Moving From One Area of IT to Another
Information technology is in a perpetual state of unrest. Professionals in the industry must be prepared to adjust their careers accordingly, which involves being able to take on new knowledge and skills very quickly. People who can achieve proficiency in another area of technology the fastest have an indisputable competitive edge in the IT job market.
Matt McGrath, a senior education consultant with Kansas City, Mo.-based Centriq Foss Training Center, helps techies make that transition on a regular basis. He works with several current and prospective IT professionals every week to determine how they should pursue their desired career. “About half are what we call career changers, who want to get into IT from a different field entirely, and then the other half are experienced IT professionals who want to make a horizontal career movement within IT,” he said.
McGrath said that the most common reason by far for these occupational changes was job security. “Technology changes very quickly, and what was in demand when the IT employees began their career may now become obsolete or more in jeopardy of being outsourced. For example, in the 1990s, programming and development jobs were the hot tickets, and now many of those jobs are being outsourced. To keep their jobs secure, many former programmers are looking to learn skills in what we call infrastructure positions, like networking and database administration—jobs that are difficult to outsource because the employee is needed on site to repair systems and respond to crises when they arise.”
Another regular rationale behind a career change is burnout. McGrath has come across many IT professionals who are tired of performing the same tasks day-in, day-out, and simply want to try something new. “What used to be challenging to them is now kind of boring,” he said. “Maybe they’ve been writing code every day for years, or they’re call-center people and have to deal with the stress of customer complaints. I’ve met with many successful IT veterans who are willing to take a substantial pay cut simply to be able to pursue a skill that is different and personally enriching.”
Of course, old mainstays like money and status are often cited as reasons behind a vocational transition. But a word to the wise: If you expect big payoffs and promotions, you’d better have some robust and diverse skills sets. “Today’s IT departments are looking for IT workers who can multitask,” McGrath said. “Someone with multiple IT skill sets is typically on the fast track to becoming an IT manager or project manager because they’re perceived by the higher-ups in the company as being able to better manage various projects that involve multiple technologies. Because they have so many technical skills sets, they’re able to understand the big picture: how the various technologies can work together toward the desired result of the company, not just the niche they have within the company.”
Fortunately, these moves are successful the majority of the time. McGrath estimated that at least 75 percent of the people he works with go on to their preferred job role. However, there are plenty of obstacles out there for career changers to stumble over. “There are several pitfalls to watch out for,” he said. “First, you want to make sure this new job is all it’s cracked up to be. You may switch to a technical-support-type job to give you the ability to move around and multitask, but you didn’t count on having to be on-call and coming into the office at 3 o’clock in the morning to repair the server. Vice versa, someone in an infrastructure role currently who wants to move to programming because the hours are more stable and it’s perceived as less stressful doesn’t always count on project deadlines and the monotony of writing code all day.
“Another pitfall to watch out for is choosing a technology based on what it pays. You need to make sure that this new field is something that you enjoy doing and have the aptitude for. I see maybe four or five people a week who want to learn database administration because that field is so much in demand right now and pays very well, but many of them fail at it because they don’t have the numerical reasoning ability to learn it, nor really an interest in doing what a database administrator does. It doesn’t matter how much you make if you hate what you do.”
Thus, one of the keys to a successful job transition is to take a technical aptitude test to see if the subject matter is something with which you’re adept. These are surprisingly easy to find, McGrath said. “A lot of these are offered free online, and technical education centers in most colleges offer one; they don’t always advertise it, but they do have it available. Sometimes, within the company, the HR department has technical aptitude tests.”
Also, it’s not a bad idea to see firsthand what a particular job role entails. “Ask a fellow IT professional who is currently working in your desired field if you can shadow him for a day,” McGrath said. “Get a feel for what a day in the life of this person is like. It might be very enlightening. It might show you a lot of things that you weren’t counting on.”
Obviously, certification, education and training are crucial in these career moves, but exactly what method will work best depends on several factors. For example, one’s current employment status (full-time, part-time, contractual, unemployed, etc.) may significantly limit the feasible options. Also, the source of funding for the professional development program in question—employer tuition assistance, government grants or money from your own pocket—can have a significant impact.
“If money and time are not an issue—which is becoming rarer and rarer these days—I would recommend a two- to six-month ‘fast track’ that utilizes the best of all educational tools,” McGrath said. “This is commonly referred to as blended learning, which combines instructor-led training, books, study guides and mentoring. If money is an issue, the company you’re working for does not offer tuition reimbursement, and you don’t qualify for retraining grants, some horizontal movements can be accomplished by self-study through books, computer-based training or online learning. This type of learning is usually most successful when the new job is somewhat similar to the old one. If you have the self-discipline to study on your own, then you can make the transition fairly easily. If the transition is quite drastic, I definitely recommend many hours of instructor-led training at a technical education and certification center.”
–Brian Summerfield, firstname.lastname@example.org