Monday, October 15, 2007

Sometimes You're the Windshield...

Here's what I know today - there's a lot I don't really know. Especially when it comes to the real state of the tech economy. Tech sector job reports in Seattle look good. And supposedly IT salaries are at an "all-time" high.

On the other hand, other market sectors are experiencing a downturn and there is significant debate over the actual health of an average tech worker's salary. On the other other hand, the Pacific Northwest (the Eastside in particular) is experiencing a construction boom and IT is cited as a major economic driver for the foreseeable future.

That kind of activity is usually a good sign though there are serious concerns looming on the horizon too.

The best I can tell, is it's all a very personal experience - you might be in the group that's doing really well, or you might one of those who is (still) struggling for any number of reasons. Some geeks struggle to find entry-level work. Then there is the matter of salaries that have been pushed lower in the skill-areas where the competition is for jobs, not talent. Some local tech workers are simply feeling the pinch of housing prices that remain high, despite national trends.

Regardless of where you are personally, the smart ones recognize that it's all a cycle - we have ups and downs all the time. If we're not in a down, it's wise to prepare for one. And for anyone hanging on through a lull, it's probably also worth considering that the landscape may have changed altogether, requiring a whole new mind-set and whole new set of skills.

When I started this blog, circumstances were grim all the way around for the tech sector, and hence the title. Even though the situation isn't that bleak today, things are not uniformly wonderful either. This means to me that it's still worth looking for the gems that make success a little easier - no matter where you feel you are on the success spectrum.

One such gem - use a time of downturn to try new ideas. Soaring Mountain Enterprises was founded exactly under such premises. It was no more risky for me back then to start my own business than it was to try to find full-time work as a manager and I'm glad I made that choice.

Another idea worth considering - if you happen to be one of the many who were hit hard by the bludgeoned tech economy and are still struggling, know that help exists. For instance, HopeLink serves north and east King County, providing a variety of services to help homeless and low income individuals and families become self-sufficient.

My feeling about HopeLink and other similar organizations is that if you don't need their services yourself, then there is probably some way you can get involved with them to help other people who do. When the system works as it's meant to, there are people who are unashamed to use the services available to them until they are self-sufficient... and then they turn around once they're on their feet again and support the ability of these organizations to continue to serve others.

Chris Gardner - the inspiration behind the movie Pursuit of Happyness (not to be confused with technology-oriented Christopher Gardner), and a real class act - is one of these 'full-circle' guys.

Gardner spoke at the Hopelink annual fundraiser luncheon recently. Many of our homeless are actually working families. Think of how many geeks and other employees in the tech sector who have been layed off over the years and how difficult it has been at times to find work - especially during the bust years. It occurs to me that even today, we could easily be working alongside someone who is homeless.

That notion - though probably without the geek spin on it - apparently hit home with people attending the luncheon. And I'm proud to say that together, we raised more than $1M - the highest amount ever for this organization.

Two things struck me, though, about the amount raised. First, given that the 2006 amount raised was $800,000, Gardner's $10,000 challenge contribution was a key to making the million dollar mark. Perhaps just as important, though, was that we only just barely cleared that number. The total was actually $1,001,200. Put in perspective, that means that just one table of $250 donations made the difference between hitting this important milestone and just missing it.

Of course, in the case of HopeLink, more donations are always needed. As Gardner put it, if homeless people are largely unnoticed by society, then the working homeless are downright invisible - primarily because they look and act much the same as the rest of their co-workers and typically aren't out by the road with cardboard signs.

My guess is that in the world of high tech, where periods of high salaries have pushed home prices skyward at the same time that lay-offs are common and people are more often than ever before working under contract without benefits, that there are more techies who are homeless (or at least struggling to not become so) than we realize.

So I'll reiterate - if you don't need the sorts of services provided by Hopelink or other similar organizations, seriously consider helping others who do by donating or volunteering.

If you have stories or words of wisdom about suviving a downturn, send them to me at and maybe that will help someone else somehow.

What changes do I want to make if this is an overall change in landscape as opposed to a simple up and down cycle?