In the Breaking into Tech series of posts I weigh the pros and cons of the three basic means of preparing yourself for a career in tech: certification, formal education, and experience. For each category I’ll give separate advice for those seeking a corporate career versus those seeking to start their own computer business. Drawing from my own experiences, as well as my observations of other successful people, I hope to give a realistic look at what it takes to break into tech.
It may seem counter intuative to use experience as criteria for breaking into an industry. Afterall, if you’re new to the profession, how can you have experience? That’s been the ultimate catch 22 for many tech as they begin their career, including me.
But the fact reamins that experience is the ultimate qualification in the tech world, and it is the most important notch on your belt. Practical experience working with technology is worth its weight in gold. You’ll learn more in 6 months of field work than you ever did in 4 years of college.
So it’s important to start getting relevant experience as soon as you decide that technology is the field you want to go in to. You may need to take a cut in pay or simply work for free in order to get your initial experience with computers. Thats okay, because it will pay dividends in the future. Lets explore how experience will help you in both a corporate IT career and with being a computer consultant.
When searching for a job in the tech industry you’ll most likely see a statement similar to this: “Associate/Bachelors Degree or equivalent experience required.” In fact, you may be hard pressed to find a position that doesn’t require some form of relevant experience.
In other words, in the eyes of most hiring managers, experience in the field is just as good as a degree. They understand that hands-on experience in real word IT can teach you the same skills, often times in a shorter amount of time, than a degree.
But how can you gain that much sought-after experience when you’re first starting out? There are a few ways to go about doing this.
Possibly the best and most direct road into IT for the inexperienced is an internship. Internships can be started while still in college. Often you’re required to be enrolled in college in order to be hired as an intern. Some internships pay and some don’t, but what they offer is hands-on experience doing the job you want to do. They also offer the potential to be hired as a full time employee once your internship is over.
This is the exact route I took in my own IT career. I had no work experience in IT after getting out of the active duty Army, so I went to community college and applied for internships at various local companies. I was hired as a Help Desk Intern, the lowest possible rung on the corporate IT ladder, for about $10 and hour. The pay wasn’t incredible, but I knew it was a stepping stone into the career field. Fast forward a little over 6 years later and I was promoted three times within the same company, ending up as a Data Center Administrator. I chose to quit this career path to pursue my computer consulting business, but my story is a testament to the power of the internship strategy.
Similar to internships, being hired as a temporary employee is a great route to take for those not in school. There are many temp agencies that hire folks with little experience in order to fill temporary vacancies that companies may have. You can ask to be placed in positions that are slightly technical, like data entry or call routing for a tech support company.
As with interns, temps are often hired on as full time employees if they do a good job and the company happens to need extra people. Once you’re hired, you can take advantage of the opportunity to move into more IT -centered positions within that company, or simply use your experience there on your resume.
I have mixed results with temping personally, but it never got me a job in IT. However, I know colleagues who switched careers from something else to IT by temping in IT-related positions.
Experience is important if you plan on starting your own computer consulting business. You should be well versed in a wide variety of technical skills and troubleshooting techniques before doing it for other as a business. Because of this, I recommend starting your career in IT first, seeing if it’s something you enjoy, and then jumping into your own business venture.
This “test drive” approach to starting a business is something I’ve advocated from the very beginning. Once you feel comfortable troubleshooting computers (as an employee), then you can start to grow your business on the side, while still keeping your day job. That way there’s no risk if you find that entrepreneurship is not for you. You also have the opportunity to slowly build a client base that can sustain you once you do jump to full time business ownership.
It is possible to skip the IT career and jump straight into your computer business. I know that’s what Bryce Whitty of Technibble did and he’s grown a successful business from it. But he did start his business part time first, and I think this is the best way to go to gain experience with running your business while minimizing risk of failure.
Experience is the single most important asset you have in your career in IT whether it be with a corporation or with your own business. Plan ahead and grow your experience slowly over time through internships, temp gigs, or part-time business ownership. It may be a slow process, but it’s the most proven route to take to ensure you have a successful career. Combine experience with higher education and certification and you’ll be an unstoppable force on whatever path you choose to take.
What are your thoughts on experience as it relates to the IT industry?