Leaving your job? Take your data with you

Here's how to hit the bricks with your digital life intact.

Nothing lasts forever, and in the 21st century, most people's employment is anything but guaranteed. What should have some permanence, however, is our digital footprint -- the body of data that constitutes the true center of our professional lives. In this article, I'll explain how to protect the integrity of your most valuable business data as you make the transition from one job to another, or from job to jobless.

As it happens, I recently quit my cushy full-time gig at a certain well-known tech publication. This is the seventh time I've made the leap in the past 15 years, and I'm getting pretty good at it. In that time, I've learned that it's not the office, the desk, the computer, the e-mail address, the business card, the title, or even the company that make you -- in the professional sense -- you. These things are just the props and backdrop on the current stage of your career, and they're likely to change frequently as your work life plays out.

The things that make up your actual identity tend to be far more nebulous and ethereal: As a professional, your identity is much more closely linked to such intangibles as your contact list, your social media presence, the commitments you make via e-mail, and the esteem of your peers. For the most part, you build these things on your own. They're components of your personal brand -- and as you move from job to job over the years, you'll want to take them with you.

There are a number of ways to bundle up your digital life as you move through your career. Choosing the best approach depends largely on how you assess your current situation. If you're in no rush to leave your present gig, you'll likely get the most benefit from the "Always Be Leaving" section toward the end of this article. If you're preparing to give notice or if you sense that layoffs are headed your way, be sure to read the "Smooth Transition" section. And if you're minutes away from being escorted from the building by a couple of rent-a-cops, jump into the "Your Digital Life Raft" section, fast.

Your Digital Life Raft

Sometimes change comes swiftly into our lives. A sudden round of layoffs on a Friday afternoon can upend your day, ruin your weekend, and derail your career if you're not prepared. For the newly unemployed, severe depression is a very real hazard that can mean the difference between getting back into the game fast or crouching in a pool of self-pity for months on end. One good way to keep your attitude positive and your game face on is to be able to account for the digital essentials that can help you move forward in your career. These are:

  • Your contacts
  • Important e-mails
  • Recent work files

If you walk past the water cooler and hear rumblings about layoffs coming down the hall, you may not have much time to lose. Many larger companies have been known to lock workers out of their PCs, freeze their e-mail accounts, and revoke their network access minutes before announcing layoffs, in an attempt to prevent data leaks. Rather than fretting about whether you're one of the unlucky ones about to be thrown overboard, just assume the worst and start preparing your digital life raft to carry you to shore.

To get your life raft out of the building, you'll need some means of transport. The simplest solution is a USB keychain drive or SD Card, but a smartphone or cloud storage service can also work. Bear in mind, though, that moving a lot of large files to a cloud service can take a long time. Meanwhile, a keychain drive can look conspicuous and draw unwanted attention to what you're doing -- even if you're on the up and up. A smartphone (if you own it and if no one objects when you carry it out of the building) makes an excellent choice. Think fast, size up your storage options, and act decisively.

Create a folder on your desktop and name it "Life Raft" (or anything else, really; it doesn't matter).

The first thing you should grab is your contact list, which usually lives in your e-mail application. Whether you use Outlook, Lotus Notes, or a cloud e-mail service like Gmail, you can export your contact list as a CSV file that any other e-mail client or address book app can read. Outlook CSV is the most broadly supported option. Export the file to your Life Raft folder.

While you're in your e-mail client, pull up any important messages from recent projects that may hold promise for future work. What you should be looking for here are cues for business opportunities, not proprietary information that belongs to your company. For example, if you recently collaborated with an outside agency that may need your services going forward, you'll want to keep the relevant e-mail messages handy after you walk out the door. Open them up and forward them to your personal address. Alternatively, you can export the messages to your Life Raft folder and import them into your own mail client when you get home.

Finally, grab any files that you may need, such as recent drafts of work in progress, examples of your best work, and boilerplate contracts that you can use for reference if you go into business for yourself. When in doubt, and if your time and storage capacity permit, just grab all of the contents of your Documents folder and drag them over to your Life Raft folder.

Once you've collected everything you need from your hard drive (or from the server), copy that Life Raft folder onto your removable storage device, eject it, and slip it into your pocket. Now, while everyone else in the office is skittering around in a panic, you'll at least have the peace of mind of knowing that you're ready to walk out the door if the hammer falls on you.

It's worth taking a moment here to point out the importance of respecting your company's intellectual property rights as you gather files to take with you. You arguably have a right to take your contacts and a few pieces of correspondence with you for reference, but you can get yourself into a heap of trouble by smuggling proprietary data out of the office. Steer clear of anything that might be construed as a company secret, such as product roadmaps or strategic marketing plans. Attempting to burn your recently former employer by trading on privileged information is a good way to undermine your professional credibility and torpedo your chances for making a quick and relatively painless rebound. It can also confront you with legal challenges that you're probably not prepared to withstand.

Smooth Transition

If you know in advance that you'll be leaving the company in the near future, either because you have advance notice of a scheduled layoff or because you're tendering your resignation, you can make the transition easier by shifting your digital assets in advance.

In addition to gradually gathering all of the files, contacts, and key communications that you may want to take with you for future reference, you can set yourself up for a smooth transition by moving your files and communications away from the company's infrastructure and onto resources that you control. Whether your departure is coming days or weeks in the future, you'll likely want to keep open lines of communication as you make the shift. Consider adopting cloud services for phone calls and e-mail.

An easy way to keep your contacts calling you directly after your desk phone has been reassigned to your successor is to stop using it early, switching to something like Google Voice or your personal cell phone for calls in the final days of your employment. The advantage of Google Voice is that you can configure it to ring any phone you want, so you can still use it at your desk until the last minute, and then reconfigure it to ring your cell phone or home phone after you leave. Be sure to update the phone number in your e-mail signature early on, so that your contacts will have a record of it before you go.

Likewise, you can automatically forward your company e-mail to a personal Gmail account and configure Gmail to send mail using your business address. This way, you'll have all of your recent business e-mail in your Gmail account after the transition, and you won't need to scramble to collect important messages.

Use a cloud service like Dropbox to store your documents, so they'll automatically sync to your other PCs and the cloud. When you leave the company, remove Dropbox from the company's PC to prevent anyone from remotely accessing your Dropbox account after you're gone.

To simplify your departure further, consider retiring the company PC early and bring your own laptop to work. If you can work self-sufficiently from your own laptop for a few weeks before you end your tenure, you'll know you're ready to go.

Always Be Leaving

In my view, transience and constant change characterize the modern workforce. Now matter how loyal you are to your employer, the odds that you'll remain in one role for more than a few years are very low. So even as you give your team everything you've got on the job, it makes sense to bear in mind that, sooner or later, you'll be heading out that door again. Embracing this fact as an essential reality of working life, rather than fearing it as an eventuality to shun is likely to reduce job-related stress, encourage you to prepare for inevitable career changes, and boost your productivity along the way.

As I noted earlier, cloud phone services like Google Voice and Skype make it easy to take ownership of your phone communications even as you continue to work in your employer's office. For the last few years, I've used Google Voice as my primary phone line for business. I listed that number on my business cards and in my e-mail signature, and all of my contacts have it. I never even bothered to memorize the number for my office line, because nobody used it anyway. Now that I've left the company, the calls keep coming in uninterrupted, and I'm carrying on business as usual without putting my contacts through the hassle of changing my number in their contact lists.

Besides smoothing my transition out of the job, Google Voice made me more accessible to my contacts by ringing my mobile phone and desk phone simultaneously and by sending me transcripts of voicemail messages. So everybody won.

For most of my tenure in my last job, I rarely accessed the company mail client. Instead, I forwarded all messages to my Gmail account and worked from there. I still have all of those messages and contacts archived in my account, and I can access them at any time.

Finally, I seldom stored anything on the company's servers or on my business desktop. Instead, I used Dropbox from start to finish.

Ultimately, for me, the move from salaried servitude to independent contracting went unbelievably smoothly, thanks to a few free cloud services. I hope that these simple tips will help you make your next job transition as painless as possible, too.

Tags applicationsUtilitiesstoragebackupsoftwaredata protection

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Robert Strohmeyer

PC World (US online)

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