One less-than-obvious place to look for STEM jobs

Since Trump is coming for scientists, I wrote this for people whose job may be at risk, or who were about to start looking for a job. I hope this information is useless for most of you as you continue doing what you really want to do, but just in case, here is one option among the less obvious.

If you can’t stay in public sector or academia, you may want to look in private sector. Within that, the obvious place is to find a company that does something similar to what you are already doing, or were hoping to do. That may be best for you, but of course there is going to be competition from all the others in a similar position. You also probably know as well as I do how to go about doing that, including the cultural differences in how you write CVs/résumés.

This is about another, less obvious, place to look. It is based on my experience which is necessarily limited, but maybe this example will help you think of a few other places. I thought of a few while writing this, but that’s another story.

What you may not know is that some of the professional services firms hire people who do what you do, in addition to the people who do the technology they are known for.  These include IBM, whose Global Services division is much larger than the rest of the company, in spite of its popular image as a computer manufacturer and software house. It also includes many stand-alone services firms.

The larger ones have both research and consulting divisions. The research divisions are smaller, so lower probability that they are looking for people with your skills right now, but the consulting (services) divisions are very large. Smaller ones may not have separate research divisions. Larger ones work in many different fields, the smaller ones specialize.

In both research and services their end goal is to get work automating some aspect of some industry. In the research divisions they work on longer time horizons, building intellectual capital that can be used by the services division.  In services, the goal is more immediate, either doing proposals or executing contracts.

Some personal background, to help you understand and evaluate my perspective. I worked as a programmer, analyst and eventually executive IT architect. I was self-employed, worked for a couple of small consulting companies and finally worked for a tech giant, IBM (for 30 years). I did mostly services, some research. There are some walls between divisions but not hard to break if you decide to.  I’m now retired though my opinions have always been my own. I have no recommendations as I don’t know you, I’m just offering some information in case it’s useful.

When putting together a project team, we ideally wanted three leaders:

  • The IT architect to design the system and be technical lead for the implementation
  • The Project Manager to, well, manage the project
  • The Industry Expert to provide the inside knowledge. (‘Industry’ being a generic term, not the opposite of academia. To IBM, academia is just another industry).

That last role was essential both to win contracts (think “grants” on a large scale) and to give the client confidence throughout that we understood their business and would be innovative but not so innovative that our solutions wouldn’t work for them. These people would sometimes be contractors (hired for the specific project) but quite often we would hire them permanently. (By-the-way, I was hired as a contractor, then “made an offer I couldn’t refuse”).

There are advantages to working in this type of role in some large companies in times of economic uncertainty in your primary discipline. Smart companies like smart people, no matter what their specific skills are. If they like you, they will find you work doing something interesting even if the downturn means your specific skills are not as much in demand. That makes it easier to get back when times change. The ‘risk’ is that you’ll get sucked into something else you like just as much and never return. (Me! I never really formed an intention of getting into infotech). They also encourage you to maintain your networks to help you and them find work. Also makes it easier to move back when opportunities arrive.

There are disadvantages. The biggest I found was that you could drift into something you don’t like much, because they have many areas you don’t like but are currently profitable. You need to be careful and make it clear what you won’t do, either because you’re not interested or because you find it ethically questionable, regardless of being offered more money (almost literally bribes).  It’s funny how surprised people are when they try to get you to do something they think is really good for the world and interesting, and you say you think it is neither.

I never got fired for saying ‘no’, and the disapproval soon went away as I moved to somewhere more congenial and left the frowns behind. Of course, there are large companies that are very bureaucratic, but they don’t survive long in tech. There are bureaucratic departments in even the more agile ones, but you can usually keep out of their clutches. And like any company, you can finish up working with ass-holes. That’s another story.

Working for smaller companies also has its advantages. I won’t discuss them here. Many do have the same kind of Industry Expert role as the big ones but are riskier in times of downturn as they have a harder time finding another job. Still, if you find one with a job, go for it! The biggest risk with smaller companies is that they have a bigger variance in corporate culture and nowhere to go except out if it turns out not to fit you.

The best of the medium-to-giant ones have diversity policies, including mentorship and internal support groups for several URMs. I don’t mean that there aren’t large problems, but there is some recognition and I have seen managers fired for inappropriate behaviour. Some departments are better than others and a good mentor will support you. As a straight white male I have to admit that the only real knowledge I have of this is through people I mentored or non-work friends.

The best of the small ones don’t need that machinery as they have a supportive culture, but the worst of them are truly awful.

Most large companies have ties with academia. Some small ones do. My first job was with a small company part owned by a professor. In fact, I was taking his class in numeric computing and he offered me a job doing flood forecasting and river modelling in FORTRAN, so I never finished my second undergrad degree ☺ These are other avenues you can use to maintain your network for if/when you want to return and they are also avenues you may use to find jobs. Are there people in your network who are working with consultants today?

Declaration of (lack of) interest: Although I used to get $5k hiring bonus for finding people, I no longer have any connection with any corporation, nor do I care how well any of them do.

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