Welcome to the jungle: How to start a successful IT career
This feature first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
The attractions of a career in information technology (IT) go beyond high pay. Potential recruits are also drawn to the promise of job satisfaction, flexibility, and challenge. In a world economy plagued by relatively high unemployment, negative or low growth in some occupations, and a general sense of uncertainty, IT is one of the few employment sectors that is vibrantly alive and growing.
Leading IT industry association CompTIA reported in 2014 that IT employment growth was highest in web development, information security analysis, systems analysis, software applications development, and systems software development. High demand for skilled workers in these areas — particularly in information security — is expected to continue.
Government organizations, businesses of all sizes, and other public and private institutions rely on computer technology to operate efficiently in serving their clients. All of these entities employ and continuously need IT professionals. The jobs are out there, but you can’t just walk into one.
Landing an IT job takes preparation, often three-to-four years of intensive study and training. And turning that first job into a successful career requires both careful planning and continuous revision and upgrading of those plans. A carefully considered plan is the foundation for a sustainable and rewarding IT career.
Understanding the role of IT, being aware of your aptitude, and having an idea of what to expect from your career will help you figure out how to go about finding the right job in the right discipline. As with nearly any other field of professional endeavor, education and training will be an important part of your preparation.
Depending on the job you apply for, recruiters may also be looking for related work experience acquired through an internship or a part-time job, soft skills, and demonstrable IT application skills, as well as proof of adaptability and critical thinking ability.
Education and technology-specific training
IT covers a wide range of functions, each requiring a specific knowledge and acumen. To begin properly planning your career, you need to carefully consider which specializations interest you most. Depending on the role, your preparation may involve a combination of education and training. While still training, honestly ask yourself what subjects and classes interest you the most? What types of IT jobs do you feel you would be good at, and enjoy?
IT is split roughly into four broad areas: information support and services, software development, network management, and digital and web-based communication. Credentials advisable for entry-level positions differ according to the role.
While it is possible for people with certifications or relevant technical experience to get IT jobs, a college-level degree in some branch of information technology is still what most recruiters look for, especially for management positions. Equipped with practical knowledge of deploying computer technology in the everyday world, IT degree holders are prepared for a wide range of roles.
Technical support services entails providing assistance to end-users in non-IT fields, as well as to professionals engaged in various IT functions. Though a bachelor’s degree may be necessary for some computer support roles, the right mix of relevant certifications and demonstrable IT aptitude is often adequate for support positions. Internationally recognized entry-level certifications include CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network +, and Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) are a good baseline qualification.
If software development is your chosen career avenue, then you will most likely need a bachelor’s degree. Although it is possible to be hired without a degree if you began programming in school, you’ll be better off with relevant work experience and demonstrable programming skills. The outlook is even brighter for those who have already developed an application or two. Software developers need to constantly upgrade their skills in order to stay professionally relevant.
Network management is more preparation intensive. Database and systems administrators, network architects, and information security analysts are typically expected to have a bachelor’s degree in IT. Knowledge of a number of current programing languages is also necessary.
Web developers may or may not need a bachelor’s degree in IT. It’s possible to be hired as a web developer if you have a relevant certification and solid programming knowledge. More frequently, for many IT roles, employers are also considering liberal arts degrees — provided the holder can demonstrate a basic understanding of information technology, and also possesses programing skills.
As Steve Jobs once said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough … It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”
Because liberal arts graduates think differently and view the role of technology from a nuanced perspective, as opposed to taking a more black-and-white view, they are able to contribute to achieving a synthesis between technology and the ambiguity of human experience.
Professional vendor-neutral certifications, such as those offered by CompTIA, are useful for most tech services and support roles. Employers are more likely to lean toward product-specific certifications from vendors like Microsoft, Cisco and Oracle for jobs in network management, software development, and web development.
Part-time jobs and internships will improve your outlook
Interning is a sure step toward gaining a toehold in the IT industry. Internships present an opportunity to learn on the job while acquiring valuable practical knowledge. You gain exposure to the industry, learn about the range of jobs that are out there, and decide which ones are most suitable for you. Also, you get to know people working in the industry and can begin building a professional network. Internships can and do result in full-time job offers.
Interning at a company can give you an idea of what jobs available there interest you most, as well as which ones are in high demand. Most colleges have internship programs. If that’s not available to you, arrange an internship on your own via faculty, friends, family, or anyone you know in the industry. Online recruitment companies typically offer internship search options.
When shortlisting jobs, it’s important that you select those in line with your interests. Given the rapid pace of change in the IT industry, being enthusiastic about your work and always keen to learn and adapt is essential to long-term success.
Soft skills and how to develop them
Technical skills and relevant experience alone may not get you that prized appointment letter, and it takes more than IT knowledge and a work history to guarantee career advancement. Soft skills are key to performing effectively and forging ahead.
IT professionals don’t work in a vacuum. Like specialists in many other fields, they need to communicate well with both technical and non-technical personnel, negotiate and solve problems, and be comfortable performing as a member of a team. These are soft skills that are in demand. Adaptability is also important, as are positivity and level-headedness.
People with solid soft skills are generally more effective in a professional setting because they can successfully collaborate with others on projects, which almost always translates into better results for the company. Soft skills are particularly important at the managerial level.
This sort of focused interpersonal energy and charisma comes naturally to some people. For others, soft skills can be challenging to come by. They can be learned, but must be practiced. One needs to consciously work on one’s communication, negotiation, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills in the course of day-to-day interactions with fellow students, teachers, co-workers, and friends.
Building an employment network
You can never have too many solid professional connections. In fact, the wider your professional network becomes, the better off you will be. The good news is that you don’t have to wait until you get a job to begin building your network. Every IT professional in your family and social circle is a potential connection, as are people you meet while interning or working part-time and in school. It’s never too early to start building a network.
Blogging about tech topics that interest you is a great way to gain professional visibility. If you’re passionate about developing mobile apps, or you love getting into the nuts and bolts of Cloud computing, then share your knowledge and enthusiasm with other like-minded people online. Since most recruiters research potential hires, showing up on search results as someone with specialized knowledge is likely to weigh in your favor.
Much as you may aspire to a career in IT, there’s a lot to learn before you can become a chief information (CIO) officer earning a six-figure salary. So what types of jobs and working conditions can you expect to come your way during your first four or five years? Job titles vary by employer, but some of the more common entry-level IT functions include the following:
Technical Support Specialist — Typical responsibilities include installing and maintaining a company’s software and hardware assets, as well as solving technical issues. IT support specialists assist both IT professionals and non-technical end-users. They may also be required to interact with customers and vendors.
Helpdesk Technician — A helpdesk technician deals with customers and co-workers. Responsibilities include examining complaints and diagnosing problems, which are then passed on to a specialist for resolution.
Computer Systems Engineer — A computer systems engineer combines hardware and software to design, develop, test, and maintain integrated computer systems. Their responsibilities include analyzing, planning, developing and manufacturing for a full range of digital products. Computer systems engineers are able to manage complex enterprise and telecommunications systems.
Database Administrator — A database administrator deploys appropriate software to organize, store, maintain, and secure organizational data. They are responsible for ensuring that data are easily accessible to all authorized employees, and are protected from unauthorized access.
Systems Administrator — Systems administrators are in charge of computer systems and networks. Daily responsibilities include discovering the IT needs of the organization and planning the company’s hardware and software systems accordingly, as well as setting up and maintaining the same.
Programmer — Entry-level programmers often assist software engineers and developers. Responsibilities include helping to develop, test, and maintain software. This is often a great way to expand your IT knowledge base and build professional connections.
Web Developer — As the name indicates, web developers create and maintain individual and company web interfaces. These IT pros develop and maintain websites and web-based applications. Web developers are in demand and typically have a wide range of assignments from which to choose. Quite a few prefer freelancing as opposed to full-time employment.
Information Security or Cybersecurity Analyst — Information security is a major concern in today’s workplaces. With the rise in cyberattacks and industrial espionage, as well as the threat of online terror attacks, the need for capable information security analysts has grown substantially.
Their responsibilities include taking stock of a company’s system and network security, and upgrading and maintaining security continuously in order to stay ahead of new threats. The onus for safeguarding organizational systems and information as well as customers’ data rests on the information security analyst.
Working hours and conditions for entry-level IT jobs
If you’re starting an IT career, plan to pack a lunch, because you will put in some long hours at the office. Most IT jobs involve meeting tight deadlines that require people to work late, and sometimes work over the weekend as well. Long workdays are normal not just for new recruits, but for people at higher levels as well.
Many IT professionals also struggle with high stress levels. If you love what you do as well as focus on keeping calm and maintaining a work-life balance from the very beginning, you’ll likely be in a better position to deal with stressful situations. Find a hobby or outside interest to help you relax — you will need it.
Length of time to IT specialization
The first thing to consider when deciding which specialization to opt for is your inclination. For example, if you’re thinking of becoming a software developer, ask yourself whether coding really interests you. If coding isn’t your cup of tea, then software development might not be the right specialization for you.
If you know the type of IT you want, then you can save time and money while targeting your training. Regardless of the job type, you will have to garner more education, expertise and training. Some will come on the job, some will involve taking certification courses, and some may even require going back to school to earn a degree.
A successful IT pro understands that he or she is never done learning. There is always more to know, and new technology to learn. IT is a fast paced industry with continuous change. Be prepared to constantly learn and look for ways to improve your skill set. In IT, once you’re through learning, you’re through for good.
Whatever field you’re considering, expect to spend your first few years of employment acquiring and building core IT skills that apply across many different disciplines. Keep your eyes open during this period for areas of specialization that both interest you and are well-aligned with your abilities. As you start to look past entry-level positions, move toward the areas where both your interests and abilities align.
Conduct of new recruits
All IT staff are typically required to abide by a professional code of conduct, and to protect the confidentiality of data. In the course of their day-to-day work, IT pros often handle information pertaining to clients, users, and the organization. It’s imperative to respect everyone’s right to privacy and refrain from compromising confidentiality of information.
Always familiarize yourself with your company’s policies and culture. Employee hours, dress codes, and operational policies and procedures must be adhered to. It also helps to be a team player with a positive attitude, who is willing to help out in a pinch. During your career you will spend more time interacting with coworkers than with anyone else. Make sure you fit in.
IT can be an interesting and lucrative career path for those who plan and work hard. Don’t just jump in. Take care to know what you want, and plan and prepare accordingly. While still in college, ask lots of questions about high growth domains and shortlist the ones for which you have an aptitude.
Take the time to research companies hiring for those jobs, and focus on the organizations that offer the most challenging entry-level opportunities. Accept internships and other volunteer opportunities that give you exposure and help you hone your IT skills.
It’s important to always remember that technical skills alone aren’t enough. Develop your soft skills. Learn to deal with people and solve problems. Always look for opportunities to expand your network by helping others. What goes around comes around, and people remember those who helped them.
Finally, as an IT pro, you need to appreciate how rapidly the IT industry changes. These changes are accompanied by challenges and wonderful opportunities for career advancement. Being comfortable with change isn’t enough. You need to embrace change and match your step to it.