Technically Employed: the Survivor’s Tale

I’m going to take a break from the Nokia ecosystem analyses tonight and return to the topic that launched this blog early last year: employment.  Particularly, in engineering, information management and related technical fields.  My career comfort zones.

Some personal bits: I freely admit to being a geek.  I actually love electronics.  And hardware.  And databases.  And designing.  And programming.  And process stuff.  Stitch them together and you’ve created my dream job.   Amazingly enough, I’ve come really close at a few employers.  At The Stanleyworks (now Stanley Black and Decker) I was a drafter who ultimately worked his way up the technical ladder to manage product data and requirements for the Mechanics Tools division.  I was in geek heaven.  Did I mention I love tools, too? 

Now, our slice of Stanley was highly dysfunctional at the time– a 160-year-old garage shop that had just grown into a bigger garage.  My last job there was to drag design and engineering management practices kicking and screaming into the 20th century.  I was wading through screen after screen of BPCS and SAP process specs and bills of materials, hauling home crates of design documents to markup every night, and cajoling reluctant cowboy designers into the PDM corral.  Gaining wrinkles, losing hair.  And I loved it.

I had reached this lower management position on the strength of a 2-year degree, a great deal of perseverance and passion for the work.  No 4-year degree.  Fortunately at the time, many managers were willing to equate a certain amount of experience with college training.  Unfortunately, the US was getting out of manufacturing at the time and I had to finally face the reality that it was time to shift career gears (I decided to target medical and logistics).

I should have got the message sooner.  After attaining my Associate’s degree through a Texas Instruments (TI) cooperative education program (engineering design with emphasis on eletronics) I had set my sights on a Bachelor’s in either Manufacturing or Industrial Engineering.  According to a counselor, the University of  Texas at Dallas (UTD) was supposed to start a program along those lines but abruptly cancelled those plans around the time I enrolled.  Looking back I see why: they realized there was a diminishing future here for such jobs.  So the emphasis moved to computing sciences, where it needed to be in the 1990s, and so did I.

Life intervened as it tends to and I didn’t get more than halfway through that degree.  Employment opportunities came in shorter cycles and covered such diverse ground that it made sense to focus on near-term needs like certification (I am certfied in 3D design and quality process improvement, and working on ITIL V3).

As many readers here know my career journey reached an apex at Nokia.  In the three roles I had there in the span of three years, I was able to draw on all of that prior engineering and information management experience and put it to good use for myself and the company.  My natural adaptability combined with change agent skills acquired over time were also engaged as Nokia rearranged and repurposed itself almost daily it seemed.  Not the ideal environment for most, I’m sure, but some of us thrived on it.  Once again, I was in geek heaven.  Too bad it couldn’t last.

Lately I’ve been leveraging those experiences to help friends and colleagues find the right employment fit.  Nokia taught me how to successfully network, and these days there’s no skill more important I believe.  And it truly is a skill– networking isn’t just about maintaining a fat contacts list or pasting your resumé into LinkedIn.  Navigating your social web is an art.

The more I mentor job seekers the more I have learned from my own anecdotes.  It struck me recently that in booming times experience means more than a degree, and in rough times just the opposite.  I’m generalizing, and maybe readers have different experiences, but that’s been my observation.  If I took the time to analyze I’m sure I’d either be able to dispel that as illusion or find facts to explain it.

I realize there are way too many job seekers per opportunity right now, but I’m hoping recruiters and hiring managers are able to avoid boilerplate thinking and realize that there is a third dimension to every application.  It’s the often-unquantifiable factor that surpasses or obviates degrees, certifications and even years of experience.  It’s that nonformulaic quality about a candidate that comes through their unique phrasing, their choices of past opportunities, their extracurricular activities.  And their survivability.

Something that even regular readers may not know is that I wasn’t always employed in technical work.  I spent years of my youth in residential and commercial construction, attending college at night.  So it was frustrating when laid off at TI’s defense weaponry division (after seven amazing years) that a recruiter for another division said she wouldn’t bother interviewing me for their opportunities.  When I asked why not, she said: “you defense workers can’t be retrained.  Defense is all you know.”  In response I told her, as politely as I could manage: “before TI, I was a plumber.  I think I can adapt to different work needs and environments.”

I didn’t get an opportunity, despite deflating her position, but I did come away with another valuable anecdote.  Maybe I should be mentoring recruiters instead of job hunters. 😉

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