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How to stay up in a down economy

It doesn't take a $250 visit to a psychotherapist to confirm what you feel in your gut each morning when you wake up — it's depressing out there. With market volatility, economic instability, pink slips and the ongoing threat of yet another round of IT layoffs — no wonder you feel like diving back under the covers.

If you've been let go, you might worry that you'll never work again. If you've escaped a layoff, “it's very discouraging when you see colleagues leave, because these people were your friends,” says Beverly Lieberman, an IT recruiter and career coach and president of Halbrecht Lieberman Associates Inc.

Employees may feel trapped in a company where “they're sort of grateful to be still working, but they're insecure,” she says, because virtually no employer is making any guarantees about IT or any other kind of job.

“Everybody is saying you can write off 2009 because there are no indicators it will get any better,” Lieberman concludes. “We're praying for 2010.”

But that doesn't mean you have to spend the rest of the year as an emotional cellar dweller. It's not easy, but it is possible for tech pros to nurture themselves and even bolster their professional credentials during these tough times, whether you're laid off and looking, or left behind and overworked.

So how exactly do you go about staying up in a down economy? Computerworld gathered tips from a quartet of IT career experts, including Lieberman; Boston-area career coach and author Naomi Karten; IT career expert, author and Computerworld columnist Paul Glen; and Nagesh Belludi, a professional software engineer and program manager at a large multinational company who also regularly counsels IT professionals. Here's their advice:

1. Return to Your Roots

Remember why you first got into information technology? Bring back some of that enthusiasm — and maybe even master a new skill — by doing something you'd never be assigned to do on the job, just for the sheer technological challenge of it.

Write a new program, fix one that's been broken and bugging you for ages, or master a whole new programming language. Or use your tech skills to connect with the world: Build a Web site, create and post an original video on YouTube, or start a blog to share your IT views or showcase your skills. Heck, learn the functions — all of them — of your smartphone.

2. Get the Most From Social Networking

Building and maintaining a network is important even in good times, but being connected with friends and colleagues can be especially valuable now. So take full advantage of social networking opportunities via Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other online communities.

A network of contacts can yield advance notice of a company that's hiring — or laying people off. More broadly, social networking can help you read the tea leaves about the health of various vertical markets. For example, if several of your contacts recently found work in health care or switched out of manufacturing, you'll get an idea of what the future holds for those industries.

Finally, simple human interaction can be uplifting, even if it is electronic. Reconnecting with high school friends, college buddies and former co-workers won't necessarily help your career directly, but it can do wonders for your outlook by reminding you who you were before you felt like you were nothing but a job or a job search.

3. Get Out Into the Real World

If you live near a university, check out its technology transfer center. These are university-supported incubators for technology research and start-up tech companies.

Personnel in technology transfer centers excel at helping people sell the business benefits of technology — a skill that IT professionals could often use help with.

“People in IT do not know how to sell themselves. When you look at programmers' résumés and how they interview, they talk about their skills in terms of C++ and other technical languages,” says Belludi. “They don't explain that a project they worked on saved their company hundreds of thousands of dollars or what the business benefits of a project were.”

Beyond that, if you're thinking at all about striking out on your own or working for a small business, check out local entrepreneur clubs and small-business associations. The beauty of smaller, local clubs and associations is that they offer the opportunity to have face-to-face contact with peers.

4. Improve Your Soft Skills

Working on your communication, negotiation, relationship-building and presentation talents — the so-called soft skills — can maintain your sense of self-worth now and help you nail a promotion or land a new job in the future.

Courses that teach these skills are widely available at low cost at adult education centers and, in some areas, through the public library. Be sure to practice the skills you learn. Write reviews on Amazon.com — you could share your thoughts on IT-specific books or any other book or product that excites you. Think of your reviews as an opportunity to practice your writing and get a little visibility.

Or go a step further and submit a written proposal to speak at a professional association meeting, advises Karten. Those groups are always seeking speakers, and they can benefit from your wisdom and lessons learned. Being on their agenda creates professional connections that can prove useful, and it adds a credential to your résumé.

5. Get Smart

Keep sharp mentally and position yourself for the economic upturn by pursuing technical certifications and learning new technical and business skills now. If you've been thinking about a bachelor's or master's degree, for example, now is the time to enroll. If you're a manager and want to make it to CIO, enroll in an MBA program. If you have your sights set on being a chief technology officer, go after a master's degree in computer science.

A more affordable option is to attend webinars hosted by vendors, consultancies and research firms, often at no charge. Doing so can help you feel more in touch with the world outside your office. Webinars can help you stay abreast of the latest tech trends, and they're an excellent option for the overworked IT pro whose company budget no longer allows for formal training.

6. Don't Take It Personally

This downturn is affecting companies in every sector and employees of every rank.

As companies cut costs, they're forced to either overwork or lay off experienced, highly qualified IT professionals who have done nothing but superb work.

For people still on the job who find themselves constantly worrying about when and where the ax will next fall, Paul Glen has this advice: “Worry about things that are in your control only. Don't watch too much CNN. It just induces hysteria. Look around your business to understand the real risks.”

If you've been laid off, remember, it's not you; it's the economy.

“Being laid off is never considered a negative when managers interview these days,” says Belludi. “So IT folks should be candid about the fact that they were laid off. We ask what lessons they've learned and what take-aways they have from the problems they've experienced while being laid off.”

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