Accelerate Your Technology Career During an Economic Downturn

An economic downtown can wreak havoc on the workforce. Taking proactive steps to realign the value of your past experience against changing business needs can help you rise above crisis and accelerate your technology career.

After the burgeoning eCommerce bubble burst in 2001, hundreds of thousands of technology jobs were lost, representing somewhere around 15% of the total technology workforce. As a young technologist with a few years of experience at the recession’s start, I retained a position despite three rounds of layoffs in which I watched many smart technologists get terminated.

Now nearly 20 years later, a similar potential job loss scenario would account for millions of positions. Having served as an executive at multiple startups, my perspective has flipped on whether my job retention was as effortless as I thought at the time. A few key decisions positioned me to go beyond surviving the recession towards building the foundation for a cybersecurity career that thrived as the economy improved.

My experience thriving through the recession suggests that taking the following three actions can help you retain your job, transform your career, and rise above an economic crisis.

Pivot to maximize the value of your experience

Exploding demand for technology professionals and a limited supply has made transitioning between organizations nearly frictionless. The unfortunate side effect is that organizations commoditized technology positions to make filling vacancies more efficient. With the exception of the most coveted specialists, every technology professional is expendable.

To keep from simply being defined by your skills, look for novel ways to apply your expertise to core objectives and add unexpected value. As the first eCommerce wave was overheating in 1999, I turned down a position at a hot new company as a customer relationship management (CRM) specialist. I was concerned about accepting a significant raise to only become one of many on a team with similar skill sets. Instead, I requested a transfer to the new cybersecurity team to explore how advanced data analytics could discover misuse in network traffic. Having recently applied business intelligence tools to discover financial account fraud in an early web app, I realized that the industry was focused on improving revenue efficiency versus detecting bad actors. By crafting a story about how my expertise aligned with an emerging new problem area, I inadvertently defined a new specialist position that I was uniquely suited for.

Become more than just your skills by intimately understanding how your organization is functioning amidst the crisis and position yourself against the critical pathways. Showing that you’re flexible and able to adapt to changing conditions will help executives appreciate your role supporting them as conditions worsen.

Identify opportunities to apply your expertise against new issues

Resilient technology professionals find opportunity in disruption. Sudden changes in the business environment always undermine prior operational assumptions and reveal significant gaps in how organizations execute.

Rapidly shifting your perspective to find emerging challenges will help you proactively discover opportunities to enhance your value to the organization. As a junior application security engineer at the start of the 2001 recession, I was pulled into a weeklong technical workshop for designing the physical infrastructure for a new service offering. Since it was a foreign domain outside of my core expertise, I sought value in participating by listening intently to the heated first-day discussions and sketching a conceptual network architecture based on what I heard. I sent the diagram to my manager late that night to get his feedback. When I walked into the second-day meeting, I was suprised to see the printed architecture distributed around the table and hear senior managers berating it.

Criticism is tough to receive, but sticking your neck out to fill gaps can help make you indispensable. Despite my limited inherent expertise, I was able to provide an important artifact that helped move the team forward and enhance the perceived value of my participation.

Invest in your career to respond to evolving business needs

During an economic downturn, organizations that survive rapidly evolve to be more efficient while seeking novel growth opportunities. Core operating assumptions will be dismissed as executives accept that business conditions will force significant workforce transformation.

Take advantage of the instability by seeking enrichment opportunities that can help realign your expertise to the changing conditions. Having succeeded in defining a new cybersecurity career path as the 2001 recession took hold, I teamed up with a colleague to develop an innovative cybersecurity solution. We invested months of independent time working on the proof-of-concept and were rewarded a coveted RSA Conference speaking slot to demonstrate the idea. Though we were told to cease the work shortly thereafter, we succeeded in impressing our new executive director. Shortly after, I was offered my first management position on a major project.

While there are countless resources available for independent study and enrichment, an economic crisis is typically ripe with great deals on formal education in emerging areas. Vendors offer discounted or free training as a way to build remote engagement and higher education institutions offer discounted online certificate programs to make up for declining enrollment. Taking advantage of those kinds of self-investment options will strengthen your value proposition in an unstable market and better prepare you to recognize new career opportunities as they appear.

Previously published on Medium.com.

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Photo credit: By Ali Yahya on Unsplash