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Issue № 95

One Boy’s Life: Surviving the Dotcom Blitz

by Published in Business, Industry

With the snap of a CEO’s fingers, my life turned upside-down. I wasn’t the only web worker to suddenly find himself jobless and broke. Just one of the wounded in a full-on dot-com blitz. But somehow that didn’t console me. And it sure didn’t pay my rent. Or put anything in the refrigerator beyond a gallon of sour milk and a wedge of what might once have been charitably classified as cheese.

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Things used to be different. Just three months ago, I had a nice job building websites for large corporations. My desk commanded a fine view of the river. In the summertime, between JavaScript errors, I could watch sailboats zig and zag across the mirrored waters. I’d been there three years. It was a stable job, and the people were good to me. But I thought I could improve my situation. I saw friends move on to bigger and better places, like frogs hopping from lily pad to lily pad. It seemed to be the nature of the industry. So I left for a new job that would allow me to focus on design instead of production.

A sudden collapse

The new place was a startup –  a small shop (read: five-person company) whose name I won’t mention here.  The CEO had a vision and the passion to drive the company where he (and I) wanted it to go. He needed a designer. I stepped up to the plate. By the time I had put in two weeks’ notice at my former employer’s, the startup company had folded –  a tiny, barely-noticed victim of a suddenly changing industry.

It was the beginning of widespread dot-com devastation. Like a fire raging through a green valley. A fire so big you could smell the smoke continents away.

I did what most designers would do. I freelanced. I knew I wouldn’t be able to freelance for long because I am no businessman. I don’t like to sell myself or sit in meetings. I prefer to bury my nose deep in Photoshop and HTML, sometimes not surfacing for hours on end. I landed a few small freelance projects and a decent-sized one to get me by, but I knew I would have to pound the pavement and find myself a real job.

The job hunt

So I rounded up the usual suspects.  After all, how hard could it be?  I used to be able to walk out of one job and into another the very same day. How much could the industry have changed?

A lot. I checked Monster, Hot Jobs,  CommArts,  and Dice. I was surprised to find very few jobs available for designers. Strange. I kept looking. It seemed I had to be a programmer in either Java or Oracle. Depressing. What’s this? A designer opening?  Good, let’s see:

WEB DESIGNER WANTED!

Must have skills with Photoshop, Quark, Acrobat, Illustrator, 3D Studio and Fireworks.  Minimum of 2 years experience and able to work in a fast paced environment.

Sounded like a good fit. I read on:

Must also have programming skills in HTML, JavaScript and Perl

Okay, I could probably swing that.

Experience working with Oracle and JSP ... must be able to administrate IIS and NT Enterprise Server….

Wait a second. Was this the same job description? Had I skipped over something? Was it a misprint? Nope, it in fact was the same job description. Maybe they should have used the heading, “Renaissance Person Wanted.”

The Grind

Over the next two months I spent at least forty hours a week sending out resumes, responding to email and phone calls, rushing to interviews, sometimes taking phone interviews to save time. Meanwhile I started seeing news headlines that shouted about massive layoffs at larger web agencies. And then I began getting email from friends and colleagues in search of either references or job openings. Oh, the horror.

The next month went by like a scene out of Apocalypse Now in what could be best characterized as economic Darwinism in full effect. First came MarchFIRST, whose implosion cast a new light on their marketing slogan about being the first in history to do something. Then it was –  well, maybe it was the place where you work. One of the latest casualties is Oven Digital, and there are undoubtedly many more on the way, as the market continues to realize that perhaps the IPO of usedsocks.com isn’t such a great idea after all.

Little Nick, Happy at Last

Three months after leaving my previous job I found myself a new home in a more stable and established company.  I’ve been fortunate; I escaped the bloodbath with minor scratches. Some of my friends have not been so lucky. At least, not so far.  Some of them, in fact, have gone on to pursue other careers in different industries, while others are going back to school in hopes of redeeming their value to the tech industry.

For those of you who were caught out in the open without shelter in the middle of the storm, my only advice is hang in there.  And put the word out on the streets, because if there is one thing good about the design community, it’s that we stick together in times of need.  And if nothing turns up?  Go back and retrace your roots. There will always be jobs in print design, architecture, animation, and broadcast design.  As a last resort, you can always bitch about it.

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