By Katherine Spencer Lee | April 2008

Dice is pleased to introduce a new monthly IT career column, Ask the IT Career Doctor, with Katherine Spencer Lee, Executive Director of Robert Half Technology. Robert Half Technology is a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Once per month, Katherine will respond to an IT career-related question from a Dice reader. This month, she responds to an IT professional who supports an ERP system that is being phased out.

Last year I was laid off from my mainframe COBOL systems analyst job. I haven't yet been able to find a new position by visiting online job listings or networking with people. What other ways can I search? How can I get better results?

Katherine Lee Spencer responds:
As online job and networking sites have become increasingly powerful and easy to use, IT professionals seeking employment face a new challenge. Precisely because these tools are so effective, they've become nearly universal: Just about all of your competition is using them.

So how do you avoid getting stuck in the middle of the pack? First, learn how to set yourself apart when you're using the most popular avenues. Second, add some less-traveled routes to your job-seeking road map.

Use job boards wisely
Job boards such as Dice are the interstate highways of IT job searches, so get a jump on traffic by avoiding common mistakes. For example, don't limit your efforts to the most recent listings. A slightly dated job advertisement doesn't reflect the quality of the company or the potential desirability of the position. And don't assume that an opening has been filled simply because it's been posted for a few weeks - the employer may simply be waiting for a candidate with the right skills.

Another way to stand out is to take the time to customize your application materials to match each opportunity, rather than sending the same resume to every company you come across. IT hiring managers seek tailored resumes that directly tie your unique skills and abilities to the requirements of the position.

Think beyond the postings. For instance, if you're overqualified for an interesting job listed by a local firm, note that the advertisement indicates that the company is hiring. Visit its website to identify any additional opportunities, or consider sending a resume and cover letter to the employer expressing your desire to be considered for future openings more tailored to your qualifications.

Get personal with your networking
Online networking sites make it easy to meet new contacts, but many IT professionals don't go the extra mile to turn these into personal, productive connections.

It doesn't take much to cultivate strong connections. For example, always include a personal note with an invitation to join your network. This helps you differentiate yourself from other recent contacts and gets the relationship started in a casual, positive way. After you've made contact, be sure to keep in touch regularly, even if it's just to say hello or to pass along the link to an interesting article. Take advantage of resources available on the networking sites themselves, such as advice from expert users that can help you make your profile more searchable and desirable.

Similarly, simply attending industry events rarely leads to productive connections. Go out of your way to make personal contacts. In any networking situation, keep in mind what you can offer others, rather than merely sizing up their potential usefulness to you. This approach tends to make you more relaxed and approachable, and helps you establish yourself as a good person to know. New contacts are like seedlings - they dry up quickly if you don't tend to them promptly and regularly. Be the first to reach out again after the function, offering something of value so you come across as a resource.

Take the roads less traveled
Very few successful IT professionals could have predicted exactly where they'd end up, let alone the route they'd take to get there. That's why your networking should include not only former coworkers and alumni groups (both high school and college) but also your friends, relatives and neighbors. Even the least technical person you know may be only a few degrees of separation away from an IT decision maker. Let all of your acquaintances know you're looking for a new position.

Staffing firms represent another route that some IT professionals overlook. Contract-based or consulting work can be a great way to familiarize yourself with an employer while demonstrating your skills. Many staffing firms also provide career advice and free training.

Being innovative in your job search exposes you to a richer range of opportunities, including some you might have never considered. By exploring all the paths available to you, from highways to side streets, you give yourself the best chance to arrive at a rewarding destination.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America, Europe and Asia.