Government spawns a tech boom
Todd Montgomery found just one employer willing to offer him Virginia's hottest job--a high-tech post in the burgeoning homeland security business--but he would have had to sit and do nothing for at least six months. That's the minimum wait for a federal government security clearance, and many companies can't delay.
As it turned out, Montgomery, 42, didn't have to cool his heels. Soon after starting his job search last October, the technical engineer was interviewing every other day. By January, he had landed a job with Integrated Research, a small Australian firm that markets a management software used by large banks and telecommunications firms. Montgomery believes he landed the job because of his dual experience in technology and sales; he meets with East Coast clients for IR, which competes against big names by emphasizing customer service. Companies "are creating software and systems that are easier to administer," so they need fewer pure techies. Instead, employers "are looking for someone who can actually sell the software and systems," he says.
While much of the tech world has not yet fully recovered from the dot-com meltdown, Virginia--home to both the Pentagon and the world's largest naval base at Norfolk--is feasting on the financial buffet the federal government has laid out since 9/11. The feds are looking for help in developing surveillance software, assistance in integrating the agencies brought together to make the Department of Homeland Security, and aid in analyzing reams of foreign intelligence data. One sweet irony: So many new jobs require security clearances that the government had to create even more jobs by hiring outside companies to help vet candidates.
Teamwork. The best candidates have a top-secret government security clearance. But those who haven't been through the vetting process shouldn't give up hope. They can add another big plus: the skill to work well with a team and with clients.
"People who sit at a desk in a dark closet with a bright screen and code are not needed as much," says Paul Villella, chief executive of the Northern Virginia professional staffing firm HireStrategy. "Businesses need people who come out and interact with business and understand how their coding fits in." He says salaries for tech professionals with three to 10 years of experience range from $55,000 to $90,000 and have been headed up.
Liz Tupper, an independent tech consultant who has been seeking a full-time position, warns that employers still are looking for software-specific experience. Hiring someone with people skills is "what they envision as the ideal, but their comfort level is going with someone who has had the IT experience in the platform they use."
Robert Brandau, president of McLean, Va., consulting firm Increasing Revenue, says it's "a given" that candidates will have skill in Java or with Oracle databases, or programming experience. "What makes a difference, more than the skills, is the person's ability to be a disciplined team player and to have a positive attitude," he says.
Ralph Shrader, chief executive officer of Booz Allen Hamilton, says his company is seeking "people with passion" in addition to "cutting-edge skills," as it sets out to create 4,600 new jobs in Northern Virginia and Norfolk over the next five years. "When you find a person has run in a marathon, or they sing in an opera, or they like to climb mountains--things that challenge you as an individual to be better and do better--we find those kinds of people tend to have great success here," he says.
Some employers describe the current situation in historic terms--and not the Web-driven hiring mania of the late '90s. "It's like running out of iron ore in the middle of the industrial revolution," says Renny DiPentima, chief executive of federal contractor SRA International. "We are in an information-technology revolution, and in certain areas we are running out of knowledge workers." His company, which added 1,000 workers last year and is looking to hire 1,200 more, sees an excellent candidate pool in those leaving the military. They already have clearances and "a great work ethic and real knowledge of the challenges government faces." -Marianne Lavelle
This story appears in the March 21, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.