30 July 2009

Tales from the job search trenches

As a newly minted member of the growing unemployed masses, I have jumped head-first into my job search efforts brimming over with enthusiasm (ask me in December if I am still so geared up). Things have sure changed from previous times in my career when I was looking for employment. Yes, there is a challenging economic environment, but the tools and strategies have changed as well.

When I saw the writing on the wall about my job several months ago, I was anxious about what I might wind up doing if I became unemployed. Considering how worried I was earlier this year, I am actually surprised that I am enthusiastic and feeling downright excited about the new opportunities that are lurking out there. I don’t claim to have found the magic solution to job searching in the post-modern era, but my hope is that by sharing my strategies, and thoughts, I might inspire others, and perhaps hear suggestions from readers that I can learn from. If nothing else, all the activities, and strategies, I am using have really lifted my spirits.

My current job search strategy is as follows:

1. Network like MAD!

Connecting with old colleagues, friends, and associates, is the cornerstone of my job search. I particularly love using LinkedIn. Several months ago I only had about 3 members in my LinkedIn network and today I have 228. I know that my LinkedIn network is pretty small compared to those who have many thousands, but I have already been seeing dividends from my networking efforts.

I started networking by searching for people I had worked with, both in my most recent, and past jobs. I was astounded to find out how many people I knew were on LinkedIn! I was able to connect to one or two people I had known from a job 20 years ago, and then discovered many other ex-colleagues when I looked at who were in my friend’s networks. Soon, I had re-connected with most of the people I had ever worked with, even folks I hadn’t spoken with in over a decade.

Once I connect to people on LinkedIn, I write them a note telling them what I’ve been up to, and mentioning that I am eager to hear about any opportunities in product or program management they might know about. I have gotten several leads this way, as well as good advice. As a bonus, I rekindled a lot of friendships that had lain dormant for far too long.

I am a BIG fan of using LinkedIn recommendations. In general, I write a short recommendation for anyone I have ever worked with for whom I can think of something positive to say. So far I have written 130 recommendations (some are more verbose than others). In fact, I quite often don’t even ask individuals to connect with me on LinkedIn, I just send them a recommendation. People can’t make recommendations visible on their LinkedIn profiles without first connecting to the person who wrote it, and I have noticed that very few people will decline the gift of showing a recommendation to the world (and thereby join my network). This also puts future conversations (e.g. asking for introductions) I have with my contacts on a positive tone, since I have done something nice for them. There is the added bonus that writing a recommendation for someone periodically inspires others to reciprocate (I now have 26 recommendations written for me).

LinkedIn searches for recruiters who work for various employers I am interested in have also been productive, and not only resulted in requests for my resume, but actual job interviews.

Groups on LinkedIn are also useful as places to look for information, and make new acquaintances in areas that interest me. I have joined a bunch of groups in the Seattle area, as well as some professional communities.

I have also started attending job seeker networking events in my area, and have met some really interesting people this way, who have a lot of ideas to share. Getting out of the house and meeting people is important. There is even a group of job seekers that meets at my church twice a month that has been been helpful as a support group.

2. Applying for jobs

There is just no substitution for the old fashioned slog of applying for jobs. I have been using a variety of job posting internet sites to look for openings, and then sending in my resume. Some of the job search places I have used are: craigslist, LinkedIn, SeattleJobs, and monster. However, it also doesn’t hurt to go directly to the web site of an employer I am interested in and searching for their openings.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any single place to look for job openings. I see jobs posted on Craiglist that never show up anywhere else, and vice-versa.

When I do find a job posting that interests me, I always go to LinkedIn and search for people who work at that firm. Invariably, I usually find that at least someone I know has a friend working at the prospective employer (which LinkedIn makes it easy to see when viewing the people it finds in searches). My goal is to get an introduction to someone at the firm, and give that person my resume. Recently, I even discovered that my next door neighbour was a friend of a hiring manager at a local firm that had a promising job opening. I have asked my neighbor to make introductions.

3. Lending a hand

I am a huge believer in the reciprocal benefits of helping others. Certainly, people are more willing to help me if I have helped them, but there are many other ways that volunteer work can reap dividends. I first picked up many of the skills I use in my career through volunteering. I worked for free at a computer store when I was 13, since the employment laws prohibited me from doing ANY work and that was the only way I could get the experience I wanted. Over the years I have continued to do volunteer work to pick up new skills even while I was gainfully employed elsewhere. I posted on USENET (the early Internet community) back in the early ‘90s offering to setup NetWare 4 servers for free, and found myself working late at night in server rooms of San Francisco area bio-medical firms, setting up their latest systems.

Recently, I have started a community on LinkedIn, called “WorkFree”, just for this purpose. Individuals can post messages about their interest to do free work in particular areas, and employers can advertise their interest in getting some free work done.

I have found other opportunities to lend my expertise, and ideas, to everyone who is interested in talking. Even though a recommendation a good friend made to an analyst firm discovered they had no openings, I took advantage of the contacts to offer my services to provide insights on the technology industry for free. Who knows what the friendships I am building through my conversations with various industry experts will lead to, even years down the road…

I also love helping other people with their careers. One of my friends recently became unemployed himself, and I suggested that he write a paper on an open source IT project he had been doing at his previous employer. I will help edit this paper, and then promote it on newsgroups and blogs that deal with this kind of technology. My friend has picked up a huge amount of valuable expertise, that could get him noticed by many potential employers. We just have to get the word out. This also helps me by making it possible to bask in the glow of my friend’s expertise. It doesn’t hurt me one bit to be seen (and noticed) as someone who finds great new technologies, or people. Hey, marketing is something I do, and being able to successfully promote my friends only helps grow my portfolio of show-case marketing efforts.

I am now actively looking for other such opportunities to help people in their job searches.

4. Becoming an entrepreneur

As if my job search, and volunteer, efforts weren’t taking up enough of my time, I have also taken on the task of helping a good friend with his web startup. He has spent years, and a lot of his own capital, building a very impressive project and business management system. I am helping find beta volunteers willing to manage their businesses on this system, building real-world case studies that will allow us to get more investment.

My ability to make any money from my efforts are slim, but this gives me yet another opportunity demonstrate my marketing skills, as well as create a great way to do more networking.

5. Home grown research

On top of all of this, I have also undertaken the task of starting up my own market research project. I have been keenly interested in understanding how recessions impact technology for many years, and now that I am between jobs I am free to indulge my curiosity to its fullest, in exploring this subject. I had started the “Recession Study Group" club at Microsoft, back in 2005, which has grown to over 200 members, but this was always just an extra-curricular effort and my ability to openly investigate this subject was limited.

Now, however, I have constructed a survey that asks both consumers and IT professionals how the economic downturn has changed their spending (and posting it to newsgroups, and contacting IT bloggers asking if they would be interested in posting it). I am following up with interviews of a dozen or so consumers and IT professionals to flesh out the results. I will be writing up a full report, with analysis, on my blog in the coming weeks.

One of my theories is that deep recessions can act as catalysts for permanent changes in the use of technology. When times are good, people are content to keep spending as they always have, but when times are tough, they will more seriously consider alternatives that might have been easy to dismiss in happier times.

Conducting this research is definitely fun, but I hope it will also further help in my networking efforts, and serve as yet another showcase for my work. It’s not like I can use the research studies I did at Microsoft as examples of my work, since all that data is proprietary.

What doesn’t work

1. External recruiters

I spent a lot of time getting in touch with recruiters, doing searches on LinkedIn and writing template introductory notes to some 200 people in this field. I have had a lot of positive responses from these external recruiters (and even spoken with over a dozen of them on the phone or in person), but almost no solid leads have resulted from all this effort. I get the definite impression that external recruiters are becoming increasingly frozen out of many employers, who are reluctant to pay high fees when the volume of candidates applying for jobs DIRECTLY to their own web sites is so massive.

Some recruiters have given me good advice on my resume, and how to focus my job search efforts, but not a one has come up with promising job openings.

2. Posting resume to on-line job boards or applying to jobs on employer web sites

Just throwing my resume into the mass of CVs swamping HR databases won’t get you anywhere. In my situation, in particular, my lack of official credentials or a college degree almost certainly means I will flunk any automated screening system. The only way to get noticed is to use my network to find an acquaintance or friend who can recommend me to someone they know in a company I am interested in.

From here to eternity…

I am sure that my job search strategy will change over time. I might be biting off more than I can reasonably chew by undertaking all these varying projects, but for the moment I think they complement one another. Ask me again in a couple months how well that is turning out.

There are many other things I need to consider adding to my repertoire. A number of people have suggested I start using Twitter and Facebook as part of my networking tools, but I have been reluctant to invest the time in still more social networking tools. Facebook, in particular, seems to be much more of a tool for socializing than “networking”, and has become incredibly busy with trivia. Still, maybe I should give it another look.

NOTE: I have posted some of my techniques for using LinkedIn as well as a podcast on how to contact people at firms you want to work for and build relationships. Also, you can listen to my series of my "Anatomy of a job search" podcasts where I interview fellow-job seekers about their search strategies and brainstorm ways to improve their effectiveness.

Mikhail's LinkedIn tips

Linked in tips:
  • Put your e-mail address in your name, so that people can easily contact you without having to send an invitation.
  • Write recommendations for everyone with whom you have had a good work experience (even if it was short term).
  • Join groups for your region, and professional areas.
  • Put effort into building your profile into a de-facto resume, with details about your job experience and skills.
  • Search for recruiters at employers you are interested in and contact them about opportunities.

Feel free to check out my own LinkedIn profile for an example. You can also read a more in-depth description of how I am using LinkedIn (and other tools) as part of my job search strategy.

29 July 2009

Deflation strikes Doritos

The deflationary forces keep sneaking up on us. Here is an example of how some super-market items are finally starting to see deflation. It’s telling, however, that prices for these items haven’t changed. Instead, producers are simply offering more goods for the same amount of money.

Your eyes are not deceiving you in the grocery store. Yes, your bag of Doritos just got
bigger. No, the price didn't change

Last year, food packages
shrank as food-makers, dealing with record high ingredient costs, struggled to
maintain their profits. But the weakened economy has caused a slump in demand
for ingredients such as corn and oil, pushing those prices back down. With lower
ingredient costs -- and higher consumer demand for more value -- some brands
such as Frito-Lay are shifting back to bigger packages, and doing it without
raising prices.

This fits a pattern I’ve been seeing lately. Deflation is indeed rearing its, head, but it doesn’t always show up in the list prices. For example, many private schools are offering far more generous financial aid packages (to a much greater portion of students) rather than reducing their official tuition rates. We see a similar phenomenon in other areas where list prices remain high, but increasing numbers of add-ons are offered at no extra cost. A five year warranty? No problem it’s built into the price. You can get almost anything upgraded these days without paying a “premium” price.

At some point overt deflation will break out in even these laggard areas of the economy. House builders tried to stave off price reductions for years by offering ever more expensive inducements (including outright cash kick-backs), but eventually there was no alternative but to just drop the prices. Everyone else is just catching up.

27 July 2009

The recession and you: has the economy changed your IT spending?

If you can spare about 10 minutes to take a survey I would love to hear about how the global recession is (or is not) changing your personal or organizational IT plans.


This is part of a study I am conducting for my own blog (http://www.surkan.com/), and I will be making the results freely available in the coming weeks. I am doing this as part of my own private research effort, and it isn't being done on the behalf of any corporations or clients. This subject (i.e. how the economy impacts IT trends) is something that has fascinated me for years while I was employed as a market researcher at Microsoft, and now that I am no longer with the firm I am free to really explore the subject.

I don’t have any fancy prizes, or incentives, to offer you for taking the survey (i.e. I don’t have any kind of research budget), but I can promise the reward that comes from helping your fellow man, and making the world a better place.

Ok, that’s a little over the top… But your contribution (through answering the survey questions) will go towards helping the tech industry understand how to better meet your needs in a changed world. If nothing else, the results of this study should prove to be an interesting read for anyone. :)

Michael Surkan

P.S. This survey is designed so that people who say they have an IT related job will be shown enterprise-type questions. Everyone else will see questions about technology spending in the home. You are free to take the survey twice if you are particularly ambitious, answering both the enterprise and consumer IT sections.

P.P.S. If you are are interested in publishing a link to this survey on your own blog, or publication, please e-mail me directly at msurkan at hotmail.com and I will send you a custom URL. This will allow us to track the responses from your own readers, allowing you to see how your audience responses differ from the over-all total. I am happy to share the raw results with you (excluding any private information), so you can write your own stories.

12 July 2009

Free at last!

Now that I am footloose and fancy free (i.e. on a hiatus between jobs), I am going to use the coming weeks to explore some ideas I’ve been working on regarding how the PC, and software industry, are going to evolve in the coming years. I am finally able to put some thought into things that I was too busy to contemplate in depth during recent years. In particular, I will discuss how the global recession (which will likely get considerably worse in the next few years) could act as a catalyst for significant change.

When times are good, consumers and enterprises are willing to keep doing things the way they always have. When times are lean, and unpredictable, people are willing to explore new alternatives that may help them better deal with the new environment. New inventions are rarely created during depressions (i.e. there is a substantial decline in patent filings every time the economy contracts), but the depressions themselves can often lead to the widespread adoption of technologies that had previously only been on the periphery.

Many of the biggest changes we may see occur are in areas that gurus have long foreseen as ripe for transition, but where predictions have consistently been proved wrong due to the momentum older product enjoyed during the salad days.

Stay tuned!

Seeking software developer guinea pigs for on-line project management

If you are interested in finding a way to manage your software development projects, helping improve communications, efficiency, and timeliness, please write intranetsites@surkan.com to enquire about being a beta tester for a new end-to-end on-line project management tool. This software has already proven itself as a great help to one small distributed web software development team (with team members in places as diverse as the Philippines, Canada, and Russia).

  • Track entire projects, including e-mails, customer requirements, and specifications from the beginning to end of project. Everyone on the project stays on the same page.
  • Complete versioning and history on every document in the system (can easily revert back to whatever previous version you wish).
  • Handle project and task management, automatically determined delivery dates and assigning tasks to the appropriate people. It is easy to tell when things are falling behind (and automatically re-adjusting schedules in real-time) before they get out of hand.
  • Automatic costing, easily showing how much a project will cost (with labour, materials, etc) and the profit margins.
  • Completely web-based architecture doesn’t require any local software, and can be easily used by an team-members wherever they are in the world.
  • Serves as core of your own public web site, allowing you to automatically turn any document into public web pages.
  • Granular permissions allowing administrator to define how much, or little, of system each individual participant can access.

There would be no charge for using this software for at least 6 months from first registration. Future prices for beta testers will be capped at nothing more than the cost of hosting the servers for a year after the first 6 month trial (e.g. if you setup a web site that has huge amounts of traffic and downloads your costs will rise accordingly). To give some perspective, this software has already been licensed to some small manufacturers for upwards of $40,000 a year. Being able to use this for free is a steal.

The prime motivation for making this offer is to because we want to move into the software development market. We expect our beta users to put some effort into creating project template definitions defining the standard tasks in their development process, which we can then use to create a generic turn-key solution for future customers. Just imagine that we are giving you some spreadsheet software, but want you to create a detailed spreadsheet template that can be used by others who want to do similar things.

In the interests of full disclosure, the UI is rough around the edges right now, and wouldn’t be appropriate for rank technology novices (for doing the actual setup and definition of the projects that are being managed, day-to-day usage could be handled by many people). This software works best for small organizations with less than 200 developers or testers. You can check out more details of the features of this product, and watch a demonstration video.

10 July 2009

the BIG event

Today (July 10th, 2009) Microsoft and I parted ways, and I will no longer be sharing the hallowed electronic ether with the great community of people I have come to know and befriend in my 8 years at the company.

I have sure had a lot of fun in Product Marketing (back with SMS & MOM), Program Management (blame me for the Windows Firewall, the Windows Filtering Platform and Teredo), and Product Planning. I am actually looking forward to finding new opportunities. Microsoft feels like a BIG company these days, and I am looking forward to working somewhere with a little less process and role specialization. Frankly, I understand that it is necessary for a company of Microsoft’s size to adopt a more methodical process, and bureaucracy. I look forward to working in an entrepreneurial environment.

I will certainly miss the discussions and debates of the Recession Study Group (a club I setup at Microsoft back in 2005).

I feel like I have done some of the best work of my career over the past year. Some of the initiatives I started are bearing real fruit (e.g. putting plans in place to FINALLY manage our Windows APIs), and my research around 64-bit computing and the needs of web developers have gotten real traction. I see lots of groups using my research in their presentations. At least I can leave feeling proud of my work, and knowing that I have made a real impact.

If anyone wishes to reach me just write michael@surkan.com. Feel free to join my network on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/in/msurkan). You might want to also check out a new group I created on LinkedIn called “WorkFree”, to help people find pro-bono work to further their careers.


P.S. I am certainly looking for job opportunities right now, and would love to hear any ideas as to people or organizations that might be interested in a scrappy program or product marketing type. I will likely do some contract work in the short-term, while looking for new opportunities, so I am open to temporary projects too.

08 July 2009

Rosenberg says the bear market is here to stay

This is one of the best overviews of where there economy is, and will be headed in the coming years, I have heard anywhere. David isn't alarmist, and he uses rational arguments (with facts and historical comparisons) to explain how we are in the midst of a long term cyclical bear market that will experience a lot of volatility in the coming years. This is no prophet of the apocalypse. Life will go on, we will eventually get through this, but things will be rough for many years.

It's very sobering to hear how there have been lengthy periods where bear markets prevailed, despite large rallies along the way. I laughed when I heard the warning to bond bears, pointing out that US treasury yields fell in the '30s DESPITE massive government stimulus and spending.

Of course, it only stands to reason that such a level-headed perspective on the economy would come from the mouth of a Canadian.

The Never-Ending Bear Market

Before we get too excited about the possible end of the recession, and an economic recovery, it is important to get a bit of perspective. Deflationary depressions (which is what we are experiencing) can be long-drawn out affairs. The 1930s was one of the most volatile periods for the Dow Industrials on record. More recently, Japan has been experiencing one massive bear market since 1989.

The chart below says it all. There has been at least 5 major rallies in the Nikkei since 1989 (depending how you count), only to have the market tank even lower lows. Some of those rallies even lasted for a good period of time. The rally in the 2000s lasted over 5 years (rising some 140% from the 2003 bottom) , before new 20 year lows were reached in 2008.

If the US in entering a lengthy period of credit deflation (which is a theory I subscribe to), then there is a good chance the rally of 2009 will fail, and the markets will reach new lows. Unfortunately, I don’t think we will have the luxury of years before this rally peters out.

If anything meteoric rallies are sure-fire sell signals. Swift rallies (that cover a lot of ground in a short period of time) almost always occur during bear markets. The great rally of 2009 isn't any different.

01 July 2009

The Job Market: Zero Sum Game?

Over the past month travelling around Europe, I have been truly amazed by the general belief, even by otherwise reasonable folks, that there are more or less a fixed number of jobs available and that automation and delayed retirement can only ascerbate unemployment. These same intellectuals recommend, of course, that we avoid modernization of factories and encourage early retirement to make more jobs available to those entering the work force. The coup de grace is the misguided belief that automation causes wages to fall.

Such logic fails on a number of levels. First, there are unlimited number of potential jobs in a free market, otherwise everybody since Adam would have been unemployed. Given that there are millions more jobs available now than there were 100 years ago illustrates the point.

Secondly, it is healthy that some jobs disappear. The wagon wheel manufacturers and blacksmiths are not missed, nor are the scythe-wielding farmers. In terms of comfort, life was considerably harder back then, and more precarious. A doctor was as likely to make you better as he was to inflict additional injury via misguided treatments.

Some jobs evolved, while others disappeared and millions of new jobs like those involving information technology and the modern service industry appeared. Flight attendants and computer programmers were unimaginable 100 years ago. Any attempts to artificially keep wagon manufacturers in business beyond their usefullness would have led to enormous resource misallocations.

By allowing wagon manufacturers to slowly disappear as cars displaced horse and buggy, a sudden mass layoff was avoided and wagon manufacturers could gradually be integrated into other occupations as they became redundant.

As machines reduce the burden of repetative tasks, and populations become more educated and skilled, life gets better. Hong Kong and Singapore were the havens of low-paying, ¨sweatshop¨ labor only fifty years ago, but their populations have risen to become among the wealthiest and best-educated in the world as their skills and technology improved. At the same time that they have become wealthier, we in the West have not become poorer, nor has the total number of jobs in the West fallen. The common belief that low-skilled manufacturing in China and elsewhere will reduce quality of life world-wide has no foundation in history.

The number of available jobs and potential wages are limited only by restrictions on the elimination of redundant jobs and legal barriers to entry for new competitors or enterprises. Regulations restricting layoffs, working hours and days of operation, like Sunday opening restrictions, can only reduce employment. The true cause of unemployment and reductions in living standards is the lack of free market competition.