Career advice: Preparing for after the recession

Published: July 14th, 2009

New projects are hard to come by at my company these days, but I feel that when the economy improves, the dam will burst and we’ll be flooded with initiatives. What would a wise integrator do during these relatively quiet times to prepare for the better days ahead? My thoughts would be to work on improving your “tool box” — investing in tools to help your company put together and implement its SOA environment, integrate internal and external clouds, roll out SaaS solutions, deploy virtualized environments, etc. Tools you develop now will enable you to put together stronger proposals in the future, at a lower cost. The same thing holds true for developing your skill sets in key technologies, again to improve your competiveness down the road.

One other area to consider: open-source solutions. Having strong knowledge of open-source alternatives to purchased products can give you an edge over competitors that are only offering purchased package solutions. Giving your customers options, especially a lower-cost option, should help you get work from companies that can’t afford a purchased package solution. Open-source solutions are going to be more and more viable in the future.

My company (Qualcomm Inc), is in a highly seasonal business, and we’ve always hired contractors starting in June to help out, especially with the Web site, maxing out in November and December and then terminating them all abruptly in January. This year, no contractors. Already, the workload for the staff is crippling morale, but management says demand will be lower this season and we can’t afford the contractors. I’m afraid we’ll all be burned out before the holidays arrive. What can we do? This is a tough one; these types of downturns always are. I’m assuming that the rest of the company is dealing with similar demands. If so, the messaging to your team should be along the lines of, “We are all in this together.” Getting your team some recognition for their efforts is important. If you can get the CEO or other high-level executives to stop by and talk about the business and the importance of the work on the Web site, that would be good for morale. At Qualcomm, we use something we call “QualStars” for exceptional work. There are different levels of “gifts” tied to these, anything from a $20 Starbucks card to a $1,000 check from the company. These are always given out publicly, sometimes to each member of a team for exceptional work as a project team. Sounds like your team might be able to earn something like this for everyone on the team.

If the team is working a lot on evenings or weekends, then providing some other benefits can also be of value. On a big project we did a while back, we had pizza delivered every Saturday. Toward the end, when it really got crazy, we also provided dinners every weeknight. We also set up break rooms where people could unwind. We loaded it up with games, puzzles, even a pingpong table, and of course, plenty of food and drinks. Coffee, popcorn, Mountain Dew, Jolt Cola, M&M’s, Red Bull, etc. Anything with sugar and/or caffeine.

I’ve come to realize that the IT department I joined last fall is the most dysfunctional place I’ve ever worked. Communication skills are practically non-existent. I’m an IT director, so I obviously can’t do much to heal the organization from my middling position, although I am trying to do the best with my little part of the IT world and be a good example for other leaders in the department. Clearly, I failed in my due diligence before I made this move, but what’s my best option now? I used to spend a lot of energy (and a lot of sleepless nights) trying to change things and people that were really outside of my control. Now I focus on trying to improve myself and my team. I’ve found that over time, if my team and I are functioning well, then it tends to be contagious, and other people and groups start picking up our traits.

Of course, some situations are so bad that no matter what you do, it is just bad news, and not healthy. There is no sense being miserable. If this is one of those situations where there is no real hope, then I would continue to do the best job I could, while actively looking around for something better. It used to be that people who moved around a lot were viewed negatively. Now, in many cases, candidates who have experience in different jobs and companies are looked at favorably, as long as the job hopping is not extreme. I don’t think a shift from a bad situation is going to hurt your career.

Having lost my job early in the recession, and with no luck in finding something new, I’ve decided to ride out the storm by going back to school. (I have a wonderful wife who is making this possible.) I have been working in networking for years and am up to date with all the gear in that area. Any suggestions on areas of study? Depending on your interests, I would consider one of two tracks. The first track is to stay technical. If that’s your choice, I would consider moving “up the stack” and learning more about servers, storage, service-orientated architecture, virtualization, etc. The line between pure networking and other skill sets/technologies in the IT infrastructure space is getting blurred. It’s tough to only have one skill set these days. Combining networking skills with virtualization, for example, should be a high-demand combination.

Alternatively, you could move into IT security. People with good security skills always seem to be in demand. Threats from hackers are increasing at an alarming rate, and good security folks are hard to find. Combining networking skills with security skills would be another high-demand skill set in the technical specialist area.

If you want to take a different route, the second track is an MBA or similar degree. Such degrees are very valuable. Folks that have good business skills, combined with excellent technical skills, make great IT managers, IT architects, IT project managers, etc. I always look for that skill combination when I am hiring.

One final note: Develop your communication skills. The courses in college that had the most benefit long term on my career were the business writing and public speaking courses I took. Being able to communicate well will help your career regardless of whether you stay technical or move closer to the business side of IT.

What person most helped shape you as the leader you are today? This is a tough question. There have been a number of great leaders that I have worked with and for here at Qualcomm. Since I am forced to pick just one, I would have to say Rich Sulpizio. Rich started off in IT before moving into a business role. He was actually the head of IT at the company I first joined out of college. Several years later, he joined Qualcomm after I had been here a few years. He quickly moved into a COO role at Qualcomm before taking different roles running various divisions at Qualcomm before finishing up as president. I reported to him several times, and also had him as a customer in several of his roles.

From Rich I learned that making decisions in IT isn’t about what was best for IT, but rather what’s best for the business. Hopefully, those goals are not in conflict too often, but when they are, the business needs should always trump IT’s needs.

I also learned that service levels are not the only thing to pay attention to. Customer satisfaction is critical, for both internal and external customers. Hitting your SLAs is important, but if your customers are not happy, it doesn’t matter if you hit them. On the flip side, if you are not hitting your SLAs, but your customers are happy, your SLAs may be too high and you may be wasting valuable resources trying to hit targets that don’t matter to your customers. For Qualcomm IT, customer satisfaction is the most critical rating in everyone’s review and can mean the difference between a good and bad review, even if all other goals are met. That’s how important it is to the success of our organization.

Probably the most important lesson was how to communicate effectively, especially with executive management. Rich was sometimes called the “one-second manager.” I found that if I could not make my point within 15 minutes, then I had lost Rich’s focus and I might as well start over. I learned to quickly get to the critical facts, what the pros and cons were, and what actions/decisions I needed from Rich. I use this approach with all types of communication, verbal and written, even my e-mail. It has helped me immensely with all levels of management as I have progressed in my career, and something that I try and teach to all of my team.