Career Success in a Bumpy Economy

After setbacks, IT professionals discover both tangible and intangible new perks

When IT spending recovers, many IT professionals will be watching for an attendant recovery—of their overall compensation, which, in the midst of a protracted economic downturn, was often drastically slashed.

It wasn’t always that way, of course: During the late 1990’s and through the first year of the new millennium, IT professionals were typically feted with robust compensation packages that supplemented their base salaries with stock options, cash bonuses, and other perks.

The economic downturn altered that calculus a bit, however. Consider the case of George Morris, a Cisco certified professional and regional project manager with IBM Software Group. In an interview last year, Morris acknowledged that the “frivolous” bonuses and open-ended training and travel arrangements that he enjoyed at the height of the economic boom had all been eliminated by early 2002. At the same time, he stressed, he was content with the level of compensation that he then enjoyed—especially in view of the alternatives. “I command a salary and [compensation] plan relative to [more than 10] years of expertise in this field,” he said at the time.

That all changed in June of last year, when Morris was abruptly laid off by Big Blue. Shortly after being let go, he speculated that he’d have difficulty finding a job earning within $30,000 of his previous salary.

In light of reversals of fortune experienced by IT professionals such as George Morris, it was perhaps understandable that many IT workers considered themselves lucky if their cash bonuses were the only things eliminated by their employers.

In a survey of Cisco certified professionals conducted by last year, for example, 43 percent of respondents said that they didn’t expect to receive a cash bonus of any kind during 2002. The upshot, as one professional suggested at the time, was that things could be far worse: “My employer does well with my compensation, but 2001 was not nearly as good as 2000. My bonus drop[ped] tremendously because of the economy,” noted Bruce Tucker, a lead technical customer support manager with a database vendor based in the West.

In the same survey, IT professionals reported that other forms of extra-salary compensation items, such as stock options, were also down in 2002. In an especially ironic twist, however, some IT professionals said that they were no longer interested in receiving stock options as a form of additional compensation. “I've had stock at different companies and I've never liked it. I would rather have cash [than] invest in my own 401k,” Tucker related.

Even as many tangible forms of extra-salary compensation have evaporated, however, some IT workers report that they have discovered intangible benefits to their new situations.

Take Andrew Baker. A seasoned IT executive who has worked with investment firms Bear Sterns & Co. Inc. and educational testing service Princeton Review Inc., Baker says that in late 2002 he left his position with Princeton Review “because it really wasn't working out from a career growth perspective, and for a few political reasons as well.” Since then, he reports, he’s been “keeping [his] eyes open for the right opportunity.”

He’s also pursued a long-time interest—consulting. Over the last few months, especially, he’s ratcheted up his efforts to recruit clients for his consulting and systems integration venture, Brainwave Consulting. The result, he now says, is that he’s “having a lot more fun and a lot less work-related stress.”

Meanwhile, the overall compensation story has also gotten much better for George Morris, who—when last we checked in with him—fully expected to take a new job at a substantial pay cut. Surprisingly enough, Morris now reports, he actually had his pick of job positions after being laid-off by Big Blue.

First was an opportunity with a non-profit organization that, he speculates, “would have been one of the greatest IT opportunities I've ever had in my 18 or so years in the field.” The only catch: the job would entail an annual $15,000 pay cut from the salary he once earned with Big Blue. In spite of the “massive” lifestyle changes that such a reduction in salary would require, he confirms, Morris decided that the technical opportunity and attractiveness of the position were worth a lifestyle change, and he prepared to call and accept the offer.

Shortly after he reached his decision, Morris reports, he received a phone call from an IBM Premier Business Partner who told him that “the contract that I thought was improbable at best had been signed.” In spite of the attractiveness of the job with the non-profit, Morris allows that he was swayed by a couple of perks: a “sizeable raise” and a greater degree of responsibility.

The result, he happily indicates, is that he’s now making considerably more than he did in his old position with the IBM Software Group. “I went from being a level-2 Network and level-3 Client Support Manager to basically a [junior] architect role in a more highly-specialized field, albeit a field that I did not have nearly as much experience in.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.