Being an independent can mean big salaries and other perks. But how do you battle the downside of being on your own? And as a manager, how do you convince free agents to stick around?

Free Agent MCSE

Being an independent can mean big salaries and other perks. But how do you battle the downside of being on your own? And as a manager, how do you convince free agents to stick around?

Signing bonuses, luxury automobiles, playing for the highest bidder, and sky-high salaries—am I talking about professional athletes or MCSEs? The answer is both. For the qualified MCSE, times are very, very good. But from a management perspective, for those of us who manage projects, consulting practices, and IS departments, these times can be maddening! I’ll explore both sides.

This Isn’t Your Parent’s Career

The career you’re enjoying as a Microsoft Certified Professional is probably quite different from that of your parents. And I’m not just talking about different computing eras, like MS-DOS vs. Windows 2000. Whereas your parents spent years at the same job, perhaps holding only a few jobs in their professional careers, you’re more likely to enjoy a career with many job changes.

If you’re a free agent, think of yourself as an MCSE superstar whose life is analogous to a modern-day professional athlete. Most likely:

  • You were brought in for an end-of-the-season play-off run—that is, to help complete a technology project.
  • You have loyalty first to self, second to team.
  • You received a signing bonus (but in the thousands, not millions, of dollars).
  • You dress any way you want, á la Dennis Rodman (well, not that extreme).
  • You command immediate respect when you walk into a room, not necessarily for having a seven-foot body frame, but for the initials after your last name.
  • You drive a gaudy late-model foreign car.

Indeed, life is good for the MCSE superstar. But remember to balance this winning attitude by considering a few points. First, most MCSEs have only known good times. In fact, the U.S. economic expansion, now the longest running dose of economic good times since Caesar ruled, is older than the entire existence of both the Microsoft BackOffice family and the MCSE program. Today’s MCSEs haven’t known bad times. So while free agency works wonders as you’re riding both the economic and MCSE booms, understand that good times don’t last forever. Economic cycles are well-documented: What goes up must come down. Don’t think an economic downturn will negatively impact your pocketbook? Think again, and just ask any former National Semiconductor employee who rode the integrated chip manufacturing boom and dip. And as a free agent, if bad times arrive on these shores you might be the first to see those high-flying short-term contracted or temporary opportunities dry up.

My advice regarding downward economic cycles? Run for a safe harbor, such as a full-time position, at the first sign of an economic slow down. In Seattle, this was a wise strategy invoked by technology consultants over the years when Boeing sneezed (and the free-agent consultants caught colds).

MCSEs are at risk of facing, sooner rather than later, an oversupply of talent. The MCSE numbers say it all. If you’ve tracked the MCSE population census numbers—published monthly in this magazine—you’ve seen the world grow in only a few years from 30,000 MCSEs to over 100,000 MCSEs. Thus, it’s entirely likely that an overabundance of MCSEs in the future will mean more limited opportunities for all. And free agents who depend on frequent “trades” or new assignments will be competing against more MCSEs for existing opportunities. I optimistically assume the employment opportunities for MCSEs will continue to grow, but not as quickly as the number of MCSEs entering the labor force. My advice is to develop a niche that makes your skills in demand regardless of the supply of MCSEs. I have accomplished this in my own consulting practice by focusing most of my efforts in the Small Business Server niche.

But enough negativity. I know MCSEs who are making in the low six figures as free agents. These same people would otherwise be earning closer to the $60K to $70K annual salaries typically seen in MCSE salary surveys.

Managing in a Free Agency Market

Another long face, another lost MCSE. As always, the long face gives away the nearly departed MCSE when you’re a manager. I’ve seen it all too often, and so have other consulting managers in this late era of MCSE free agency. I’ve seen employees with certifications stay fewer and fewer months (notice I don’t even measure by years—that would be too academic). Top MCSEs, my favorite kind to hire, are leaping from job to job just like superstar athletes hop from team to team. Why is this occurring? It’s largely because we managers allow it. For every short-term job hopper, there’s a manager who extended a new, perhaps higher-paying offer.

So how do you manage in a free agency environment? Here are a couple of lessons I’ve learned as a consulting manager:

  • Employees rule. Much of a manager’s power to discipline or undertake bold and often unpopular initiatives has been neutralized by the MCSE’s ability to move quickly to another job. The resolution? Perhaps you should treat your employees even better than your customers. Instead of Customer Service, perhaps it’s really Service to the Employee. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a case of revenge of the Proletariat, perhaps an unexpected outcome of the MCSE certification movement. Free agency is also imposing management challenges—things that clearly weren’t covered in the educational curriculum—on some managers. Did you ever have a certification exam question on how to manage people?
  • Keep an extra MCSE in your hip pocket. Or simply stated, as part of your responsibility as a manager of MCSEs, you should be constantly recruiting new talent. Given that MCSEs will come and go quickly, keep your potential supplies of MCSEs high! To me, that means trying to take one or two future employees to lunch each month. I’m always up for a company-paid recruiting lunch.
         On a less serious note, perhaps we can learn something from our suburban cul-de-sac dwelling friends who sell Amway and Tupperware. Implement some kind of multi-level-marketing (MLM) MCSE recruiting approach. Maybe rewarding those who give you referrals will ease your MCSE management challenges. An employee may have a friend whose spouse just completed his or her MCSE. Don’t laugh; such a situation occurred recently for me at a client located 100 miles south of Seattle (a drive I no longer have to make!).
  • Institutionalize free agency. Finally, you could invoke the business model used by many software development companies (including Microsoft). That model is to institutionalize free agency as part of your technical staffing strategy. To do this, simply maintain recruiting relationships with a few temporary agencies or staffing firms. Let them do the dirty work of recruiting, screening, and performing initial background checks on your prospective labor force.
        More importantly, let them manage the “inventory” or supply of MCSEs to meet your needs. This approach allows you to de-emphasize the human resources management function, allowing you to have more fun performing your primary job responsibilities.

If none of the above management approaches work for you, consider trading in your management hat for your walking shoes and becoming an MCSE free agent yourself. Who knows? Within days you could be buying your folks a new house and driving a gaudy late model car around town. Best of luck.

About the Author

Bainbridge Island, Washington author Harry Brelsford is the CEO of NetHealthMon.com, a Small Business Server consulting and networking monitoring firm. He publishes the "Small Business Best Practices" newsletter (subscribe@nethealthmon.com), and is the author of several IT books, including MCSE Consulting Bible (Hungry Minds) and Small Business Server 2000 Best Practices (Hara Publishing).

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