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Archive for the ‘career choices’ Category

Writers are supposed to have a history of different jobs, and I’ve always done my best to keep that tradition alive – even before I started writing professionally. But looking back, I see that three turning points have brought me to where I am today, each of which was driven more by desperation than careful planning.

The first was my decision to return to university. I had finished my bachelor’s degree in English and Communications four years earlier, but I had done absolutely nothing with it. I was working part time in a book store, because, after five years of university, I was burned out. Just as importantly, I had no idea whatsoever how I wanted to make a living. But the two years off I had promised myself had turned to four, and I was feeling trapped, and more than a bit of a failure. Book stores, I had discovered to my surprise, were not about loving books at all, but selling them, and I might as well have been selling slabs of raw chicken breast in a butcher shop.

Not having a better idea, I listened to the common wisdom, and decided that what my double major amounted to was the first steps in the qualifications I needed to teach. That seemed plausible; I had given poetry seminars at my old high school, and they had gone over well. So I scraped up the recommendations I needed, and applied to both the faculties with which I had an association.

For a while, I considered studying parrots in the Communications Department, and even wrote to Irene Pepperberg, the recognized expert in the field. But my moment of desperation was in December, and the department only took new grad students in September.

By contrast, the English Department would let me start in January. I still wasn’t sure exactly how I would use a second degree, but I could be paid as a teaching assistant while getting it, and the pay and the responsibilities were much better than at the book store. So, for four years as a teaching assistant and seven as a lecturer, I taught, finding the job mostly satisfying, aside from the necessity of occasionally having to fail students.

Slowly, however, that became a dead end job, too. Unless I took my doctorate, the best I could hope for was a non-tenured position as Senior Lecturer, and even those jobs were rare unless my partner and I were prepared to move. We weren’t, and I realized that I was not only in another dead end, but one where my choices could be limited by the whim of the department chair.

Trying to ignore the despair and panic nibbling at the edges of my thoughts, I attended a Saturday afternoon seminar on technical writing at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre campus. My partner picked me up so we could have dinner at her parents’, and, as we drove down the highway through Richmond, I summarized what I had learned about the profession to her.

A long silence fell as we considered the possibilities. Then suddenly, I turned to her and said, “You know, I can do this.”

So I did. I did it so well that I worked largely as a freelance. In four months,  I more than doubled my income, and, in nine months I was hiring sub-contractors. Unlike a surprisingly large amount of technical writers, I had realized that success required the ability to learn my subject – and if there was one thing that all those years of school had taught me, it was how to learn. I also discovered that being able to offer technical writing, marketing, and graphic design made me an all-in-one package that many employers found irresistible.

But that success made me an executive at a couple of startups. When they crashed, I found it hard to return to my base professions – I could see the mistakes that business owners were making, and I had just enough sense to realize that my opinions wouldn’t be welcome, particularly since I would have been correct more often than my employers.

I endured two particularly dreary jobs at companies that were being led into the ground. Then, one afternoon, walking along the Coal Harbour seawall in the autumn sunlight, I realized I could no longer be even conscientious about helping to prepare mediocre proprietary software.

I was already doing the occasional article for Linux.com. Now, in my desperation, I asked Robin (“roblimo”) Miller if he would take me on full-time. To my unending gratitude, he agreed to let me try. At first, I thought I would never manage the dozen stories he expected per month, but soon I was not only meeting my Linux.com quota, but writing another six to eight stories every month. Writing, I discovered, was like everything else, becoming easier with practice.

Looking back, I see that each of these turning points brought me a little closer to the work I did the best, even though I didn’t realize at the time what was happening.

More importantly, I realize that none were the rational, careful planned moves that the typical career advice suggest that you make. In fact, if I had followed that typical advice, I would probably still be at the book store. At each of these points, what motivated me was my unhappiness with my current position, and a realization that taking a leap into something new was no more chancy than staying where I was. It wasn’t ambition, or careful planning that made me move on – just a dim sense that I wasn’t where I wanted to be, and a growing awareness that I really had nothing left to lose.

This, I suspect is how most people make such decisions. These days, when someone comes to me asking for career advice (as happens two or three times a year), I don’t tell them to plan their career moves rationally. Instead, I ask them how they want to spend their lives, and what risks they are prepared to take to do it.

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If you’re one of the thousands who have been laid off in the last few months, you might be tempted to use a career coach to help you in your job search. But whether that’s a good idea depends on whom you hire as a coach, and what you expect to get out of the experience.

Hiring coaches is difficult, because in most places – and probably everywhere – anyone who wants to can set up as a career coach. No professional or regulatory body exists for the job. Nor does any recognized form of accreditation (having taken a course or two doesn’t count).

The only criterion you have for judging career coaches is their reputation. A good place to start is with an Internet search in which you keep an eye out for complaints to consumer organizations or better business bureaus. But even that may not tell the whole story if the coach is part of a larger organization or franchise, because a business record in one area may mean nothing in another area.

You may also want to arrange a preliminary meeting, and decide whether or not you trust the coach, but don’t imagine that you can necessarily tell someone who is fraudulent. After all, a fraud probably has more experience conning people than you have detecting them. Probably your best bet is to work with someone who comes recommended by a friend or family member who has been their client, and whose judgment you trust. However, if that isn’t possible, ask a potential coach for references — and check them.

As you screen a possible coach, be on the lookout for exaggerated claims. Does the coach claim to have methods no one else has? Do they guarantee results? Put you through a screening process, then tell you that you’ve made the cut? Use high pressure tactics? Any of these signs may indicate dishonesty or, at the very least, a greater interest in taking your money than in helping you.

Just as importantly, be very clear what a coach does for you. If you are expecting someone to do all the work for you, or to pull a genuine miracle out of the desk drawer for you, you are going to be disappointed in your association.

Basically, a coach can do two things for you. The first is to update your sense of the job market, and to help you prepare for your search. A coach can give you advice about how to arrange a resume to best effect, help you practice interviewing, critique your clothing and manner, and, if you have chosen well, give you a better sense of the job market in your areas of expertise than you have. In most cases, they will tell you about the effectiveness of networking and informational interviews, but the simple statistic that the average person needs 30-40 informational interviews to land a job is enough to tell you that the real work has to be done by you. A coach can prepare you, but if you don’t cooperate with their job search program, then you are wasting your money.

The second thing that a career coach can do for you is to serve as an advisor, answering the questions that arise during your job search, analyzing your account of your experiences, and suggesting ways that you can approve next time. Since they are constantly thinking about such matters with a number of people, they should be able to give you better advice than most people. In other words, they can help you focus your efforts and learn from them – but the effort is still up to you, and not the coach.

Hiring a coach is like taking a class; just as you can learn the subject matter of a class by yourself, you can learn what a coach can teach you through a library or experience. In both cases, entering into a formal agreement forces you to become organized, and can help you to learn more systematically.

But, if you are not ready to put in the effort, or imagine that the formal agreement is an end in itself rather than ongoing guidance, you are going to be disappointed in the result – and, because of the lack of formal qualifications for career coaches, quite possibly cheated.

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Earlier this week, The Globe and Mail ran an article about freelancers who were considering finding full-time work in response to the recession-cum-depression of the last couple of months. Being a long-time freelancer myself – and someone who has never been happier than when working for himself – I found some wry amusement in the assumption that freelancing is riskier than full-time employment. Not only do I believe that freelancing is generally safer than full-time employment, but I suggest that freelancers are better equipped to weather the uncertain economy.

Admittedly, a recession is a bad moment to begin a freelance career, if only because so many other people may be attempting the same change. Obviously, too, a freelancer’s ability to survive depends on what services they offer; for instance, if you offer web design services, in hard times people might be tempted to put off improvements and changes to their web pages as non-essential.

However, in general, freelancers have distinct advantages in troubled times:

  • Freelancers are already established: As full-timers are laid off and try to support themselves on freelancing, established freelancers already have the contracts and – most importantly – the reputations to keep themselves employed. Many of them have an established customer base, and they can focus on assignments rather than on marketing themselves – a process that usually takes a few months.
  • Freelancers are more versatile: Full-time employees are generally slotted into narrow specialties. By contrast, freelancers can offer new, related services as the opportunity or need arises. For example, if you are a technical writer who finds that clients are putting off updating their documentation, perhaps you can branch out into public relations or graphic design.
  • Freelancers are used to working on multiple contracts at the same time: While full-timers often have the luxury of concentrating on one project at a time, most freelancers juggle multiple projects at the same time. Part of the reason may be freelancers are so afraid of being without income that they often overbook themselves. However, an even larger part of the reason is that they don’t always find a single project that brings in enough income by itself. A recession simply makes this situation even more likely. So, in this sense, the habits of the average freelancer become a useful survival mechanism during a recession.
  • Freelancers have established social networks: In any sort of job-hunting, connections are important. But, while full-timers often neglect networking because of their false sense of security, freelancing is like constantly looking for work. The result is that freelancers may be prepared to replace work lost to the recession with other assignments.
  • Freelancers are better prepared psychologically for losing work: Many full-timers invest a lot of their self-image in their employment. When they lose their position, they are devastated. But freelancers do not nurse the full-timers’ dream of a job for life. They expect to work on many contracts during their careers. So, when one contract is canceled, it means very little to freelancers – unlike full-timers, they are not devastated. While they may regret the loss, freelancers know that some work will never materialize or be canceled, even in good times.
    In other words, a recession is only a freelancer’s regular situation intensified. They know how to deal with the situation, and don’t need to change their attitudes to survive – unlike full-timers.

I’m not surprised that The Globe and Mail could find freelancers who were considering full-time employment, but I suspect that they are in a minority. Although all the freelancers I know are alert to the economic situation, they seem reasonably confident of their ability to survive it. Unlike full-timers, they find little new in troubled times.

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“You’re an English major? You must be planning a career in fast food.” Comments like this haunted me from the moment I declared my major in university. But hearing the sentiment recently, I realized that it was far from accurate. The truth is, people who have a way with words can make a comfortable living in all sorts of ways, so long as they don’t limit their possibilities to the obvious.

The worst mistake that anybody with an English degree – or, in fact, any Arts degree – can make is to hang about on the fringes of academia, hoping for a tenure track position. Ever since my undergraduate days, I’ve been hearing about all the tenured positions that are going to become available as their current incumbents retire, but, between budget cuts and the increasing tendency to hire non-tenured staff or sessionals, the positions are unlikely to materialize. People who were hoping for those positions when I left academia over a decade ago are still waiting for those tenured positions. Meanwhile, they endure semester by semester contracts, last minute hires, and doing the same work as tenured faculty for half the money. That’s fine for a few years, but it’s no way to live in the long-term.

The same is true of editing piece work. Just like academia, the publishing industry depends on having a constant pool of cheap work-for-hire editors. You may be one of the lucky exceptions, but the odds are against you, no matter how talented. Those who run the industry are careful not to employ you so much that they become obliged to offer you benefits.

Instead of lingering in limbo, waiting for the academic or literary job you used to dreamed of, English majors should explore the possibilities in business. Not only is the power of self-expression in demand there, but the competition is far less fierce than in academia – partly because of the greater need, and partly because many English majors seem to consider that taking a job in business is beneath them. Often, too, they make the mistake of thinking that their writing skills are all they need, and are slow to learn the subject matter expertise they need to do the work properly.

But, if you can get beyond the idea that you are dirtying your hands and are willing to learn what you don’t know, then the jobs are there. As a technical writer, you need to write clearly and organize information for conciseness and accuracy; in many ways, the job is writing stripped to the basics. As a communications and marketing manager, writing news releases or blogs, you take on the responsibility of being the voice of the company. As a product manager, you decide how to present a product or line, and you’ll find your skills with textural analysis serve you well when you come to deal with end user license agreements and other legal documents. As an instructor, you are reprising your role as a teaching assistant while you were in grad school, the only difference being is that you are teaching software or policies and procedures, rather literature or criticism.

And these are only the most obvious career paths. Writing and teaching skills aren’t a bad foundation for going on to law school, for example. Best of all, the first thing you’ll notice when taking these positions if you’ve been vying for scraps of work around academia, your yearly income will increase by over fifty percent or more.

Admittedly, some of these positions aren’t on the express way to the top. Technical writers, for instance, may rise to supervise other technical writers at a large company, but they aren’t likely to become CEOs. But they can serve as entry positions, and, if you’re interested in climbing the corporation, you can always expand your skill set later on. Meanwhile, you can reasonably expect a salary that puts you solidly in the upper middle class, to say nothing of responsible and often rewarding work.

Really, the only thing holding you back with an English degree is your own lack of imagination or initiative. Just because those who prefer an education they should be getting at a technical college choose to belittle your liberal education is no reason for you to believe them.

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Recently, I’ve been struggling with the suspicion that my distaste for marketing is hypocrisy.

I’ve been a marketer in a past career incarnation, and a moderately good one, if I say so myself. At Stormix Technologies, I developed the idea of ad campaigns based on different idioms that used the word “storm,” such as storm warning and eye of the storm. Later, at Progeny Linux Systems, I developed a campaign based on the use of a large animal to represent the company, such as a macaw, and a small one to represent the competition, such as a budgie. In the last version of the ad, we used a bull elephant and a toy elephant, under the slogan, “Some companies just toy with open source.”

Even in retrospect, I’m proud of these campaigns, although to be honest the Progeny campaign owed much of its effectiveness to the graphics work done by Rebecca Blake at Lara Kisielewska’s Optimum Design and Consulting in New York. Both campaigns handily accomplished the aim of giving new companies name recognition across North America.

However, it’s nearing five years since I’ve worked as a marketer. At first, I had difficulty finding marketing work in the high-tech recession, and later I found direction as a journalist and stopped looking for marketing work.

Still, given my past, I’m surprised to find myself viewing marketing with increasing distaste. Last year, when I noticed an ex-schoolmate using crudely obvious means to market her company, I told myself that her tactics were reasons to distance myself. More recently, I found myself shaking my head over local bloggers writing about products for money or goods. And when I spent an evening listening to a case study of a guerilla marketing campaign, I found myself thinking the whole idea a waste of creativity. I had a similar reaction when I read a friend’s recent blog enthusing over marketers who organized live roleplaying games to promote their products. I am all for play, since I believe it is important to creativity, but I wondered if marketing wouldn’t sully the whole experience.

The thing is, given my past, what right do I have to look down at marketing? Considering the recession when I tried unsuccessfully to find marketing work, is my reaction just sour grapes? At the very least, I am being inconsistent, and that troubles me, because such inconsistency points to unexamined complexity.

Moreover, I notice that very few people share my attitudes. Many people found the case study I heard clever, and were excited by the possibilities of using real-life games to sell products. I’m next to unique in my moral outrage. That’s fairly common, since I have a strong Puritan streak in me (by which I mean that I’m obsessive about ethics, not that I’m prudish), but righteous outrage, like inconsistency, suggests a complex reaction.

So, what is happening? To answer, I have to fish blindly into the mirky depths of my unconscious, and see what I happen to land.

Part of my reaction, I think, is a reversion to earlier attitudes. I was an academic before I was a marketer, and such dismissals are common to those who have never worked in business. In the last couple of years, I’ve been at a stage in my life when I’ve been reassessing my past through various means – including through this blog – and very likely I’ve made a reconnection that I didn’t realize until now.

Another reason is that I’ve switched sides. Instead of trying to persuade journalists, I am a journalist now. In the last few years, I’ve seen many inept marketers – not least of all those who borrow spammers’ techniques and keep sending information about Windows products to an address that is clearly about GNU/Linux. Because I get forty or more such emails every day, developing a jaundiced view of the marketing profession is only natural. I’ve seen too much of it at its worst.

However, I think the main reason for my disdain is to justify the path I’ve taken. While I could always return to marketing if I was desperate to earn a living, it’s slipped several rankings down in the possibilities. Most likely, I could probably find another gig in free software journalism if I had to. But, as a generalist who believes that “all of the above” is usually the correct choice, I’m obscurely bothered by committing to a single career choice. So, to quieten my misgivings, perhaps I’m hunting for ways of repudiating the possibilities I’ve more or less ruled out.

In other words, my reactions are less about the ethics of marketing in the abstract than about my own decisions about my life. And, having come up with this line of reasoning, I imagine that I can already feel my reaction diminishing. Examining hypocrisy can lead to insights – or so I’ve found in this case.

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The concept of alternate worlds has fascinated me since I first heard of it as a young teenager. Not just the big ones, like a world where William the Bastard went down to defeat at Hastings and a Saxon England looked to Scandinavia rather than the Mediterranean for culture, ir the Haida had an empire built on muskets and the slave trade when the first European explorers came by, but also the small ones of my own life. Sometimes, in the few minutes between turning off the light and falling asleep, I like to think of them.

For instance, if I hadn’t had trouble pronouncing a hard “C” sound when I was six, would I have become so interested in reading and writing? If an elementary school coach hadn’t ignored my request to run the half mile and made me determined to prove him wrong, would I have started exercising regularly?

And consider the girls I had a crush on in elementary school. If I had ever had the courage to date one of them, would we have split after a few months? Would I have preferred them to the girls I met in high school? Perhaps we would have married, and had children or even divorced.

Similarly, if I hadn’t dropped off the track team after my first year at university, would I have eventually reached the Olympics in the days before it became so tarnished and tawdry? The idea is not impossible, since a couple of those in my training group did go to the Olympics, although my chances of being in the final, let alone the medals, would have been remote – that’s why I dropped out in the first place.

Then there was my choice of grad school. I had a double major in English and Communications, and I applied for both. But the Communications Department was only admitting grad students in the Fall, and I was desperate to get out my dead-end job and back to school in January. So, I gave up the studies I’d planned to do in imitation of Irene Pepperberg and Alex the African Gray and started looking for a literary topic for a thesis instead.

For that matter, what if I had stuck out the poor job prospects after I had my Master’s degree a few years later and gone for a Phd.? We almost certainly would have had to travel, if not for another round of grad school, then certainly to find employment. Would we have gone to some place like Edmonton or Toronto? Or would the search for tenure have led me to life in the United States? Or perhaps I would have stayed as a lowly sessional instructor, doing twice the work for half the pay as tenured faculty, and bitter for having wasted time and money on a degree that did noting for me.

And what about the trauma that almost destroyed me? (you’ll excuse me if I decline to give details) Had I had less of a sense of responsibility or a belief in human goodness, or made a different decision in a couple of places, perhaps that sequence of events need never have happened. But if it hadn’t, would I have had the courage to become the freelance writer I had always dreamed about?

That’s the trouble with imagining other outcomes. You can’t just change one event and manufacture a happy ending. Sometimes, the imaginary outcomes are no better than the real ones, or fortunate events can come from disasters. And most outcomes, I imagine, have more than a single cause or result.

Still, playing at alternate worlds gives a satisfyingly complex view of the world, especially if you suspect that the idea of an afterlife is based on nostalgia or wishful thinking. While I regret very little about the outcomes I have actually had, somehow it’s comforting to think I’ve taken eveny opportunity, that nothing is ever wasted, and that all the other paths I might have taken are metaphysically close at hand yet forever out reach – if only in my imagination.

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