What to do when you're unemployed

Here are a few suggestions for keeping your skills sharp and making sure you're at the top of the list when the interviews start flowing again

There are lots of us who are unemployed right now. The question is, what are you going to do with that time?

I’ve been unemployed a few times in my career, and I always use that time to further my skills. Just because you’re not going into the office every day doesn’t mean you should put your work down. One of the biggest mistakes people make when waiting for their next gig is to sit there and do nothing. Then when the big tech interview comes, they have to scramble to bone up on specifics. That’s not how you do things.

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What you want to do is live in a constant state of readiness. You don’t have to study constantly, but you should definitely put in two to three hours every day. You’d be surprised how big of a difference it can make to be technically proficient when it's time for the interview.

Here’s a suggested schedule based on a three-hour study day.

One hour: Study SQL basics. Go over material you already know and solidify your knowledge of the topics. Take this time to memorize syntax, practice implementations, and learn deeper principles on topics you already know. This is the core of your knowledge, so treat it as such.

One hour: Learn something new. This is an excellent time to finally get into XML, SSIS, BI technologies, Service Broker, and so on. The sky’s the limit, but make it something that will help you land a job. Don’t waste your time learning Linux admin skills if your experience is with Microsoft, but you can use this time to get acquainted with HTML, .Net, or any of the other technologies you’ll come across as a Microsoft tech.

One hour: Put it all together into a project. If you’re learning .Net, then write a .Net app that manages your groceries, your incoming mail, your TV programs, a menu application for the family -- it doesn't really matter. Make it something you may actually need, but try to bring your new and your old skills together into some practical experience. This will not only keep you busy; it’ll also keep you sharp.

Don’t cram for your interviews. Do practice runs with your friends or your family and answer tough questions. You can find lists of tough interview questions online. Also, film yourself if you can. Be your own worst critic. One time, I posted vids of myself answering interview questions. I put that link on my resume and got a tremendous response. I actually got called for an interview by the Mayo Clinic partly because of those vids.

Also, if you blog, keep it up. In fact, blog more. I hated that anxious feeling I used to get when I received a call from a recruiter about a tech screening the next day, when I haven’t done anything for six weeks. Don’t let that happen to you.

The other day, I read a suggestion on how to get experience in the industry when you have none. The idea was to go to charity orgs and offer to do work for them. You gain much needed experience, and they get a volunteer.

The same holds true when you're out of work. If you’re not motivated on your own or don’t have any projects you want to write for yourself, then offer your services to a charity and do some work for them. Make the rounds and possibly drum up some business at, for example, a local restaurant by offering to write them a Web site for free. Explain to them that you’re an out-of-work IT guy who’s trying to stay sharp and you’re grateful for the chance to keep busy.

Anyway, those are some suggestions for staying sharp while you’re waiting for your next gig. I hope this helps someone, and really, don’t take your unemployment lying down. You have to be the best one out there when that next gig comes up. Be ready because it can come at any time.

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