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Dear CertMag: I work at a call center for a large regional internet service provider and I feel like I’ve sort of been in helpdesk hell forever. I answer the same five or six questions a couple of dozen times a day. I’m ready to move on. My college degree (information technology; two-year program) is about 10 years out of date. Am I back to square one? Where can I go from here?
— Bradley, Ft. Worth, TX
With a two-year degree and a number of years of experience, you certainly are not starting at “square one.” The first question is, “Where does your focus lie?” If your information technology degree is administration and business information systems management focused, can you parlay your knowledge of internet service provider systems into a specialization in networking? If it was development-oriented (closer to computer science), you likely have a broad structural understanding of key concepts like loops, logical statements, etc. The syntax may change as you learn a new language, but many of these foundational concepts still apply.
Challenge yourself with an honest assessment of the question: Are you prepared to do something else? If tomorrow, you sat down at the desk of [insert a job title here], what skills and experiences are you missing that would allow you to work that very day in that job? Is it modern programming languages? Going hands-on with routers? A formalized knowledge and experience with project management?
Start making strategic purchases to help specifically address these gaps. If you learn by books, start with books, and look at project management using PMP, or at the networking or programming skills that relate the base of knowledge and experience that you already have. Correlate those skills to the specific things that are getting listed in the job descriptions of the roles that you would like to apply for. YouTube is an incredible tool that was not available in the same way even just a few years ago. Virtually any technology discipline has demonstrations on the fundamentals that can help you make the transition in applying new technological tools and getting more hands-on experience.
When you start feeling like you have the right tools to have confidence in going after a new role, invest the time (and perhaps a few coffees, or dinners, or something for the people you work with) to talk to some friends and family who are in a more professional role. Have them do mock interviews with you. They may not be able to help you on “talking the talk” on the technical side, but they can help you improve the way that you project yourself. Spend some time thinking about how to relate your ISP support experience to the types of things that a network administration, project manager, developer, or whatever your target role is, needs to represent.
“I answered phones” is not a contribution. “I used my advanced knowledge of networking to focus on customer problems. I can be your network administrator because the tools and background are there. I want to apply my experience with troubleshooting together with remote customers to ensuring that operations of our routing infrastructure run well” represents essentially the same interactions in a very different light.
Finally, don’t be afraid to fail. You may apply to 100 jobs and not get a single call back for an interview. All it takes is getting the first role — that 1 after the 100 — in your intended discipline to have a chance to really focus and build a base of experience. Eventually, that will help you continue to escalate to more interesting and challenging roles higher in the Information Technology value chain.