When to talk money with a prospective employer

Surviving during the economic downturn

IT leader Mark Burnette is an expert in leadership, IT process, compliance, security and cost management who has led two award-winning IT organizations, Burnette answers questions about surviving the economic downturn and returning to school.

My company hasn't laid off anyone from IT yet in this stagnant economy, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time. Any advice on how to avoid the ax when it comes down?

First, don't run around afraid you're going to lose your job. It will affect your mind-set, which in turn will subconsciously affect how you perform and how you interact with your co-workers. Plus, it's no fun to go to work in a negative state of mind all the time. Second, focus on results. No matter how much you're paid, if you consistently meet or exceed your boss's expectations, it will be very difficult for him to put your name on the pink slip when decision time comes.

If you're not sure of your status in your boss's eyes, seek constructive feedback and act immediately on any improvement suggestions. Be reliable, and communicate consistently and effectively with your co-workers. And last, being a trusted subject-matter expert on a particularly important technology solution for your company will make it difficult to cut you loose as well. But don't fall into the trap of trying to "hoard" information so that you'll be the only expert in that area. Your boss will notice and may assume you're not a team player.

While doing all of this, you should also get your ducks in a row in case you do lose your job. Update your résumé (after-hours) to reflect all of your current experience; gather any performance reviews, job descriptions, etc., that may be helpful if you have to look for another job. Many employers are using LinkedIn as a reference tool when considering prospective employees, so update your LinkedIn profile, and consider asking some co-workers to "endorse" you there. Build your professional network by attending trade association or professional organization events and meeting people. In the business world, landing that next job is often more about who you know rather than simply what you know.

I've been toying with the idea of going back to school. (I work in desktop support and want to learn more about networking and business matters.) I'm thinking that this economy is a good time to do it. What areas should I focus on that would give me a leg up when the economy turns around?

Information security is a great field of study because all organizations are dealing with security issues on some level. Even companies that aren't focusing on building a security function -- and most of them are, given the visibility and liability of security breaches -- have to deal with compliance issues of some type, and achieving compliance typically involves layering in control processes or technology that requires some degree of security knowledge. Further, technical security work, such as vulnerability assessment, intrusion detection and forensics, requires a specialized skill set that commands a compensation premium at most companies.

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