Estimated reading time: 10 mins
Are you looking at starting a career in Information Technology (IT)? It’s a rewarding career, and you often get to play with some cool stuff. You’ll need to prove your technical abilities. And you also need to have a wide-range of non-technical skills if you’re going to make it. Most of all, you need to make it happen for yourself! Here are some essential tips in making a start in your IT career.
I started my career in 1995 when I joined Microsoft right out of University. I’d just completed a bachelors degree in Computer Science from the University of Teesside. I was lucky – 2 weeks after packing up my gear from Uni I was working in the world’s best known IT company (at the time – how things have changed!). In my opinion, it was easier to start an IT career back then. This was before outsourcing was big-time and the profession was old-school.
In those 18 years, the industry has changed beyond recognition. The Internet arrived (in mainstream). Outsourcing is prevalent. The profession is, well, more professional. It’s diverged into a vast number of specialisms. I’ve worked with many people starting their IT career – employed many – and laid off a few. I’ve picked up a few tips on the way!
Before I share them, I just want to point out a couple of posts I wrote a while back. In 7 Essential Steps To START an IT Career in a Recession I shared some tips on starting a career in IT during an economic downturn. Which we’re still in, right?
And in How To Become a Highly Paid IT Professional (And Be Rich) I looked at two career paths for IT people, looking at how a successful career can be built.
This time, I’ll get right back to basics and give you a 12-step guide on where to start and how to build on your skills and experiences to achieve your IT career goals:
1. Find out what IT skills you already have, and what you’re passionate about.
During my intern year in a government agency, I had little to do. I was bored. All I had was a windows 3.11 PC and no games to play. So I spent a lot of time (whittling away the hours) learning about Windows, DOS, and the Office suite. I optimized the heck out of my machine. During my final year at Uni, I got myself on the Windows 95 beta program, because it came with lots of cool stuff. So when it came to the end of my studies, I looked for a job where I could use the learning from my degree and my self-taught skills – I joined Microsoft in Product Support. I’d developed skills, and I guess a passion. Most people have some IT skills – they could be in graphics, tablet-PCs, mobile apps, music, etc. What IT skills do you have (that you probably didn’t think were skills?)
2. Discover what kind of IT jobs you like, and which will provide you with job satisfaction.
IT jobs are varied. Since the ’60s, IT has climbed out of the dungeons, onto the shop-floor, and into the boardroom. There are jobs in programming, support, projects, testing, architecture, solution design, management… the list is almost endless. I went into support because it was an easy place to start with the skills I had and could credibly demonstrate. I’d just finished a Computer Science degree, and I was more interested in hardware and infrastructure, which is probably why I didn’t enjoy the job. After a couple of years, I found a programming job which suited me much better. As a youngster, I used to code games for my friends. This was a real passion. I loved this new job. Job satisfaction is important – don’t under-estimate how much enjoying a job can be good for your career!
3. Find out what skills and experience are needed.
Skills and experience are pre-requisites of a job (amongst others). It’s likely you won’t have the right skills and experience to get the job you want. Don’t worry. When you know what you need you’ll be on the right track. Start by looking at job descriptions/specifications of jobs posted and do some research into how to build those skills. Do you need qualifications? Can you read books on the subject? What online resources are available?
4. Get to know people in your chosen field(s).
One way of achieving the above is to mix with the people who are already doing the jobs you want. Look for groups on LinkedIn or forums and join in. Ask questions! No question is too dumb, and don’t worry that you’re not on ‘their level’. Maybe your fresh pair of legs could add something useful to the discussion? Don’t be afraid to ask people if they know of any jobs available in their organization.
5. Look for entry-grade professional qualifications.
Some jobs require you to have qualifications. This normally involves training, or study. My advice is not to set the bar too high. You can spend a lot of time and money getting qualifications without a guarantee they will pay off (and you might also find you don’t like that field of work!) Discover the foundation courses and qualifications, for now.
6. Gain work experience.
Experience counts. A lot. Experience in your chosen field is a massive plus when it comes to applying for jobs.
This is a bit of a chicken-n-egg situation though, ain’t it? How can you get a job to gain experience if you don’t have experience? Well it isn’t that bad, really. You don’t need experience in the big blue-chip organizations to make it count. Voluntary work or internships carry weight.
Try looking for experience in local clubs, charities or voluntary associations. Most are crying out for an extra pair of hands so you’re bound to find some way of gaining experience. Heck, you might not get paid, but look at the big picture.
Look for jobs where you have a specific responsibility. If this isn’t offered at first (or if it isn’t clear what your responsibilities are) then ask for them – either before you start the job, or afterwards. Moreover, seek achievements. Take a look at my post 7 Keys To Describe Your Achievements… Know Any More? for more information on that.
7. Get your resume out there, and build your online profile.
You got to be anywhere and everywhere. Your resume is redundant if nobody reads it!
State your technical skills – even if they’re only basic. It’s better to say you have a rudimentary grasp of a technology rather than say nothing at all. You’re probably adept at using Microsoft Office packages or similar, so mention those.
Send your resume to all the organizations you can find who employ in the roles you’re looking for. I don’t advocate being too choosy at this time. You don’t have to go for every interview you’re offered (although every interview you have, it’s more experience and practise.)
Don’t forget to craft a covering letter for your application. This must address all the key requirements of the job and highlight your most relevant skills and experience for the job.
And make sure your LinkedIn profile is up-to-date too. This should reflect, as much as possible, your resume.
Don’t forget to mention your achievements on your resume – not just what you ‘did’ and your responsibilities.
8. Search for job opportunities.
The best place to start is online – the web has countless job sites to use. At this point, cast your net wide – i.e. hit as many sites as you can. I’ve published a list of top job sites here. Now, you may feel you’re spending lots of time scouring these sites, but what I expect you will also discover is which sites carry vacancies more suited to you. You will only discover this once you’ve had a proper look around. Don’t forget to ask people in your chosen field where they found their job. Ask people on LinkedIn!
Tip: when you find job vacancies that look interesting, note down the title of the vacancy (probably the same as job title) and pull out the key words/phrases from the posting. These might be industry/sector specific and will help you to extend and continue your search onwards.
Don’t just use the search on jobsites – use Google too.
If you’re targeting specific organizations, then go to their websites and look for career opportunities and job vacancies there.
9. Ask, inquire, propose (and beg if you have to.)
When it comes to getting that essential first job in your career, you mustn’t be shy! Even if you can’t find vacancies in specific organizations, you should still contact them. Send in your resume with a covering letter, and invite them to contact you if they have suitable vacancies now, or in the future.
And make it clear to family, friends and contacts you’re on the job hunt. Ask people to inquire on your behalf!
Propose yourself as a good candidate for jobs within organizations. Tell them why you’re a hot property. Ask nicely, and you might just hit pay-dirt! And sure, don’t be afraid to make a plea for opportunities. Tenacity is a prized trait in some roles and organizations.
10. Take the best job you can find (and keep looking.)
Your first job will probably NOT be your ideal job, although don’t ever give up in thinking it can be. When presented with your first job opportunities, take the best available. The thing is, when you start in IT, you’ll discover more and more opportunities as you become increasingly familiar with the ‘culture’ of the industry. Your network of contacts will grow. Never stop hunting for the next great job. The more you do, the better you’ll get at it, and the more ready you will be when the time is right to move on.
11. Train, learn, and build experience.
In your first job, take as many training opportunities as you can. Focus on the core skills of your chosen career path. Aim for accreditation that is portable outside of your current job (e.g. MCITP, CCNA, CISSP.) Go for foundation certificates, and then hit the practitioner levels.
Note: training is expensive for employers, so they can often tie you to a set period of tenure, e.g. if you leave within 6 months then you gotta pay for it. Make sure you understand what restrictions are put in place before you ask for training.
Formal training isn’t the only way to grow your skills. I recommend you network within your organization and learn how the WHOLE organization works, from what the CEO does to how the janitors work. Be inquisitive! When you understand the wider context of your role within the organization, you understand its value. Learn about how your organization works, how it makes profit, where the costs are, the risks, etc.
Develop your ‘soft-skills’ too – network with people and get involved with social events. Don’t keep your head low and bury yourself in the techie bits.
Offer to get involved in projects, or initiate them. Build experience beyond the core of your role and you will be on a fast-track career path!
12. Regularly take stock.
It’s important to take stock of where you are, where you have come from, and where you want to be. I recommend that on a regular basis, e.g. monthly, you spend a little time considering what you have learned and how it helps you define and achieve your career goals. Doing this will give you opportunities for ‘course correction’ – you might identify gaps in your skills and experience you wish to sure-up. It should also give you that ‘feel-good factor’ too.