Careers on the Web

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2804, 2010-01-22, as a feature article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 11-13) and their website.

Given how modern societies seemingly run on computers, it would appear only logical that anyone seeking a viable professional path would be wise to consider a career in computers — hardware, software, information management, etc. After all, if the companies, governments, nonprofit organizations, and overall economies of the world are completely reliant upon information technology (IT), then surely there must be ongoing demand for people capable of keeping the machines, programs, and websites humming along. This belief probably peaked in the late 1990s, when programmers and high-tech entrepreneurs were turning even the most ridiculous business ideas into multimillion-dollar payoffs in the form of dot-com IPOs. We were told that these fabulously wealthy nerds were the new rock stars.

Yet judging by several measures, computer and Internet-focused careers have certainly lost their luster, in some fields declining in stature like post-crash NASDAQ stocks. Beginning with the onset of the recession in 2001, programmers and other digit-heads throughout the land heard a growing number of reports of high-tech companies going under, massive layoffs of IT staff, remaining employees working horrendous hours, perks disappearing, working conditions deteriorating, and a dramatic increase in the outsourcing of software development and maintenance work to competitors overseas.

Even as programming jobs disappeared, and some old veterans came out of retirement to shore up their devastated IRAs, there was still great concern as to whether America would have enough software talent in the future. Colleges and universities routinely warned of lower numbers of students choosing computer science, engineering, and other technical fields in which to receive degrees — even worse than during the 1990s, when the US media raised alarms over foreign students dominating the science and engineering degrees in American collegiate institutions. At an earlier stage in the process of grooming this country's future technical talent, American high school students were indicating little interest in pursuing academic and professional paths that seemed, in their minds, to only lead to the cubicle-bound misery of Dilbert.

More Computer Work

Despite the IT horror stories of the past, as well as the current economic meltdown devastating all types of jobs in America (except "banksters" and other government employees), there are several signs that point to a promising future for those who choose IT-related professions — including Web designers and developers, security specialists, computer technicians, SEO marketing experts, and countless other fields — some of which didn't even exist a decade or two ago.

Even though the majority of companies now have their own websites and have made significant progress in converting their operations to the new digital and online environment, most of them still have a long way to go before they have optimized how they reach new customers, develop and refine their products and services, store customer and sales data for maximum results (while maintaining privacy), and generally run their businesses. That work needs to be done — by computer professionals, many of whom have yet to be hired. In fact, much of the work has yet to be even identified, by managers and other business leaders who truly understand the potential for improving their operations and outdistancing the competition.

Furthermore, those individuals leaning toward careers on the Web can only benefit from a trend that is becoming increasingly obvious every day: As more people use the Internet for storing and communicating data, they are also using it as a replacement for functionality traditionally performed by desktop software (i.e., programs that must be installed and run locally on one's own computer). Commonly cited examples include Web-based e-mail services (such as Gmail) supplanting e-mail client programs (such as Microsoft Outlook), and office productivity services (such as Google Docs) grabbing market share from office suites (such as Microsoft Office). This will add further wind to the sails of website designers and developers, whose talents will be called upon for creating the online and mobile applications of the future.

Lastly, in a world of declining revenues and availability of credit, businesses and other organizations will be forced to find new ways of saving money and operating in a leaner fashion. These efforts toward greater economizing will likely fuel more demand for converting manual processes to automatic, for replacing paper-based documents with far more usable and searchable electronic versions, and for every other imaginable way that data and data processing can be made more efficient, while producing greater results — regardless of whether the data and programs are local or "in the cloud". All of these efforts will call for computer skills of every type.

More Benefits

One of the biggest factors in attracting college graduates and other young adults to one profession or another, is the perception of how well each career might pay. This is especially critical for those who are new to the job market but certainly not new to the pressures of being in debt, resulting from years of student loans and other expenses piling up — while these individuals studied in school and did not earn a sizable paycheck, aside from government work-study gigs and other low-paying part-time jobs.

Fortunately, for people who are bright, hard-working, and technically savvy, most if not all of the computer-related positions out in the job market tend to pay well — provided that the work requires solid technical understanding and/or valuable creative skills, and not just performing mindless tasks on a computer, or using a computer merely to make traditional phone-centric jobs more efficient.

Study after study indicate that computer and engineering jobs are some of the best-paying technical professions to be had. In fact, senior programmers at good companies, for instance, can easily make six-figure incomes, and oftentimes will turn down offers to move upward in management, despite the salary increases, because those people prefer to continue doing the technically creative work that makes them enjoy their jobs, more than overseeing the work of others. Even for recent college graduates, choosing the right technical path can lead to excellent starting salaries. Three years ago, when CNN Money published a study on starting salaries, they found that liberal arts majors and marketers would begin at approximately $30,000 and $36,000, respectively, far behind computer science majors and chemical engineers, who at the same time would be earning roughly $20,000 more.

Admittedly, salary is only part of an overall professional package, and it is oftentimes not the top consideration for industry veterans who have found quite satisfying jobs that allow for a great deal of creativity and control — especially if they are not feeling the pressures of loan debt. In a more recent study, CNN Money returned to the topic of assessing careers, but this time broadened the study to all levels of age and experience, and considered overall job satisfaction. In their search for the best jobs in America, they ranked network security consultants in position eight, IT project managers in the fifth position, and systems engineers as the winners.

With parents increasingly choosing to homeschool their children, and white-collar professionals willing to do just about anything to avoid the expense and stress of a daily commute, working from home has become a lifestyle devoutly to be wished. This is typically the first choice for freelancers — particularly those doing Web-focused work, which requires no equipment aside from a computer and a connection to the Internet. For employees of companies larger than one, telecommuting — if only for one or two days per week — is an attractive option, and is facilitated by the much greater use of Internet telephony (VoIP) and teleconferencing, which save even more money for firms with offices or clients located on other continents.

More Downsides

Although the advantages of working with computers, can be significant, anyone considering such a career should not be blinded to the disadvantages as well: For one, not everyone has the intellectual chops to get hired as a programmer or other technical professional, much less do well enough in the job to keep it, and receive salary raises and bonuses. People who flourish in the world of computers generally must be quite detail-oriented, coldly analytical, and have the mental capacity and burning interest to learn new technologies and techniques almost every day, simply to keep up with what is probably the fastest changing field of human endeavor.

Even worse in terms of one's health, any sort of IT work can be rather stressful — mentally and physically. In fact, a number of studies and articles have pointed out that IT professionals are more likely to suffer from stress than any other white-collar workers. One study — performed prior to the global economic crisis added even more job pressures — found that a remarkable 97 percent of people working in information technology stated that their jobs are quite stressful, every day. Problems at work quickly become problems at home, for those techies who must be on-call, in one form or another — such as a pager that can go off in the middle of the night, or even just a phone whose number is known by demanding clients in other time zones. Such domestic pressures can then ruin family and marital life.

High levels of stress and other career problems can result from any number of factors, some of which a job applicant could not possibly foresee before getting dropped into the thick of it. For instance, you might get hired on as a software engineer at a company that is understaffed (most of them are), where the workload on your back will pile up quickly, with relief only possible if you were to quit or be let go. Even if you put in stellar performance every workday, plus weekends (many companies expect this), you may receive little recognition from your managers or peers, if they are highly technical (and frequently quite arrogant). It can be even worse if your supervisors are clueless about computers, and think that writing software is just glorified typing, and can be done at the same speed, or that building a website is not much different from what they do to add text and pictures to their Facebook pages. Over the long haul, this could take more out of you than a stingy paycheck.

Regardless of these and other potential pitfalls in a computer career, if you have the mental and intestinal fortitude to make a profession of the type of development and design skills that you enjoy using for your own projects, then the world of computers could be the most promising place for you to make a living.

Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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