I recently attended a business luncheon in downtown Indianapolis on the topic, “What does an Obama administration mean for Indiana business?”  The speaker was a well-known economist, Morton J. Marcus.  He didn’t have much to say about what an Obama administration will mean (since nobody seems to really know for sure yet), but he did have quite a few thoughts on the recession and economy overall.  In one of his anecdotes, he mentioned that he had a young niece who had a degree in finance and went to work for a large New York financial firm as a high-paid analyst.  The problem with this scenario (and it’s a very common mistake to make) is to become too specialized with non-transferrable skills.  Since the finance sector has collapsed, his niece has since lost her job and is sitting on a million-plus mortgage .  There isn’t exactly a whole lot of new jobs opening up with her skillset right now either.  Even though the financial sector bailout is in full swing, the companies receiving money aren’t likely to use that money to save jobs, they’re more likely to save their bottom line.

This is why I think it’s important to recession-proof yourself with transferrable skills.  Whether you’re a startup, or simply a cog on someone’s wheel, it’s important that you view your job as temporary.  If you think you may be too specialized in one area that may not be in high demand for very long, consider this a wake-up call to train yourself in skills that are in higher demand.  Don’t wait around for the hammer to fall, do something about it ahead of time.

As part of my startup’s recession-proofing plan, I’m looking to branch out into embedded device design and development.  I’m in the process of learning microcontroller C programming and I’m starting design work on a new device that will leverage GPS technology.  This new venture may or may not work out, but it’s still worthwhile to me as I’ll be gaining new transferrable skillset if the worst should happen.

11 Responses to “Recession-Proofing”

  • John Wilker Says:

    Tom and I have had the Cog discussion at great length in the past, I think he's changed his mind on that, not sure. But I completely agree, being a 1 trick pony as a business or an FTE, makes little sense.

    I Moved from ColdFusion to Flex, and while my CF has definitely lagged the industry, I could probably go back to it pretty easily if I needed to.

    As far as business, 360|iDev is part of our attempt to not only put fewer eggs in an Adobe basket, but to broaden our reach. We think we have something to offer developers beyond Flex developers, and especially in these times of tight budgets.

  • Andrew Westberg Says:

    I think you guys are right-on in your thinking to do a 360|iDev conference. It's a very hot market with very little support in the conference arena as of yet.

    • John Wilker Says:

      Yeah we see iPhone dev as a definite good market. Having started to play a litte (A very little admittedly) in iPhone app dev, there's no conference at all for Obj-C iPhone devs

  • Tom Says:

    Yeah, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with being focused on one thing. I wish I had that sort of dedication and single minded passion. Instead, I get bored quickly and find myself moving on to something new. In past jobs, I'd usually find something I'm interested in, introduce it into my current job, then leave the company to get a job where I use that new skill full time.

    As for being cogs, I don't mind that either if you're okay with being a cog. John and I had this discussion once. Some people just like the safety of a FT job, where they do the same thing everyday for years on end. Sadly, I think a lot of people feel the way to escape being a cog is to climb the corporate management ladder. I told eBay management once, "Look, I don't want to climb the management ranks, so can we devise an employee progress plan that does NOT have a goal of management?" It came as a great shock to them.

    • John Wilker Says:

      well look at it like Alton brown. Uni taskers suck! Why have a utensil in your kitchen that only does one thing, when you can have something that does many?

  • Andrew Westberg Says:

    I really liked the security of a FT job quite a bit also. After I struck out on my own though, I quickly realized that all that security was a figment of my imagination. Just watch any news interviews of people recently laid off from large corporations. They all have that dazed look of "How could this possibly happen. I thought my job was secure" written all over their faces. The reality is that there is no such thing as a truly "safe" job. Given, some are safer than others (govt for example). The best attitude I think you can have working (even as a cog) is to realize that you're there working for yourself, but you just happen to be doing it at a corporation.

    • Tom Says:

      Yeah, I agree on the last sentence. I think that's the attitude I've taken over the years. Each FT job was not only a paycheck, but an experiment I got to participate in and learn what works and doesn't work for a business.

      I don't think FT was security, but rather an easy out of having to deal with the whole sales of you as an independent contractor. Prior to the Valley, I was a no one (and to most, I still am LOL). I know that trying to be an independent contractor would've been too hard for me and would've caused a lot of unnneeded stress in my life.

      • John Wilker Says:

        Yeah that's certainly true about the indie contractor thing. I realized to my own detriment, that it wasn't just knowing your stuff, but knowing how to sell "you" AND I think more importantly, having a solid network. I thought I did, but was wrong LOL

        • Jeffry Houser Says:

          A good coder does not make a good business owner. :-) It doesn't matter how great the code is; most clients don't care. They care that their problem is solved. It meant more to my bottom line to be able to talk to clients, set expectations, and deliver promptly than any design pattern or coding framework could offer.

  • Matt Says:

    Interesting. I was looking for a new job about a year ago (a cog job), I got the impression that most companies were looking for the specialist in whatever technology they used. Basic knowledge/proficiency in the technology would at least get your resumed glanced at, but, my perception was that anything short of being a specialist was insufficient. (Granted, that could also just be the "stupid HR people" effect.)

    Personally, I find the "always learn new skills/broaden your experience" suggestion very encouraging. I think personality-wise I'm more of the "jack of all trades" (I'm INTP, for those familiar with the MBTI). But the latter-half of that expression is "master of none", and when competing for a job, the jack will often get beaten by the master. I think that's generally true for "cog" jobs, but probably matters less with startups, independent contractors, freelancers, etc.

    Another consideration: the specialist, depending on how unique the skill is, has the opportunity to make a lot of money. The person will probably have to look longer and harder and/or relocate to find someone willing to pay for that specialist knowledge, but when they do, they ought to be able to name their price. Like the financial analyst above: yes, finance is a bad place to go looking for a job now, but there still is some demand for them. And if this person is truly a specialist, i.e. top-tier 0.1% of all financial analysts, someone somewhere will pay top dollar for that skillset. (On the other hand, "financial analyst" is a pretty vague title, and in the given example, probably isn't a specific-enough skillset to as marketable as I'm suggesting. The catch is being the master of a unique or maybe even niche skill.)

    Just some rambling thoughts to avoid work at my cog job…

    • Andrew Westberg Says:


      You may be correct that when looking for a "cog" job that the specialist has a leg up. For the startup though, it pays to be diversified because you end up having to do many things yourself for awhile. For example, I have to be my own pc hardware support. I have to be my own SVN repository maintainer and also maintain my linux boxes. If I develop a rich internet application, most larger companies hire different team members to do the server side and client side development. I have to be able to do both.