Information Technology – How to Land an IT Job

Having been in the IT industry for some 20+ years I get asked the question a lot, "How can I get into IT (Information Technology)?" There seems to be a lot of debate about what it takes to get into this field and while it is to a degree subjective – there are some basic tenants that will help anyone.

Specialist or Jack of All Trades Master of None?

Many years ago if you were in IT you were a programmer, plain and simple. The segregation of network, database, hardware, etc. really hadn't occurred until much later nor were schools really even training for it. As technology has expanded, so have the demands on the IT Professional. Keeping up with "all" of it has basically become impossible.

It is a very rare individual that can program, build and manage a network, build and maintain databases, do web design, manage security and resolve all hardware problems too! I'm not sure in my entire career I've met a single individual who can do it all. Those that come close demand insane salaries. This is not to say though, that learning as many different disciplines as possible is a bad idea. Let me elaborate.

The Specialist

Most people in IT specialize in one or two disciplines and 2-3 sub-disciplines. These include (but are not limited to) network design and maintenance, security, backup strategies, routing and switching, programming, database administration, virtualization, web design, hardware and phone systems.

Becoming a specialist narrows the field of competition when it comes to landing a job. Generally speaking, DBA's (Database Administrators) won't be looking for Network Admin jobs nor will Network Admins be looking for DBA jobs. But, that specialization can work against you too. If you specialize in Network Administration and that field is saturated your stuck with heavy competition in getting that job.

Really it's no different than any line of work, but it illustrates why most IT Professionals specialize in at least a few disciplines. Generally speaking, everyone will start in one discipline and gradually include others as they are educated or exposed to them.

Jack of All Trades Master of None

This IT Professional knows a little bit about everything but has mastery of very little. Able to overcome common problems or issues in just about any discipline, these professionals must engage specialists when the problems become deeply involved or complex.

Being a Jack of All Trades Master of None probably allows for the greatest job finding capacity as it allows you to dress up a pretty nice resume of skill sets that look attractive to a potential employer who won't know the depth of your true knowledge until much later.

Whichever way you end up trying to go - several things will play a role in determining which group you ultimately fall into. Education, certification and to some extent plain luck will all have a hand in molding the IT Professional.

Education will most likely guide where you get started. Certification will either solidify your base education or allow you to expand into other disciplines but ultimately, the employer you currently work for will play a large role – intentionally or unintentionally and here's why:

If you work for an employer who has a small basic network you simply won't be exposed to many of the other disciplines. A small company/network most likely won't be virtualized, use databases, do their own web design etc. and as such, won't expose you to those technologies.

For as long as you work for them, unless the grow and expand to include those other disciplines you simply won't have access to them by virtue of the work environment. You can fill this gap with education and certification, but the majority don't.

Education (College) vs. Certification

There is a continual ongoing debate about the pros and cons of an IT College background vs. an Experience/Certification background and they both have valid points to be considered by the individual.

A college education is the oldest, most tried and true method of establishing one's self in any industry and this is true of IT as well. Many large employers still expect a college degree from their employees to fill such a professional level role within the company – even more so when considering an IT Professional for IT Management.

Like all things though, times change and the age old college philosophy is being tested in many industries if not perhaps more so in IT. With the advent of Certification – a testing methodology that requires testers demonstrate their knowledge through adaptive testing, many employers are now accepting well known certifications (coupled with verifiable experience) in lieu of college degrees.

This trend is growing and it's not uncommon these days to see long term IT employee's who have no college education at all but are still highly knowledgeable, well respected members of their industry.

Most employers would probably rather have it all, an employee who possesses a college degree, industry certification and experience however finding this combination can be difficult and is always expensive to the employer so there tends to be a lot of flexibility in this arena for this industry.

How to Get In?

Breaking into any industry is a function of making yourself more attractive than the competition and the IT Industry is no different. So what's the best way to accomplish this? Actually, we've already discussed this: Education, certification and experience.

There is little substitute for education. If it's an option, you should take it. But let's be honest here, college is expensive and not an option for everyone and this is one place where IT has a leg up (because of the acceptance of certification and experience in lieu of college).

Certifications are relatively inexpensive compared to college. A single certification (such as an MCP – Microsoft Certified Professional) can cost as little as $100 (providing you pass of course). There are other 1-2 test certifications as well that hold a fair amount of weight in potential employer's eyes.

When it comes to experience it's my personal opinion (and my personal experience) that few things beat either Internship or Consulting. IT internships (and internships in general) seem to be fading fast but they can still be found if you search hard enough. Even when an employer's not offering internships, asking certainly can't hurt. It might even behoove you to offer unpaid internship services as something of a carrot to dangle.

All things considered I think everyone who's going to work in IT should spend some time doing IT Consulting. Nothing will expose you faster or to a wider variety of technologies than working as an IT Consultant. Large scale projects, small environments and everything in between – as an IT Consultant you'll see it all and as you're exposed to it, educated on it and trained to do it – you'll build a resume any employer would take notice of.

Ideally, you should do them all (that's the blanket answer isn't it?). Go to school, work an internship and perform some consulting. Following this road map would all but ensure employers will notice you but this just isn't feasible for everyone – especially those just starting out.

For most beginners the best thing is to knock out one or two of the most demanded certifications and take any IT job you can find until your skill sets become robust enough to open the doors that will accelerate you along your career.

There's good money to be made in IT, but as with all things it takes time and hard work. It should also be mentioned that the IT Industry is very interconnected. IT Managers and IT employees generally know each other in a community. This makes getting to know them very valuable. Attend open IT events, conferences and seminars.

When it comes to IT don't discount a lack of education if you can back it up with certification and experience. Many IT Managers would take a potential employee who has 2-3 certifications and 4 years of experience in the field over a 4 year graduate with no experience. It can and does happen all the time.

Finally – socialize. Get your name out there. Make friends. Many jobs are earned less by what's on your resume and more on who you know (right or wrong) – even more so in an interconnected community of professionals who know each other.

IT can be a fun and exciting career choice that because of changing trends and changing times has essentially become open to anyone willing to put forth the time and effort.