Tech Workers Commiserate

By Kim Hart
Monday, January 12, 2009

In a back corner of La Madeleine restaurant in Bethesda, 14 frustrated technologists gathered Thursday to lament how the poor economy has interfered with their career paths.

Most of them are looking for jobs, even if they already have one. Some are delaying plans to start businesses, because these days it's more difficult to find investors -- and customers. So they swapped tips for getting the attention of stressed-out executives and traded advice on how to catch the next wave of technology jobs.

It's become an all-too-frequent scene in tech circles.

Nearly every networking group in the region has hosted events and panels about how to survive the recession. People would offer the same advice: cut costs, focus on the core business, do whatever it takes to keep clients happy.

Last week's small, informal discussion had a more intimate quality to it. It was organized by the DC New Media Group, composed of Web developers and social media enthusiasts. The group has about 800 on social network Meetup.com.

"There aren't jobs in start-ups. They're not raising money," said Brett Halliburton, an AOL new product development manager. He's not in the market for a job, he said, but he tinkers with side projects. He just launched a Facebook application, "Football Coach," that lets friends toss a virtual pigskin back and forth.

The problem: It makes money from advertising, which is drying up across the Web as marketing budgets get slashed.

"It's good I'm not doing it as my source of employment," he said.

Andrea Rice runs Gottamentor.com, a Web site that gives advice to job-seekers.

"The job offers don't fall in your lap anymore," Rice said. "You actually have to look now."

Information technology jobs, especially with government contractors, are still abundant, Kady Chiu pointed out. Unfortunately, that doesn't help her much -- she's a social media consultant. Project managers are in high demand as well, Chiu said.

But Tania Delgado said she is having difficulty finding work as a project manager after the funding for her previous job ran out. A native of Ecuador, she said not being an American citizen has substantially reduced the number of agency jobs she is eligible for.

Not everyone at the table was having trouble. John Aggrey, chief executive of the District-based Unicorn Group, a consulting firm that helps struggling companies fine-tune strategies and find partners, said he's taken on three times as many clients in the past three months as usual.

"CEOs tend to listen when they're in crisis mode," he said. They're looking for help in finding clients, reorganizing staff and securing investors.

Some have been forced to leave and now find that they're dealing with different circumstances. He said a lot of executives who've found themselves out of work in the past few months are starting to get bored.

"They're going to places like the Northern Virginia Technology Council and the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association to look for ideas" for new companies or business partners, Aggrey said. "They've got nothing else to do, especially now that it's too cold to play golf."

Advertising Woes

The decline in online advertising has hurt one local start-up.

Clearspring Technologies, the McLean widget syndication firm that has been a darling of the local venture capital community and a prominent member of the Web 2.0 crowd, laid off 20 percent of its workforce last week, sparking discussion around town about the future of advertising-dependent businesses and online business models.

In May, Clearspring raised $18 million in its third round of funding, led by New Enterprise Associates, but like many start-ups, it was forced to cut spending.

Founder and chief executive Hooman Radfar said the company isn't in financial trouble. The decision to lay off dozens of employees, including chief operating officer Jay Rappaport, was made to conserve money to weather the downturn, he said. Last year's cash injection will help the company continue to grow with its smaller staff, he said, adding that it "really improves our position going forward."

"Our focus now is really to make sure we double-down on our efforts and become profitable," Radfar said. Clearspring works with big-name media brands such as MTV, Time Warner and NBC, and has 400 million unique visitors a month, up from 332 million in October, he said.

"We have ample cash and grew like gangbusters this year," he said. "But we humbly had to adjust, which was really hard because we were so close to the people who left."

"CEOs have to switch gears and not go into new territory but defend their current turf," he said. "We still have a couple tricks up our sleeve."

Kim Hart writes about the Washington technology scene every Monday. Contact her at hartk@washpost.com.

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