IT Career Navigation: Chart Your Way to Success

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About 15 years ago, most professionals came to IT via other fields of study, having prepared through computing’s hobbyist roots. That’s no longer the only avenue, as many colleges and online universities offer specific IT preparation—including certifications—as part of the curricula. How do you earn those salaries that IT magazines list as median income in each category? How do you advance your career?

Don’t just use a salary report as the basis for deciding which IT sub field to pursue — find something you like to do. Median salary reports might reflect trends about which fields have higher salaries, but missing from the reports is information about company type, other possible forms of compensation and a copy of the pay stub for verification. Because surveys are based on self-reporting, some IT categories are subject to wage inflation. Still, these reports are valuable for surveying which fields to target in your goal to increase responsibility and salary, and relative experience required to earn those wages.

My college dean scoffed at the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook on what jobs and areas would be in demand. His rationale was that the government wanted to project favorable statistics to justify economic forecasts, and he recommended deviating nearly 180 degrees from the government projections. Present descriptions of most IT fields seem more accurate, if somewhat general and simplistic. Nevertheless, for those unfamiliar with projections and what specific IT people do, the BLS Web site is a good place to begin.

My dean was more of an adherent of guerrilla marketing and alternative search methods. He was a big fan of John C. Crystal and Richard N. Bolles’ “Where do I Go From Here With My Life?” and Bolles’ “What Color is Your Parachute?” methods. These alternative approaches to self-discovery and job finding — if you faithfully follow the workbook examples, coupled with more realistic BLS and IT magazine salary surveys — should put you on the right path.

Building a Great Resume
The best way to attain advancement or get a new job is by building your resume through relevant experience. The best way to build experience is in jobs with a variety of environments: different hardware, software and infrastructure. Create a record of successful, completed projects. Another way to build a resume is through advanced IT degrees, though unless you are moving to management, master’s degrees might not translate into high increases in salary. Don’t forget that some school projects are just as much work as job accomplishments and should be listed on your resume.

How do you gain experience with no work history? Try volunteering: Many non-profits would be happy to have some IT help, even at the desktop. You could collect and re-purpose old PCs for senior citizens or join a local user group that does so. At school, you could try setting up an interactive training Web site for a particular course.

For those who don’t have time to pursue an additional degree, try certificates. Many online and brick-and-mortar colleges also offer certificates for completing a sequence of courses, usually with no comprehensive exam or report required. Geared to adult education, metropolitan universities usually offer coursework at convenient evening or weekend times through ancillary alternative/extension schools in areas that traditional coursework skips. These courses also are invaluable taken one at a time. Generally, coursework of this type will be more comprehensive but less specific than vendor certification. One advantage of traditional schooling is that more companies provide tuition reimbursement versus computer-only schools.

Because of the proliferation of cheat sites and, in one case, paid test-takers, certification no longer has the guaranteed job-placement allure of only a few years ago. Some certifications represent an entry-level step. Certification courses in this category represent a minimum knowledge level required by those working with that product. In some jobs, the certificate may be secondary: You still need the knowledge, and the most efficient way of getting that is through that course work. The same holds true for advanced certification, but there are more options. For advanced-level engineers, practical experience may substitute. If you alone have an MCP in MS Server 2003 and a company is looking to promote someone from the help desk, who would be the first candidate chosen? Other certifications represent intermediate stages, such as the RHCE, CLE and CLP. Again, these certifications cover a broader area than typically seen day to day, so having that knowledge as well as specific work knowledge will make you a better candidate. Advanced certifications, such as a CCIE or even Microsoft’s new Architect, may no longer command guaranteed six-figure salaries, but with appropriate experience, their holders are not only in demand, but command great remuneration.

What else does certification represent to an employer? At a minimum, it represents that you have the stick-to-it-iveness to follow through and complete a time-consuming challenge, that you value the preparation time it took to study, and that (intellectually, at least) you have an understanding of the specific problems in that tested skill set. Those certifications with enhanced simulations or real-time testing (such as Red Hat or new Novell certifications along with any of the CCIE suite) show that you have hands-on skills at the tested level. In short, certifications are still valuable, particularly when you accumulate more than one. That additional certification shows more flexibility to a prospective employer and solidifies certain knowledge.

Certification is still relevant, if only because studying for the examinations forces you to review the entire subject, not just what you see in practice. We all know that what is reflected in a test is not something you might see or do in the field, but the breadth on a certification test is usually more comprehensive.

Adding a third skill set, such as expertise in SANs with certification from Brocade or EMC, not only increases your value, but might move you to an advanced position. You become more flexible, and some items, such as backup and recovery, are second nature, merely because you have been exposed to it so often — “learning by osmosis.” Few people in this category would be “paper certified.” Even then, the normal experience attained from going through the study and practice will make you stand out from your peers.

Home Lab
Any beginning computer engineer needs a home network. It helps both your understanding of the field and the ability to pass an exam by using the software or hardware. Cabling is usually trivial: Wireless access points are less than $40.00 after rebate, and almost all include a switch. If you have only two computers, you may use a crossover cable. Discounted, older routers and even complete CCNA or CCNP study kits are available on eBay or through remaindered equipment packagers. For entry-level Cisco exams, simulation software is available. Your local Microsoft office, the Microsoft Web site or some third-party preparation books might have 90-to- 120-day “time bomb” CD versions of server, ISA, Exchange, etc. software. That’s more than enough time to configure and become familiar with the software.

Attend Seminars and Get on E-Mail Lists
Another method of obtaining networking software, as well as gaining knowledge in a wider area, is to attend vendor seminars. At these seminars, vendors usually pass out software or product descriptions. Sometimes webinars are superb: Brocade has a series of webinars to review content of their certification exams. If you are able to move to a reseller class of user, most vendors provide free, unrestricted versions of their product. Microsoft has a partner Web site, and dependi

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