Career Opportunities

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Project (Parts 1-4)

© Douglas E. Welch 1999

March, 1999

In the past, a person might have worked for one particular department in a company. They often didn't deal much with those outside their department except to trade paperwork. As many of you know, the story today is much different. Gone are the days when single-function departments handled everything internally. Now most companies base their work on "projects." These projects draw talent from all the different functional departments to set up a project group that works together towards a specific goal and a specific deadline.
As you might imagine working at a project-oriented company is quite different than working in one that is arranged along the older functional departments. Projects create a unique collection of advantages and disadvantages and anyone who wishes to build a career at such a company needs to pay close attention to the rules of the game.

Binge and Purge
One of the largest problems facing you today is the large scale hiring and firing that is associated with any project-oriented company. Basically, the company will hire dramatically as a project starts, level off during the height of the project and then, just as dramatically cut staff as the project begins to wind down. Little thought is given to developing a series of projects that allow employees to move from one project to another. Even less thought is given to the talent and experience that are walking out the door at the end of each project cycle.
There is little you can do to change the operating procedures of a company but you can protect yourself and your job by knowing a few guidelines that pertain to all project-oriented companies.

Open Eyes
If you are about to enter a project-oriented company or already work at one, the most important tool is to have an awareness of the work environment. Few companies today provide an extremely stable work environment and project-oriented companies provide even less stability. Therefore, it is up to you to prepare and protect your career as much as possible. There are several ways to go about this.

o Keep your resume and portfolio information as current as possible
You need to be ready to move to a new project or department at a moments notice whether this is inside your current company or out. You should consider updating this information on at least a weekly basis but you must do it at least monthly. Add your latest accomplishments, artwork, programs, marketing info, etc.

o Network as if your life depends on it (because it does)
Success in a project-oriented company depends on connection to people in other departments and other projects. In order to provide the most stability you must be aware of the other projects currently operating in your company. You need to know who is or will be managing these projects and how your skills can best be applied. You will also need to know the other people that are currently attached to the project.

Next week: Networking tips

This month I am discussing project-oriented companies and how best to build a stable position in a sea of instability. Getting to know the people around you is one of the most important guidelines and this week I am offering a few tips on how to do this. You will also need to get to know yourself a little bit better.

Get involved
Does your company have a computer user group, volunteer organization, employee suggestion board or any other social groups? You will find that these are the best way of getting to know other people within the company. One major advantage is the informal information you gain about other departments and projects in the company. There is no better way to learn about what projects are scaling up and what others are about to be cancelled.
It is up to you to unearth this information since most companies tend to keep this information quiet. They don't want outside competitors or even the employees themselves to know what is about to happen on any particular project.
Make sure you pay close attention to company newsletters, memos and other official communications. Often the information that is left out will be more important than what is being said but it is all information you can use.

Know your next step
One of the worst situations to find yourself in is "not knowing where you next job is coming from." You need to always be looking for your next project. This doesn't mean you don't complete your current project, but you need to develop ways to manage your transitions well so that you aren't constantly in fear of your job.
Obviously, doing good work is one of the best ways to stay employed. You don't need to honk your own horn too loudly but make sure you get recognition for those things you do best. There can be problems with too many people wanting you for their next project, but all of us should be so lucky as to be in that much demand.

Know thyself
Once you have a good idea of what the company is looking for, it is time to address your own wants and needs. We all have different methods of working and different desires. Some of us prefer to be on one long-term project that may take years to complete. Others may prefer many quick projects that have a definite beginning, middle and end.
Not only should projects match your skills and desires, they also have to be a good match with your particular work habits. Attaching yourself to the wrong project could leave you looking for a new job, not just a new project.

Next week: The search continues

This week I continue the discussion of project-oriented companies and ways of making your career a long one. While we all have successes in our jobs, when you deal mainly in projects you can't rest on your laurels. Success only lasts as long as someone else's memory.

Success does not guarantee success
Being successful on one project will not mean that you will be automatically assigned to the next project. In fact, if you haven't done your footwork, as mentioned earlier this month, your success might be quickly forgotten.
Perhaps you are a network specialist who is successfully bringing a major project to a close. Nothing can assure you that there will be another project that requires your skills. By developing a diverse set of skills and doing your footwork you can find a place to go instead of waiting for someone to find you.
Even worse, previous success can sometimes land you in a project that isn't right for you. Perhaps the project life cycle is too long or too short. Perhaps you don't fit into the project group as well as you had hoped. Perhaps you were the only person available. Perhaps you are just in over your head. Maybe your experience hasn't prepared you to be where you are. All of the above can happen. Careful consideration on your part can help to avoid this problem and prevent you from setting yourself up for failure.

Think of yourself as a freelance consultant
Taking into account all of the columns this month, it is sometimes best to think of yourself as a freelance consultant instead of a full-time employee. Think of a project end date as the date your entire job will end. As with any consultant this will help drive you to start looking for that next project.
This is very similar to a writer who gives themselves personal deadlines for their writing projects. The deadline acts as a constant reminder of those actions you need to be pursuing to stay employed. Conversely, you will know deep down that you may not be out on the street when the deadline arrives and this gives a certain comfort.
This method doesn't work for everyone, myself included, but it is another tactic you can use on yourself to drive you to a better career. It pays to have as many tactics as possible in your toolbox so that you can adapt to whatever situation might present itself.
It is important that you don't depend on your boss, your project leader or your fellow workers to get you another project. You should be running your own career. Pretend you are running your own company and you need to prepare bids, proposals and other information. The only difference is that instead of trying to get the city garbage hauling contract you are trying to get your next project.

Next Week: Unglamorous but steady

Despite the challenging picture I have painted of project-oriented companies over the last month there is one island of stability even in these types of companies. In fact, it tends to be one of the most neglected areas in almost every company. Long after the projects are completed someone has to support and maintain the services and products developed. The project people will have moved onto new projects and in the worst case the project may fail to achieve its goals because no attention was paid to the issue of maintenance.
While it can be very exciting to be working on a cutting edge project, what happens when those projects are complete? Someone has to support the customers. Someone has to design and implement upgrades. Someone has to deliver new services based around the original project.
Maintenance may be unglamorous but it can be fulfilling and, more importantly, more stable over the long term. Someone has to keep the web site operating, the dial-up service working and the support line answered. It might as well be you.
Look around your current company. Who are the most senior employees? I can almost guarantee that the people who have been at the company the longest are not the project superstars but the rank and file people who actually get the work done.
Not all of us are looking for the high stress, long hours and creative chaos that revolves around major projects. Some of us want to spend more time with our families. Perhaps you get your creative charge outside of work by writing, painting or some other pursuit. No one ever said you had to define yourself by your job.
In truth, more attention needs to be paid to maintenance in almost every company. Too many projects are left to languish without proper support or assistance. How many times have we waited for a new device driver, new software upgrade or seen hopelessly out-of-date information on a web site? Use this problem to your advantage. While everyone else is fighting over a few project jobs, step outside the box and find a stable and perhaps lifetime career.

Over the last month I have detailed the ways that the project-oriented company differs from the old business standards and how to address these changes in the best way possible. We all have to adapt to new ways of doing business and this means managing our own career. High tech careers can be exciting but that excitement shouldn't be wondering what or where your next job is going to be.

Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on Douglas' web page at:

He can reached via email at

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