which she poses as an unemployed white-collar worker trying to find a job. I had previously read Nickel and Dimed, in which she works at various low-paying hourly jobs to explode the myth that all people need to get ahead is a job. Bait and Switch is not as eye-opening as that, but it's still interesting and marvelously well-written (if anybody wants to see Ehrenreich in person, she is speaking Monday night at Town Hall in downtown Seattle, in support of her latest book Dancing in the Streets).

The book got me thinking about what my resume and job prospects would look like, if I became voluntarily or involuntarily separated from Microsoft. I have saleable skills beyond what Ehrenreich could offer; although she would in reality have been a fantastic hire for the PR jobs she was chasing, she was also being anonymous and thus couldn't point to her dozen published books. Instead she had to concoct a resume full of general writing/communication skills, many of them garnered from academia (which she claims, with reason, are viewed as suspect in the job world). Nonetheless my prospects might be somewhat grim. Although Microsoft is happy to have me and I think I contribute valuable work to the company, the skills I have aren't necessarily transferable outside. Partly this is an effect of Microsoft being so big that people specialize more there than at other places, but it's also partly because of my specific situation.

My current job, in particular, is somewhat unique; not many software companies are large enough to have an entire organization devoted to improving their engineering processes. And although I could make the case that I was qualified to be a more general Human Performance Consultant, I don't know if I would be that interested in doing that job outside of Microsoft, and I certainly don't want to work as a traveling consultant, so again this would require a large enough company to have such an internal group.

Stepping back to my previous job as a program manager, I don't know if that job really exists very much outside of Microsoft. Certainly there are companies that emulate Microsoft's structure (such as Amazon) which have the same title, and presumably for the same job, but in most companies the role of "technical non-programmer" doesn't seem to exist.

Then there is being a programmer tout court, or manager of same. Certainly I can code, but I don't really have experience that is relevant to what most companies do: I haven't written ASP.NET pages, or AJAX web apps, or done any SQL work (in the last 17 years anyway). The fact is I've always been a "systems" guy as opposed to an "applications" guy, a producer of APIs as opposed to a consumer of APIs, and although I have oodles of experience in debugging tough multi-threaded code and used to be a dab hand at the Windows kernel debugger, not a lot of companies care about that--there are few places really doing systems programming work. Google, I suppose, looms as a company that likes to hire people who can hack and then figure out what to do with them, but there's not a lot else I can think of, except maybe Amazon again (I'm mentally limiting myself to the Seattle area). I guess there are hardware companies who need people to write device drivers, but then you're the only software person at a hardware company, which I gather can be a bit ego-deflating.

Now, before I am (ha!) inundated with job offers, I should point out that I am perfectly happy at Microsoft and have no plans to leave. And I could no doubt pick up skills like ASP.NET with a couple of months of intense study--but then I would have a dreaded "gap" on my resume. I can see why so many ex-Microsofties become entrepreneurs. If I left Microsoft I might have no choice but to start up a company doing some sort of web-based something, not because I have a burning desire to start such a company, but because nobody would hire me for such a job as I am now, and I would need to spend a year or so working on it just to make myself employable.

Posted by AdamBa at January 14, 2007 09:22 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


I have what basically amounts to a Program Manager job. I work for the software part of Schlumberger, and we have Product Champions. Our job is to lead a particular products direction from a business side (i.e. we make sure the software is doing what it is that our clients really want it to be.) Unfortunately, not just any technical background suffices, since you need to understand some technical bit of the oil industry.

Posted by: Rick Lobrecht at January 15, 2007 03:24 PM

Wouldnt you want to do something different if you worked somewhere else though?

I thought it was natural to get a new life, once you have a new job... but maybe that an opinion of someone still fresh, young and naive

Posted by: Ibrahim at January 15, 2007 10:24 PM

There are analogous PM type jobs all over the tech and other industries. They're called Project Managers. Your skills would be easily transferrable to one of those gigs. IBM even has something called a Project Executive which is actually quite highly paid (not like the pittance at Microsoft).

Posted by: PMs Rock at January 16, 2007 03:26 AM

Other people have already commented on the existence of Program Manager type roles in other companies so I won't repeat that. However I suspect that you'd also be pleasantly surprised at the amount of system level jobs out there.

Your perception of the job market is naturally colored by your current job and the products you interact with daily. In your case your job is at Microsoft and, like most people, you interact with the usual Microsoft products and a bunch of websites. However there is a large ecosystem of computing devices that do not run Windows and do not present their interfaces via a web server.

For instance just think about the telecommunications industry, in particularly the cell phone industry. There are jobs in designing and implementing the basestations and switches in the network, there are jobs in designing and implementing the management systems for the network, a lot of jobs in implementing the cell phone firmware itself and there are jobs implementing the systems that drive the production lines that will spew out 1 billion phones this year. All of these areas have hard-realtime problems at their core that need experienced system level software engineers to solve.

There is a lot more systems level work going on outside of Microsoft beyond Windows device drivers, believe it or not.

Posted by: Andrew at January 16, 2007 10:53 AM

Thanks for the comments.

Rick/PR: I know there are several types of jobs out there with the title Project Manager. One of these is doing schedule tracking, release management, etc. The other is more like the Project Executive where you are the main driver and customer representative on the team. But I think those typically require subject matter expertise in whatever feld.

Ibrahim: I suppose I might want to do something else--the question is could I get hired to do something else.

Andrew: Thanks for the reminder. You're right, I am thinking only of the Microsoft-related ecosystem.

Good to know I am a bit more employable than I thought.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at January 16, 2007 11:23 AM