Picture this: You’re sitting in front of the TV after a hard day on the job, watching your favorite program, when a commercial comes on, asking, “Stuck in a dead-end job?” It then advises you, “Take our IT training course, and you’ll start earning excellent real-world salaries!”
Every year, thousands of professionals from a variety of industries seek to make a transition from a place they have worked for one to 20 or more years to a job in information technology. While some of these professionals will ultimately take advantage of offers like the stereotypical “IT academy” described above, others find making the technology transition difficult to seemingly impossible. While academies are a valid option for some, most professionals find themselves using a combination of certification, education and past experience to build that first foothold in the industry.
In examining this subject, let us examine the obstacles to entering IT, less from the perspective of strategies specific to the industry you are coming from as a professional, and more as a set of points, the balance of which is key to every new IT professional.
Knowledge of Industry
In today’s market, it’s not enough to know how to support operating systems and change hardware. Employers want the people in their IT departments to know about their industry. For example, an international company may require their IT staff to be multilingual; financial companies want people to have some accounting or bookkeeping knowledge; educational establishments desire people who already have worked in education; and the list goes on. You could take part-time or distance learning courses to validate your skills; however, it may not be necessary if your previous work experience relates well to information technology.
Also important to consider when deciding to make the move to information technology is how much your current job interacts with IT. Are you working with software to perform word processing, make presentations and create spreadsheets? Are you in a position now where you have some technical elements to your job? It will be far easier to sell yourself in an interview and to prepare for an IT career move if you are a telephony engineer rather than a veterinary technician, for example.
There are a number of business-related experiences that an individual may be able to leverage in order to get an IT job. Professionals with team leadership or project management experience may be able to focus on those specific traits in cases where their technical knowledge may be weaker. This is particularly true if you happen to have consulting experience, regardless of the industry that your former consulting work focused on. Many firms with functional consultants also run information technology or hybrid projects, and an understanding of business workflows and frameworks can be a boon in obtaining that first position.
For those entering the information technology industry, getting that first position can seem like a Catch-22 situation. Simply put: No IT job, no experience; no experience, no IT job. To break out of this circle, the key is to target a little lower with your job applications, even though this may not be consistent with your long-term IT career goals.
The reality is that your first IT job will likely be Level 1 support, working on a help desk or as a trainee IT technician to get past the experience requirement. Employers looking for entry-level positions will not expect a huge volume of experience, and the first position will be limited in scope. Work on gaining additional informal experience by doing private jobs for friends and family, or you can volunteer at various organizations and companies (see Certification Magazine’s July 2007 Dear Techie column for advice along these lines). Or, you can even gain experience through a local community college or other educational institution.
When you’re seeking your first or second position in the information technology world, don’t be afraid to go after contract work. While contract work may not offer the long-term stability or the benefits that are desirable in the long run, getting contract work is a good way to move into a position that requires a relatively low level of experience (just meeting the minimum requirements). This way, you can grow your skills while building your experience in a professional, real-world environment.
Actually Getting Started
Regardless of what professional certifications, academic diplomas or degrees you have, the reality is that unless you have a business background and are intending to move directly into IT management, you are likely to start off at the bottom of the IT ladder at an associated low level of salary. Further, on average, it is likely that you will stay on the bottom of the pay scale or in a low-level position for about six months to a year. The good news is that for the next step up (non-entry-level posts, but still at Level 1, maybe edging on Level 2 support) the minimum required amount of experience is six months to a year. Make sure that you have examined the reality of what starting in information technology will mean for yourself and your family, if you have one.
For some, the long-term possibility of work in information technology may have better earning prospects after reaching the five- to seven-year range. Initially, you may be taking a significant cut in pay compared to your current position, or accepting an inferior benefits package. It is important to understand that in approaching an industry change, you cannot reasonably expect to move to a situation comparable with your present position right away. The ability to show patience financially through this period is a key consideration to ensure your success in beginning an IT career. Also, realize that for some, age is going to be a factor. In the U.S., companies are not allowed to discriminate based on age. However, if you are getting up there in years, you may have a limited window of time to get back to your current level of salary and benefits.
Qualifications and Certifications
There are three different types of qualifications for any IT job: professional, vocational and academic. Increasingly, medium to large companies around the world expect IT job candidates to be educated to the degree level, preferably in a computing- or IT-related subject. Having a degree shows employers that you’re able to commit and have been introduced to a wide variety of subjects, making you a well-rounded professional.
Remember that you do not necessarily need to have a degree in computer science. Other fields may provide you with skills and coursework that are still applicable. Be prepared to defend your lack of experience and your education in another area. Plan in advance how to articulate what your degree has in common with information technology or business pursuits and how you can be an asset in an entry-level IT position.
Vocational qualifications exist for those who don’t like or don’t do well in the academic route. Partially work-based and partially theory, these can complement academic qualifications very well. A lot of countries, especially in the EU, have backed this form of education.
In the United States, there are a variety of vocational or technical institute programs that a professional making the transition to IT may be interested in. Traditionally, a candidate can complete a certificate program that provides noncredit evidence to a potential employer that you have completed coursework in a particular specialization within a subject area. However, these types of nondegree certificates are often of little value outside the most basic of entry-level jobs and may not provide much ongoing value beyond your first position in information technology.
Professional qualifications are slightly different from academic and vocational qualifications.