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The answers to this question might be different than the generic, "I graduated. Duh, now what should I do?" Living in an area with a low population presents limited opportunities compared to those in more urban or suburban communities. On the other hand...maybe the answers will be largely the same. I'm asking you folks who might be looking at this from a perspective of more years on the inside for your wisdom.

I have just finished a CS degree. I am about 40 (does it matter much?). I left a successful, professional career in the laboratory robotics industry because it required me to either move to a big city or continue to travel extensively. In a few years we could potentially move somewhere else or I could start travelling again but I need to start working now. I need to make myself as employable as possible.

There are few jobs available in my area for computer professionals. Of those few, the majority seem to be IT related more than software development related -- SharePoint, ERP, network security, web services, etc..

Might I be well served by trying to pick up some IT knowledge? Or should I continue to work on my software development chops?

I have my own project now that I am proud of and excited about and could happily continue to extend it. It is a good vehicle for learning new stuff until (and hopefully after) I find employment. I'm hoping to get some others involved in it as well.

Or I could start a new project that would be a vehicle for learning something marketable -- from .net to being able to support all that legacy COBOL there seems like a lot of stuff out there.

Thanks for whatever insight anyone shares.

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There are certainly jobs out there for people who telecommute or work from home, however most I have seen require you to physically be in the office at least once every other week. How far away are you from the closest urban center? – maple_shaft Nov 2 '11 at 14:15
I agree with @maple. You couldn't keep your job and work from home, travelling occasionally? That's basically what I do. – Mike Dunlavey Nov 2 '11 at 16:38
@MikeDunlavey Issue is that I don't have a job right now. It has been three years since I had a job -- the one that required 70+% travel. I'd be more than happy to have even a long commute to work a couple days a week if I could work from home on the other days. Right now I'm looking at jobs that are up to 75min away (one way, longer with traffic) and considering commuting to those 5 days a week. Those are in Asheville, NC. Larger cities are 3+ hours away. – Huliax Nov 2 '11 at 21:10
@H: Sounds like nice geography is making your options tougher. When I was contracting (which is a good way to get job offers) I sometimes had to work 1000 miles away & commute on weekends. Good luck. – Mike Dunlavey Nov 2 '11 at 21:44
@MD It is actually my wife's job that has us (stuck?) here -- the geography is a pleasant coincidence. If we didn't have small children things would be different in terms of the long commute option. – Huliax Nov 2 '11 at 23:35

From my own experience living in a less populated area,

  1. Networking is crucial if there's any wiff of any technical/nerdy group to get involved in, get involved. In a small town everyone knows everyone. Do good work and people will remember you and think of you for that next job. Many of the technical companies may be very small shops, and those type of people tend to hire who they know, so get in good with them.

  2. Get to know the local buisiness folk Goes along with 1. Be known to the local business people as the computer guy. Be it general IT or making them a website or something more elaborate. Its crucial to get your name out there.

  3. Be a jack of all trades. One advantage of being in a smaller market is it forces you to diversify. You don't get pigeonholed as easily into one technology forever. Local businesses seeking developers cannot count on their being 5000 expert python developers within a few square miles. Instead they'll be more willing to accept someone with more moderate levels of experience in what they want. So be sure to diversify your skills. As implied in (2) this may not be strictly programming, but any form of IT or computer support.

Outside of tapping local resources, be sure to

  1. Get involved in the closest metropolitan area's contracting market. You can possibly find flexible contracting gigs that allow you to work remotely. Leverage your lower cost of living to accept lower paying gigs that the competition can't accept. Even if you need to go in, you may be able to room-share with other professionals who also commute in longer distance to work a few days in a major metropolitan area.

  2. As a last resort use sites like elance and rentacoder. I find people on these sites really don't have great compensation, so I avoid them. But if need be, these can be a last resort.

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Also be sure to learn IT skills as well. I have worked in many size shops from big citys to small towns and in pretty much every one of them I needed to be able to administer my own machine as well as figure out networking issues and know how to handle accessing a server, etc. Versatility is what will keep your career alive in this industry, and that's even more true in a smaller market. – James P. Wright Nov 2 '11 at 22:46
Elance and Rent A Coder type websites consist almost entirely of jobs posted by people who don't understand enough to know not to hire someone who learnt to program last Thursday and charges $3.50 an hour. – moteutsch Nov 2 '11 at 23:31
@moteutsch With minimum wage laws, I sometimes wonder if its even LEGAL for me to take a job from elance/rentacoder :) – Doug T. Nov 2 '11 at 23:34

I would start by leveraging your knowledge of the laboratory robotics equipment industry. Are there any APIs or SDKs provided by the manufacturers of the equipment or any way to get your hooks into the signals returned by the hardware? Given your unique knowledge of the industry, was there some sort of feature (ex. advanced monitoring or analysis) many customers had asked for but were unable to find from the product?

This would be a longer term suggestion compared to a typical "learn Sharepoint" answer and may not meet your short term needs, but if you're able to expand your knowledge of how to interact with the robotic equipment from a programmer's perspective, you may open yourself up to employment back at the previous employer, at a different non-travelling role, or employment at a big customer looking to extend the functionality of the equipment.

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If you're looking to make yourself more employable, then try to pick up whatever skills your local market wants. I'd be wary about taking an IT job, as that could get you pigeonholed as a "systems admin" type, which can make it difficult to transition to a development role. If you can, I'd recommend trying to find a recruiter in your area. They're familiar with the local market and can best advise you as to what skills are in demand and who's hiring.

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Indeed I am wary of IT jobs for both the reasons that you mention and because development just seems more fun. It would help if the IT jobs I were seeing around here (that I'm pretty sure I could bootstrap myself into) weren't paying a lot better than the (scarcer) developer jobs I remotely qualify for around here. You are helping me resist. – Huliax Nov 2 '11 at 23:37

There are two things you can try on.

  1. If you are good in development, say website or desktop applications, you can apply for freelance projects on websites like Odesk, Elance, and other similar websites. This will not only help enrich your knowledge but also your pocket.

  2. You can collaborate and contribute to any open-source project. They can be found on google project hosting site or github or codeplex. This won't earn you money but significant knowledge and ease you from client over-headache. You will have the source code at hand which is a great starting point.

Once you feel confident enough after developing and working on some projects, apply for a good opening. Or a start a development company of your own :-) ... Best of luck

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I would like to add to the already good ideas and comments. I was in a customer service/technical support role for a leasing company in my early 40's and was faced with the same problem. However, I couldn't afford to go back to school due to time and money constraints. What I did was the asked this same question to a consultant, listened to his advice and that became my business plan so to speak.

I worked 18 months 15 to 25 hours a week programming at night, weekends and lunch hours in self-study, while working my regular 40 hour a week day job. I got on forums, bought programming books, went to user group meetings, and coded a lot! I worked with a small business and wrote software for them to use. When I was ready I started applying for programming jobs and had 2 offers. That was how I started back in 1997 and in March 1999 I had my first full time position.

My point is the most important thing you need to bring to the table is commercial programming EXPERIENCE! However you can get it. That is the value you can bring to the table over all the other IT grads coming out of school. I've found grades don't count for much. The question is, can you code? That can be proven by experience.

The industry experience is your edge as well if you can apply it. In my case I had 14 years in the Leasing Industry and my first job was writing code supporting leased pc's in the company.

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Thanks for posting. It is good to hear from other "late starters". I saw a post from a guy recently asking if 26 years old was too late to start and I thought, "Dang, I wish I had started at 26!" The one thing about those of us that go into coding late is that I have a feeling that it is something we do because we are really into it. It is very hard to (in my case) give up a good salary and reboot your career when you have kids and mortgage. I'm hoping that employers recognize this as a high level of commitment in and of itself. – Huliax Nov 6 '11 at 12:13

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