Information Technology is a challenging and rewarding field that pays quite well. If you love technology and are willing to spend the time to learn, you can succeed in IT. I generally followed the steps below to rise from a computer enthusiast to an IT Manager. You can do the same without spending a ton of money. If you don't understand a term in a step below, do an online search. You will learn from it. You are reading this article on the Internet. This article assumes you have Internet access.
- Why an IT career? The IT bubble burst with the dot.com bust, but Information Technology has rebounded. The economy is in good shape, companies always need IT support, and the security and administration fields are looking like they will stay on course for sustained growth. Check out CareerPlanner. Also do a Web search for "IT employment trends" with variations like "career," "market," "study," or other words likely to produce forecasts for the IT field.
- What are the benefits? Salary is a big one. General IT support staff for the area where I earn range from $55-75K. According to InformationWeek, an IT Manager averages $99K per year, and a staffer pulls down $73K. Besides salary, I find that IT offers a lot of responsibility and the ability to think and work independently. Your mileage may vary. I am also very customer-oriented. My job is to make everybody else more capable of doing their jobs better, and they appreciate it when you help them out, fix something, or teach them a new trick.
- What are the challenges? The hours are often demanding. When you need to work on servers or networks, you often have to do the work outside normal business hours or on weekends to reduce the potential negative impact on other business processes. I believe that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Talk to IT professionals. Form your own opinions.
- What next? If you've weighed the advantages and disadvantages and still decide you want to give IT a try (without going bankrupt), try developing your own version of the following career path:
- Build your own computer. You will find lots of advice online. Start with a used ATX case (or a cheap new one). It will probably have a power supply and a floppy drive, and it may have a CD-ROM. Buy a cheap motherboard at a discount place. You should be able to find something easily that costs less than $100 bundled with a CPU and fan. Then get the largest stick of RAM you can easily afford. Hard drives are cheap. Add a network card.
- Upgrade your computer. You will do this if you work in the IT field. Add RAM, add a hard drive, add a CD or DVD burner. You will make mistakes, you will fix them, and you will learn.
- Build a home network. Get a 5-port switch or router. Build or buy a second computer. Set up Windows shared folders. Set up Samba shares in Linux. Learn TCP/IP. Know what a net mask is. Learn DHCP and DNS. Learn FTP. Set up an internal web server. Learn to build a website. Make mistakes, fix them and learn. Devour magazines. Get current and stay current.
- Learn both Windows networking and Linux. Get a used copy of Windows 2000 (server if you can afford it). Buy computer books at used bookstores. Learn networking and troubleshooting. When in trouble, Google is your friend.
- Help friends and neighbors with their computer problems. You will learn much, and that is often payment enough.
- Once you have done all these things and achieved the status of enlightened amateur, you should be able to figure out whether you actually have the real talent and interest to pursue a career in IT. You then have many options, and you can steer yourself in the direction you desire. Are you going to be a generalist who supports a company network, servers, desktops and phones? Or do you prefer to specialize in switches and routers, or security, or some other specific IT field? We have uncovered another benefit of working in the IT field. The variety of jobs, from generalist to specialist, is very broad. Balance your interests against the demand for services where you live.
- You can continue to learn and grow on the cheap. Visit thrift stores and used bookstores frequently. A lot of people buy really good IT reference books and lose interest. They then sell them or give them away. Continue to build your library.
- There are countless online resources available for free. Download free software like OpenOffice and the free versions of Oracle and IBM's DB2. Use Firefox and Thunderbird. Learn compression and encryption. It's an open source world out there today. Take advantage.
- The day will come when you need to get certified: A+, MCSE, LPI, CCNA, etc. Do certifications mean you do a better job than someone uncertified? Not necessarily, but they do signify that you have some verifiable level of knowledge, and they mean you spent the time, effort and expense to formally get your ticket punched. That counts for something. Those certifications, plus the necessary experience and demonstrated accomplishments you use to build your resume, will lead to job opportunities, increasing responsibilities and higher pay. There are many paths to certification: informal study through books and the Internet and formal study through technical schools, community colleges and universities. Use caution. Many of these programs will happily take lots of your money without producing the desired results. Ask around. Talk to other people who are certified.
- Network with other IT professionals. This is not so hard to do. Vendors of goods and services for IT have breakfasts, symposiums and other opportunities for you to gather in groups with fellow IT folks. Go to these forums. Get to know people, let them get to know you. You have no idea when one of you will be making a recommendation to hire another. People tend to move around a lot as they outgrow their current jobs and move on to new challenges. That's the way the IT business goes.
- One last bit of advice. IT is about the customer. It can become altogether too easy to think of the current or the next project as the most important thing. Projects only support what is really important--the people. Take care of them first, and your career will take care of itself.
If responsibility scares you, IT is not for you. It is sometimes scary: outages, viruses, crashes. But I somehow survived it all, and I learned a tremendous amount that will stand me in good stead for years to come. In my opinion, the opportunity for personal growth in the IT field surpasses many, many other career paths. Follow the recommended steps, and you too can figure out--without spending years of study and thousands of dollars for training--whether IT is really the career for you. I hope it is.