Spotting the Dead-End Job: A Primer

Tuesday Nov 14th 2000 by Janet Ruhl
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When you're seeking the right IT career opportunity, learn to read the warning signs that tell you when a job's going nowhere.

Spend enough time with recruiters and hiring managers and you might come away believing that the world is full of exciting, cutting-edge jobs that put you on the fast track to higher earnings and unlimited future potential. But not every job is a golden opportunity.

Every project has one or two essential jobs that involve drudgery or obsolete technology, and managers must find people to fill them. To do this, managers often resort to creative recruiting strategies that range from mild exaggeration to outright misrepresentation. Desperate managers know that high-quality candidates are looking for technical growth, expanded responsibility, or more money, so they describe their dead-end jobs in these terms.

Don't be taken in! Approach any interview with a healthy paranoia, prepared to ask the penetrating questions that will expose the hooks behind whatever lures may be dangled before your nose. By learning to read between the lines and recognize hidden agendas, you can read the warning signs that point to a dead-end job and avoid getting trapped.

Promises, Promises

Does the interviewer promise that the job will give you training in a hot new technology? To reality check this, you must ask whether the hardware and software required for the new technology is currently installed. If you see mostly 486s on the desks of this company's employees, it is unlikely this project will give you the Java development experience you crave.

"Be sure you are not being brought in to kill the project or take the blame for its failure. "

Ask how many people in the department are already working with the new technology. If possible, try to meet with members of the team you'd be working with so you can determine their experience level with the new technology and what skills their current jobs demand. If you are relatively inexperienced and would be the only one working with a new, in-demand tool, then you are probably being set up.

It is also important to determine exactly what type of project is being undertaken. Is the "new development" project you're considering going to be "developing" a fix for a fifteen-year-old legacy system that uses a technology with which you are all too familiar? If so, you are probably being hired for those legacy skills and are unlikely to get significant exposure to any new technology.

People with little experience in the hottest new tools are the ones most likely to be recruited using this strategy. Remind yourself that few companies will train an outsider in a cutting-edge tool when proven performers within the company are also clamoring for this kind of training.

Reading Between the Lines

Another favorite lure among hiring managers is the promise of management responsibilities a step up from those of your current or most recent job. If you hear this and are told the leadership position is brand new, ask why it isn't going to an insider. If the position is not a new one, be sure to ask what happened to the previous person who held the job. Are they still with the company? In what role?

Ask probing questions to determine where the project is in its development cycle. You want to be sure you are not being brought in to kill it or take the blame for its failure! Ask how successful past projects have been in this company. Try to get an idea of whether this project has the support of top management. Ask about the current funding status of the project. If there is no budget as of now, your "managerial role" may turn out to be a chimera.

Finally, be alert to personnel issues: Are you allowed to meet the people you will be supervising? Do these people even exist? And if they don't, will you be hiring them yourself? Ask the people you meet how long they have been with the company. If everyone is a contractor or a recent hire, be sure you are really dealing with a startup, not a sinking ship whose rats have already left!

Danger Signs of the Dead-End Job
Most existing company systems involve obsolete technology.

The project you will be working on is staffed mostly by contractors.

A uniform physical environment suggests "herd o' techies" mentality.

People in charge seem ignorant of the technology they manage.

Old projects have been in process for years without reaching completion.

Budgets are tight or nonexistent.

You are offered "creative" alternatives instead of a market-rate cash salary.

There is no project champion in upper management.

Think Twice if You're Seeing Only Green

Don't let yourself be manipulated by greed. If more money is the only enticement on the table, be careful! You may take the job only to end up a few years later with obsolete skills and no possibility for further employment.

Be wary, too, of a company that wants to pay you in stock options rather than cash. An offer of options may mean future riches--or it may be a sign that a company is about to go belly up and lacks cash to pay the people it is bringing in for a last-ditch survival attempt. Another danger flag is a company that asks you to start at a low salary with the promise of a raise once you have been trained in some new technology. Often, these promises never materialize, so be sure to get the offer in writing.

Finally, be alert to other subtle danger signs: Is the physical environment one of monotony, with acres of featureless cubes and dozens of people performing a job similar to the one being offered to you? Who is conducting your interviews? Do they seem to understand technology and have a grasp of what your previous work experience implies?

When in doubt, trust your feelings. Your uneasiness with an offer that looks great on the surface may mean you have picked up subliminal hints that not everything is what it seems. //

Janet Ruhl is the author of "Computer Job Survival Guide" (Technion Books, 2000) and the founder of Realrates.com. She can be reached at ruhl@realrates.com.

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