In my long and storied IT career (haha!), I have seen many rounds of Reductions in Force (RIFs) and layoffs. When a company sells a division, spins off a business, or shows less-than-positive revenue, we invariably see some people, deserving or not, get their walking papers. I have to be completely candid and say that it sucks when there are layoffs. In some cases, especially now (in the worst economic climate in 50 years), there is nothing you can do about losing your position. You may be the best of the best, but sometimes it is just your turn.
There are a lot of things you can do to make yourself valuable to your current employer and desirable as an employee should you happen to be laid-off. Fear and uncertainty can paralyze you and render you ineffective. Guess what? Being ineffective is really bad, and can end up making you a prime candidate for dismissal. Or, you can take that fear/uncertainty/doubt, turn it into motivation, and commit to constantly learning and improving.
A good friend and mentor of mine had an email signature that I probably scoffed at when I first saw it years ago. It read: ‘Success is a journey, not a destination’. Regardless of who said it, I think it is a really relevant bit of wisdom these days.
To succeed, I have to keep getting better; to get better, I have to keep learning.
But how, you ask, might you do that? Thanks for asking! Here are some things I find important to combat uncertainty.
- Set professional certification goals for yourself. Ever heard the term ‘paper CCNP’ or ‘paper MCSE’? Yeah, me too. Certifications never guarantee you a job, and if you are not really an expert at the subject matter and claim to be, you will be exposed in short order. On the other hand, if you are a hard worker, have good references AND relevant certifications, you just might get a foot in the door. If you are not worried about losing your job, I believe it’s still vitally important to have cert goals to work toward. Certifications are a benchmark of your ability to learn material and pass a test, but certifications also show that you are willing to make an effort on your own time to acquire new knowledge and skills, to make an investment in yourself. I also strongly believe that you have to set cert goals for yourself; if your boss is setting the goal for you to become CCNA-certified, that is external to you and I feel you are not as likely to follow through and succeed.
- Learn a programming or scripting language. This is very specific, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to show your current or future employers that you are versatile and can use your knowledge to innovate and automate. Being an expert in Cisco IOS or Juniper JUNOS is really great, but knowing how to write a SHELL or PERL script to take care of some routine function shows you value efficiency and are more versatile than the guy that memorizes router commands. It has been my experience that knowing scripting and programming is a desirable skill and sought after.
- Cross train. Anybody out there old enough to remember Bo Jackson? He was the spokes-athlete for Nike’s cross training shoes in the late 1980s. He was both a pro American Footballer and pro Baseball player. His versatility was lauded. You can follow his example in your job and work closely with the folks that you support. Do you work with Linux or Windows admins? Learn about operating systems and processes. Build your own servers (VMWare and other similar systems are great for this), learn to find your way around, read the MAN pages. This kind of cross training will not only help you with learning about Cisco IOS (guess what? It’s an OS!!), but also with troubleshooting and debugging problems. Be a specialist in networking, but learn enough about the other stuff to be valuable as well.
- Learn the Theory. It’s a drag to read RFCs in most cases, but I recommend it. Learning the theory and principles behind what we do in production networks is one of the best ways to add value. If your employer changed tomorrow from Cisco to HP networking gear, would your learning curve be steep? If you have only concentrated on Cisco-specific commands, then yes, probably very. If you know the theory behind a protocol, you can more easily discern what commands, regardless of vendor, you need to use to achieve a certain result.
- READ A LOT. Most people are not readers of books these days, and many argue that the material in books is more often than not outdated and irrelevant. In some cases, that is true. Some are timeless, ‘classics’ of networking if you will, and should be read and re-read. If books are not your thing, find and follow reputable blogs. Take their content and do your own research. [I have to include a shameless, unsolicited plug: Safari Books Online is such a great investment in learning. You have access to literally thousands of books and videos. Check it out, it’s worthwhile.]
- Don’t Ignore Layer 8. Layer 8 you ask? The political layer usually, although in this case, I use Layer 8 to mean the Business Coping Skills Layer. Learn about project management and business processes related to your work. Project management is a really great skill, and in most cases, you can continue to be a technical contributor as well. Any situation in which you can lead others and add value to projects is a good idea.
So there is my take on making yourself relevant and valuable. It is by no means comprehensive, and if your employer is laying people off, it may not be possible, in spite of your efforts, to stay employed there. Be prepared, be knowledgeable, work hard, and always have a plan for when the unpleasant happens.