Unix: When to look for a new job

Leaving a job can be one of the hardest decisions you'll ever make. You know the routine, you've made many friends, you know what's expected of you ... but the last thing you want to do is wake up one day and realize that you're no longer marketable or happy. How can you think your way through such a tough decision?

I've been a Unix systems administration and information security specialist for a lot of years and have made my fair share of stay and go decisions. In general, they are always hard decisions to make, but there a number of decision criteria to keep in mind when you're wondering whether or not it's time to move on. The most obvious is whether you're relatively happy or downright miserable in your current position. I say "relatively happy" because, if you're deliriously happy, you're probably not reading this post. Of course, your happiness level may not be all that easy to pin down. You might like your boss, get along with most of your coworkers, and think your work is interesting -- but feel stagnated and ignored when promotions are announced. You might feel appreciated and well rewarded for your work, but also acknowledge that the work you are doing doesn't align very well with your priorities or your values. If you are downright miserable in your current position, the decision to look for another job is pretty much a no brainer, except -- and this is a big exception -- when there's really no place to go. I'm not much of a "grin and bear it" kind of gal, but there are times when staying put makes sense even when you'd rather be anywhere else. Other jobs are not necessarily better just because they're different. It's always OK to look but, when the market seems bereft of opportunity, it might be time to carefully assess what is and isn't working in your current position and honestly ask yourself (and maybe even your boss) what you do to can change some of the things you don't like. Without an honest, carefully considered view of why you're so unhappy, trading one job for another could land you in an even worse position -- and one without the benefit of the connections and time on the job you've just left behind. Another key indicator that it's time to move on is when you don't feel valued or don't feel that your work is valued. If yours could be the next head on the chopping block, you owe it to yourself to be on the lookout for something new and different. If you're not feeling valued, however, this might be the right time to start a "What can I do to be more helpful and productive" discussion with your boss. You might get some feedback that opens doors or changes your viewpoint. Another question to ask yourself is whether you are picking up new skills. If there's one hard earned insight that you should take to heart, it's this: if you're not learning, you're losing ground. This field that we work in is constantly changing. If you're stuck in a job where you do the same thing year after year, you might find yourself seriously lacking in skills and insights when you have to go looking for that next job. To the extent you are able, always insist that some part of your work expose you to new tools and applications, even if they're above and beyond what you get credit for. Apprentice yourself to someone who does work you're interested in or do some work on the side. Learn a new language or dabble around with public domain tools that can expose you to different aspects of systems management or security. Take a class, read a book, go to a conference ... Look for opportunities at work to help with new projects. Let your boss know that you'd like to do some additional work in some area that interests you. Most of the time, that kind of energy and enthusiasm is both appreciated and encouraged. And, if it's not, maybe you've got another good reason to go back to the "moving on" question. An additional high impact motivator on the "move or stay" decision is how you are affected by office politics. Office politics can be a major downer when it comes to job satisfaction. If you're on the losing side of most office battles or see others getting ahead because they're willing to maneuver in ways that seem petty or unconscionable to you, maybe it's time to rethink your stance. Office politics can be pretty nasty and even counterproductive (e.g., when office workers care more about their personal goals than about the health of the company), but they're here to stay. Office politics is simply people politics expressed at work. It can be annoying or it can be intolerable. How do you deal with it? For one thing, try to build relationships that work. Get to understand the movers and shakers and work on building trust. Improve difficult relationships if you can and neutralize them if you cannot. For another, try to understand what motivates people that are hard to deal with. Rise above the pettiness of politics. Give yourself time to respond to petty power plays. Never overreact and always maintain your integrity and professionalism. And last, keep an organizational perspective. If, even when maintaining the high road, you find yourself bullied and bruised, maybe it's time to give up and go elsewhere. One last thing to remember -- Whether your current position is salvageable or not, it's a good idea to never stop looking. I don't mean to contradict anything I've said so far in this post, but there are two serious advantages to scanning the job openings boards from time to time. The first is that it will keep you aware of what skills are most in demand. What kinds of experience are most employers looking for? How does your skill set line up? The second is that it gives you an opportunity to compare what you're doing with what you might be doing. Do those job descriptions really sound much better than your current job or are they just different? How would you describe your current work? If you wrote your job up and posted it to a job site, would it appeal to you? How would it compare with those you've been circling as possible next jobs? People working in Unix systems administration and information security generally have a wide range of job responsibilities and skills. If you're keeping your skills updated, learning new tricks, floating above the worse aspects of office politics, and staying tuned in to what skills are most in demand, you will have a much better chance of being happy in place or elsewhere. Happy job hunting/keeping to you!

Read more of Sandra Henry-Stocker's Unix as a Second Language blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld, Twitter and Facebook.

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