Transcript: Wednesday, September 13, 2 p.m. ET

The Tech Sector's New Job Prospects

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Declan McCullagh
Journalist and Computer Programmer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006; 2:00 PM

Skill, effort and luck can take you to the top of any field -- but it never hurts to get a little help. In our Helping Hands special feature, we've got plenty of assistance on tap: articles, tools and live discussions that will help you learn more about how to get ahead in the area's top industries or your career in general.

Declan McCullagh is a journalist with his finger on the tech industry's pulse. Adept at recognizing industry shifts and analyzing the economic and political results, Declan's writing, and his Politech mailing list, explores the intertwining of law, culture, technology and politics.

He was online taking questions about job trends in the tech sector.

Find more career-related news and advice in our Jobs section.

The transcript follows below.

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Fairfax County, Va.: I am a recent computer information systems graduate employed in the information assurance sector.

Looking at 2007 and beyond, do you see there being a higher demand for information assurance or database management?

Also, what technology do you see being the most critical in regards to the intelligence community?

Declan McCullagh: Thanks for your question and congrats on choosing a career in this area. In the last few years, information assurance has enjoyed considerably bigger growth and has been more of a high-profile area. It's too early to tell whether that's going to continue but given current government-spending trends (and private sector awareness of security breaches) it seems a fair bet. So that might be a better career path especially if you're going to stay in the Washington, D.C. area. For intelligence community purposes, I'd look into things like computer security, natural language processing, automated translation, and data-mining. The automated translation area seems like it's going strong and it's not as crowded as others.

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Washington, D.C.: Companies like Google seem to be established institutions, on the one hand, but are also incorporating a lot of the new capabilities developed at more cutting-edge firms. Is google the new tech industry monolith that Microsoft became? Or is there hope for employees of smaller or medium-sized tech companies that do more than fix PCs and create programs for Google?

Declan McCullagh: Maybe the best way to think of it is that Google would like to be the next Microsoft but isn't there yet. One difference is that Microsoft spun off or led to the creation of lots of smaller companies and has been pretty good about supporting them, providing developer assistance, etc. Google hasn't done that yet, and its business model (as I see it) doesn't make the creation of such an ecosystem as obvious. But to answer your question: We may not be in the late 1990s anymore with venture capital slushing around so readily, but it's still possible to see a market opportunity and create a company to fill it. In fact, given the advance in programming tools, it's probably easier than in 1990/2000. Look at what YouTube and MySpace did in just a few years.

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Washington, D.C.: For someone with online news experience, but not a software developer, what opportunities are there out there in Silicon Valley?

Declan McCullagh: Now this is a question close to my heart. In college I always planned to be a computer programmer but Wired was hiring in Washington, D.C., and instead I went into the technology journalism world and I've been there for over a decade. I moved from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco a year ago and I'm happy to say the Silicon Valley area is thriving with a good number of jobs available in the online news world. My own employer, CNET Networks, is hiring and CNET News.com has expanded its staff by hiring a bunch of video folks in the last six months to a year. We've also been hiring general assignment tech reporters. Ziff Davis and IDG have bureaus out here, and of course the traditional media organizations like AP and the San Jose Mercury News are well-established. Wired News and Wired Magazine are a few blocks from CNET in the south of market area in San Francisco. Blogs like SFist are making a run of it too. To be honest there are more news jobs overall in the Washington, D.C. area but there are more than enough tech jobs in the Silicon Valley area to make it worthwhile.

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Web development certifications: I am looking to make a move from helpdesking to web development. Certifications are big in helpdesking and I was wondering if there are any web-related certs that would help me in a future career?

Declan McCullagh: It depends on what you're talking about in web development -- are you talking about care and feeding of a back end database or the more artistic work that goes into designing a Web site? If you're talking about web design (rather than the back end stuff, which is going to be database- and platform-specific) there are a number of certifications available. Here's a good list: http://certification.about.com/od/webinternet/

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Silver Spring, Md.: What is your take on the real cutting edge high tech electronics jobs finding their way back to the N.Y./N.J. area? I moved down to this area after finding that the telecom jobs that existed when I started school had disappeared post-tech-bust when I graduated, so defense it was. I've been keeping my eyes open, but there seems to be VERY little real interesting high tech work back up that way. Enough up in New England, and even some in Eastern Penn., but N.J. is still looking like a relative desert compared to the telecom days when Lucent hired more than just Ph.D.s with 15 years experience. Do you see that industry ever picking back up in the N.Y. area?

Declan McCullagh: I lived in the New Jersey area (Princeton-New Brunswick corridor) for a year or two in the late 1980s when there was still a thriving tech presence there. I haven't lived there since and may be a bit off-base, but my hunch is that it's not going to return. Part of this is a general population shift out west, and part of this is a pretty hostile business climate in that area. Check out the Tax Foundation's 2006 report, which ranks New Jersey and New York as the 'worst places in the country' to run a business: http://www.taxfoundation.org/publications/show/78.html California isn't at the top of the list (not at the bottom either) but Silicon Valley has a unique mix of universities, talent, legal help, and venture capital that will keep a lot of jobs here for a while. But companies like to go where the business climate is favorable. Here's an interview I did with the CEO of Cypress Semiconductor (which does very cutting edge electronics), who recounted a telling story about how welcoming Texas officials were: http://news.com.com/Chip+off+the+block/2008-1006_3-5215272.html

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Silver Spring, Md.: What percentage of high tech jobs do you see going off shore in the next few years? Does it make any sense for someone in this country to study computer science?

Declan McCullagh: YES! It does. There are plenty of jobs for computer scientists in this country, and there will be for the foreseeable future. But it's true that you need to differentiate yourself from offshore programmers who are, essentially, competing for the same job at a much lower price. So that might mean specializing and being an expert on a specific area (building device drivers, securing MySQL databases in a production system, etc.). Or it might mean bridging disciplines and taking classes in cognitive science as well. That lends itself to knowing not just how to program something, but how to program something that humans will want to use. Interface is key. Cognitive science also lends itself to innovations we'll see in the next few years (I hope) such as better and more reliable speech understanding, speech translation, and moving our operating systems and GUIs beyond what was state-of-the-art in the 1970s!

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Silver Spring, Md.: Just looking for some insight on what's going on in general in the IT field. I, as well as several associates, am looking to make a change in the field of testing or software quality assurance. It seems like a lot of positions went offshore and the pickings are slim. What is your assessment?

Declan McCullagh: I think your instincts are right. Testing and software quality assurance are two areas that a CEO or CTO are likely to send offshore. Neither would be my first choice for a career in the IT field.

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Bowie, Md.: It was reported yesterday that there's been a slowdown in growth in government contracting with the primary reason being monies channeled into the Middle East situation. It may sound impossible, but do you think there will be a downturn in the future for cleared jobs, and the hype over the lack of cleared people finally dying down with a saturation of cleared and unemployed people hitting the unemployment lines?

Declan McCullagh: I think there's bound to be a slowdown in the growth in government contracting, if only because its rapid growth in the last few years has been unsustainable. If it's not the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan, and Lebanon) diverting federal attention and taxpayer dollars, soon enough it's going to be looming entitlements costing us money as well. As for security clearances, I remember reading a bunch of GAO reports recently that bemoaned the slow pace of approving security clearances. As spending growth slows down it seems like the backlog (sometimes huge) can be cleared out. But it still seems that if you've got an active security clearance, you're probably in good shape and far less likely to hit the unemployment lines than the average worker.

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Toledo, Ohio: What about IP telephony as a career field? Where do you see that field in the next few years?

Declan McCullagh: The switch to IP telephony is huge and happening right now. It's difficult to understate. But whether it's wise for you depends on what you want to do -- what's your specialty? Marketing, engineering? I'd check out the resources on pulver.com and maybe see if you can get to their VON December conference in Atlanta for networking and job hunting tips.

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Falls Church, Va.: I have been a programmer for 12 years and I would like to get a new job that is still in the software industry but that requires travel (I like traveling). What do you recommend and what skills should I prepare in order to achieve it? Thanks.

Declan McCullagh: Thanks for the question. It depends mostly on what industry you're in and what type of programming you've been doing. But from my perspective, most programmers don't travel that much for work except for industry conferences. (They might be able to telecommute if their company's flexible enough, but that's not what you're asking.) It sounds like you need a career switch. Taking a job at McKinsey or Booz Allen or IBM Global Services could mean a lot of travel for client visits -- maybe even more than you want! So would getting into the training business and teaching customers how to use a company's product.

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Vienna, Va.: My son started college this year majoring in CS. Are there any particular electives in the field that you would recommend that would give him an advantage for corporate recruiters?

Declan McCullagh: Congratulations to your son on choosing computer science. For the first year or two he's going to be going through the basic CS core curriculum (data structures, graphics, algorithms, etc.) It's hard to know what's going to give an advantage nearly four years out. I'd stay away from spending too much time on theory and AI. Many CS departments are heavy on math and theory, which of course has its place in academia, but employers are focused on the bottom line. Someone who can design good user interfaces will always be employable. So will someone who has an excellent grasp of computer security. Fault-tolerant computing, multimedia databases and servers, multiprocessor scheduling also seem like areas that'll be good in a few years.

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Arlington, Va.: Would you describe how you are a journalist, gadfly and a photographer? How do these roles intermingle in your life?

Declan McCullagh: Thanks for the question! Once you're a journalist writing about the foibles of corporate America and politicians, being a gadfly comes naturally. I became a photographer about six years ago and (through luck or skill) have had some success at it. Journalism is in part about telling stories, and being able to do it in writing or in photos gives me more options. I went to Burning Man last month in the Nevada desert, for instance, and ended up posting a photo gallery on News.com instead of writing an article: http://news.com.com/2300-1026_3-6112476-1.html, http://www.mccullagh.org/theme/burning-man-2006-highlights.html Being a gadfly, though, is a lifelong occupation. I've already been subpoenaed by the Justice Department, received death threats for writing articles critical of UFO fans, and threatened with more lawsuits than I can count on my fingers. (Not one ever came to fruition.) It helps to work for a good company that'll back me up and to be married to a lawyer, I guess.

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Arlington, Va.: I have a master's degree in genetics. For the past six years, I've worked in online services for a nonprofit as a project manager, and another nonprofit managing and developing their Web site, and now my job is expanding into managing IT. In each of these positions, I've also been managed their research programs as well.

I'm looking to focus my career in genetics and computers. I've taken a graduate bioinformatics class and java class, have intermediate level of php programming and MySQL/SQL and html.

Can you provide some insight into what type of job I would qualify for especially in bioinformatics? I've seen most advertised jobs ask for higher level degree and/or many years of programming experience.

How should I begin my job search? Should I go back to school or take more programming classes?

Declan McCullagh: I've been at this over an hour and don't want to tax the patience of the good folks at washingtonpost.com so should probably wrap this up. To be really competitive in the bioinformatics space you'll need a degree. I'd check out the University of Manchester (UK) which offers an online program: http://octette.cs.man.ac.uk/bioinformatics/ There are probably others that are as solid but I've heard good things about Manchester's. Also I've learned that you can always pick up programming as you go but the theory (and classes in proteomics, molecular modeling, etc.) it really really helps to go to school for. Thanks, everyone, for the questions, and thanks to washingtonpost.com for the invitation to join you here today!

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Silver Spring, Md.: Someone studying computer science SHOULD take the theory courses. If I take a course in operating systems I can apply my knowledge to ZOS, UNIX and Windows. If I study windows server 2003 my skills are outdated when windows servers 2007 comes out. One can go to a trade school and study a particular application or operating systems just be prepared to be laid off when new products come out an the company can hire someone just out of trade school with that particular knowledge.

Declan McCullagh: One last one: You're right that someone should understand the theory behind CS. That's the difference between CS and a trade school. What I tried to say (and probably failed) is that if you specialize in theoretical computer science and neglect your real-world skills, you may not be that employable. I mean, there are computer science professors out there who barely know how to work a computer, let alone program one.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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