Finding A New IT Niche
Many people get into IT for all the wrong reasons: They know they like computers, and they based their career decisions on salary reports and hearsay. Before diving headfirst into IT or making a bold career change within the industry, it’s important to assess your skills, interests and possible specializations.
A prospective student named Scott came to see me a while back about enrolling in my school’s application developer fast track. This is an accelerated training and certification program that teaches individuals seeking a new or enhanced career how to develop Web and software applications using Microsoft .NET tools.
I tried to ascertain whether application development would be a good fit for Scott by asking him some questions.
“Do you have any experience with object-oriented programming?” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Have you ever studied a programming language?”
“Do you enjoy learning foreign languages?”
“I took French I back in high school, but I wasn’t that crazy about it.”
“Do you enjoy puzzles?”
“Have you ever taken any sort of test to determine whether you have the aptitude for learning programming?”
“Scott, do you mind if I ask why, out of the hundreds of IT courses of study, you want to become an application developer using .NET tools?”
Scott thought about this for a minute and then replied, “Because a friend of mine told me they make a lot of money.”
As an education consultant who advises potential IT students which technical field, if any, would be most suitable for them, I see a lot of candidates like Scott — people who know they like computers but aren’t exactly sure which IT specialization to pursue.
Unfortunately, they often choose their niche based on what a friend has told them, what they perceive as paying the most and, in general, all the wrong reasons to pursue an IT career.
Whether you are a current IT professional who is considering a horizontal movement into a new technical field, or you are just starting your IT journey, there are many ways to discover your forte. Once you have chosen your new specialization, you will want to ask yourself some hard questions before diving into it headfirst.
Step 1: Fill Out an IT Career Interest Survey
Since we were 5 years old, we have all been asked the dreaded question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Amazingly, most college seniors still cannot answer that question, which explains why a degree in liberal arts is so popular — many of us simply do not know what we want to do with our life. For techies, the task of choosing a technical career is particularly daunting because of the thousands of IT specializations out there.
If you don’t want to become the guy who stays in school well into his 40s, I suggest you take a technical interest survey. These questionnaires, which can be found in abundance online and are also available at most colleges and private training centers, can help point you in the right direction by indicating which IT careers you might enjoy more than others.
Step 2: Take a Technical Aptitude Test
Usually when we are interested in something, we have a strong aptitude for learning it. In other words, we enjoy what we are good at. This is not always the case, though — I love graphic arts, but I couldn’t draw an ace of spades if it were the only card left in the deck. So, I strongly advise that before you take the plunge into a new technical career, make sure you have the aptitude to learn that particular skill set.
All techies are different. Some have strong mechanical abilities and do well in infrastructure-related roles such as network administration and hardware engineering. Programmers tend to have a more analytical nature and typically have strong symbolic and logical reasoning abilities. Web designers and graphic artists are usually artistic with a great flair for design and ability to visualize. Database administrators require many of the attributes of both networkers and programmers. Almost all IT jobs require strong written and verbal reasoning abilities, as well as great attention to detail.
Call a local technical college or IT training center and ask if you can take an aptitude test. The tests usually are free, and they are one of the best tools at your disposal for choosing your new IT niche. A good technical aptitude test will measure the following abilities:
- Numerical Reasoning: Most important for learning database administration and customer relationship management (CRM) administration and development; somewhat important for learning programming.
- Verbal Reasoning: Most important for learning networking administration and hardware engineering; somewhat important in learning help desk and end-user support.
- Symbolic and Logical Reasoning: Critical for learning software/Web development; important in database development.
- Visual Speed and Accuracy: Critical in Web design, graphic arts and desktop publishing; somewhat important in most IT areas.
- Business Aptitude: Critical in project management and business analysis; quickly becoming important in all IT areas.
- Step 3: Research
In-Demand IT Fields
It doesn’t matter how good you are at something or how much you enjoy it if there are no jobs in that field. Although demand for many IT skills has exploded recently, some areas have turned sour. If you have the passion and aptitude for an outdated programming language (Cobol, for example), you might want to consider updating to one of the newer object-oriented languages such as C# or Java.
Step 4: Find a Need and Fill it
Keep your ears open, not only within the IT department but to what other departments are grumbling about. Be proactive and do something about it. For example, if you have noticed all of the salespeople continue to complain that they spend more time navigating their outdated and inefficient customer relations software than they spend actually selling, don’t just soak it in — ask them what problems they are experiencing with the CRM software and fix it. Become a problem solver.
Long before he became a billionaire, H. Ross Perot worked for IBM, where he discovered customers needed help processing their data. He went to IBM first with his idea and was turned down, so he started his own company. Perot eventually sold the company for $2.8 billion. He found a need and he filled it.
Step 5: Sample Your New Niche — Become a Volunteer
OK, you are somewhat interested in your new IT niche and, according to your aptitude test, you have the ability to learn the new skill, and you know there are lots of opportunities in the field. So, how do you really know you will like it? There is only one way to find out: Jump in headfirst and get your hands dirty. Find someone at your company (or another one, if necessary) who is willing to mentor you and let you help with projects. At the very minimum, ask if you can shadow that person — learn about “a day in the life.” If your employer is less than enthused with the time you are spending tagging along with the database administrator, volunteer to help with database projects after work or on weekends. It shouldn’t take you very long to see whether this new field is a good fit for you.
Questions to Ask Before You Take the Plunge
So, you have an interest in becoming a network/Internet security specialist based on all the jobs you’ve seen on Monster, your aptitude test pointed you strongly in that direction, you have been shadowing your friend Irvin at the Pentagon for the last four weeks and you love the work he is doing more than life itself. Before you dive into the dirty world of ethical hacking, you will want to step back and ask yourself some tough questions:
- Am I Prepared or Willing to Move? Each region of the United States has its own unique technical skill sets that are in demand — sought-after skills in one part of the country might not be so popular in your neck of the woods. I visit at least a dozen prospective students each month who express their desire to learn and become certified in video game programming/design. There is no doubt this skill set is very valuable in Silicon Valley, but my school is in the heart of the Midwest: Kansas City, Mo. There are no Pixars that I know of that are looking for talented video game designers here. So, if your new IT niche is narrow, be prepared to move to where the jobs are.
- Am I working for the right company? Should I even be working for a company at all? Don’t assume your company will welcome your decision to pursue a new IT niche — if you work for a progressive company that values its employee’s growth, you are in the minority. Your new niche might not be aligned with the company’s core business. If you were hired as a help desk technician, and you now want to move into CRM development, you might be presented with all sorts of obstacles. If this is the case, be prepared to find a new company to work for that can benefit from your new skill set.
Some IT fields do not lend themselves at all to full-time employment, and you might have to go it on your own and become self-employed. Web development and design are two prime examples. Most successful webmasters are self-employed consultants who design and develop Web sites for small and midsize companies that cannot afford an on-staff full-time Web developer.
Is my new niche here to stay, or is it just the latest fad? Is the field secure? Technologies change quickly, and the average IT worker keeps his job for only two to three years. Change in our industry comes with the territory. Sometimes, the technology becomes outdated — other jobs are outsourced. Although it is impossible to choose an IT niche that is outsource-proof, there are two things you can do to improve your job security:
- Constantly update your skills. I am always amazed at the number of laid-off IT workers I meet who used to work for companies that provided thousands of dollars in tuition assistance, but they never used it. It is not just important for you to continue to update your skills — it is an absolute necessity.
- Stay close to revenue. Fortune magazine recently completed a study that found the workers who are least likely to be laid off are those whose job is closest to the revenue stream. In other words, those whose jobs are most closely tied to company profits are the most indispensable. Choose an IT niche that has a noticeable impact on the company’s cash flow such as sales or business analysis.
If you decide to make the leap from one IT job role to another, make sure the motivation for doing so is out of genuine interest and that you have the aptitude to learn your new skill set.
If you are still unsure, volunteer to help a co-worker with a project in your chosen niche or ask if you can shadow that person for a day or two.
Remember: Your new vocation might require that you switch companies or maybe even that you move to a different city. Once you are firmly entrenched in your new role, if you want to keep it, make sure to keep updating your skills. If you make a positive contribution to company’s bottom line, your journey will be a rewarding one.
Matt McGrath is a senior education consultant with Centriq Foss Training Center, which is based in Kansas City, Mo. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.
There’s no such thing as total job security