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Getting your foot into the IT industry & my history

I get asked a fair bit, do I know of any jobs going in the IT industry, by mates looking to get into IT. I occasionally get asked, how I got to where I am today also. So I’m writing this post for anyone out there, who’s just finishing school and wondering what the next step should be, or older folks just looking to switch into a new career path.

I’ll start first, with an analysis of a group discussion I found and posted in on the LinkedIn social networking website (discussion thread – “Is a Masters Degree Worth It?”).

The conversation was started by a guy named Alan, working at McDonalds, and looking to get into the IT industry. He has just completed a Bachelors Degree in Computer Science, and is wondering if a Masters Degree would further his chances of initially being hired.

The majority of the responses are yes, a Masters Degree will get you further, as it shows you are willing to go the extra yard in learning. Additionally, everyone pretty much agrees, that experience is the most important factor when looking at IT jobs.

Cue the IT industry paradigm, how do you get experience, when every job requires experience?

A few of the replies mention getting certifications, such as the MCP and CCNA disciplines (failing to note the obvious programming focus the original poster seems to have). Well, yes, certifications help, but they don’t make up for experience.

My advice was simple. Of course, I’m no genius or mentor or anything, but I feel my experience in moving up in the world is valuable to me, and could be beneficial to others.

I suggested that this lad start off simple. Write up a career plan, decide what he is aiming to be in his career, and what skills he’s going to need to get there, both technical and professional. He’s working at McDonalds, so don’t aim too high, I suggested applying for jobs around the $40k mark, which is around about standard junior IT position rates. Leach the most out of these jobs, gaining as much professional and technical skills as you possibly can through your experiences. Yes – a low paying role like this will probably ask for experience, but you are far more likely to land it with no experience, than a $60k job straight out of uni.

One thing I have to note, is the value of university degrees, in forming professional skills. To quote myself:

I’ve found that my university studies don’t teach you any (or very little) about professional skills, or how to develop them. My best recommendation is to be socially active, as people skills will get you a long way. They will also help you to ace interviews. Let’s face it, most IT graduates really lack these qualities…

During my first year at university, two of the core units were called IT Professional Studies 1 & 2… You’ll be surprised to find that the units did not teach any professional skills, only website design and quite loosely, working in a team. The majority of tutorials covered such topics as personality recognition using the red hat/blue hat etc methods, and other such topics, nothing of which is beneficial, in my opinion, in bettering your professional skills.

This year I studied a subject titled “The Business of IT”, which was slightly more beneficial. However, it’s a 3rd year elective subject, and is not a subject most IT students would even consider taking. This subject actually delved more into business aspects, such as writing business venture proposals, as well as helping you to write your resume, cover letter and our tutor even helping us in class by getting us to perform mock interviews. Admittedly, this seemed pretty basic to me having gone through these processes in the industry numerous times, however, it allowed me to give some feedback to fellow students which they would not have gotten from our tutor or the lecturer. (One of our assignments was to write a cover letter and resume, to which I practically submitted an existing cover letter and resume I had written. My tutor noted that my resume was too long and detailed, and I was marked down for this. That same week, I used the same cover letter and resume, scoring my current position – I didn’t even get any bonus marks!)

For myself, getting into the IT industry was a lot simpler and easier. I had spent a lot of my teenage years at home tinkering with our home computer, breaking it, fixing it, reinstalling Windows, removing viruses, and even learning PHP/MySQL programming. I had no intention of getting a job, but the last day of year 12 my cousin actually called me as the company he worked for at the time needed an additional staff member to help with the workload. As I had no plans to go to schoolies, I went in the next Monday for an “interview”, and spent the day there as a bit of work experience so to speak. It all turned out well, and I started there the next week. Goes to show, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

I spent around 5 years at this organisation, starting with basic desktop support, and eventually leaving the company as the remaining IT staff member, where I completed all systems administration duties, as well as inheriting the previous IT managers duties of managing the document management system, and creating financial reports out of our ERP system. I also picked up some industry certifications through the company, completing my MCSA and completing the training courses for my MCSE. Those 5 years taught me almost everything I needed to know, and facing daily boredom whilst waiting for a redundancy, I decided to jump ship early, the point at which I refer to as beginning my career.

Those 5 years or so taught me a lot about professional skills. I became well known in the company as a friendly and approachable person. I also further developed my PHP/MySQL programming skills, actually using them for good, in redesigning the company’s website, intranet, and other internal applications. Being an ASX listed company, and having to comply with US FDA and Australian TGA regulations, I was subjected to corporate life, document and change control, and other business processes, which I ultimately took with me and attribute to my professional skills.

From there, I moved on to iseek Communications, essentially an ISP in Brisbane. Refer to my resume for details about that. Here I learned alot more about *nix systems which I have continued to have an interest in since, developing my skills as a hobby. I got to flex my hand with the programming stuff again, and got a lot more in depth knowledge of Active Directory, Exchange and Terminal Server, as well as networking in general. I was here for just over a year before I moved on to NORAC.

NORAC was my first position working directly with clients as customers, per se. Working for an organisation day to day is one thing, but working with numerous clients dispersed across Brisbane is another. Time management, prioritisation and people skills are tested extensively when you are providing IT support at a service. I cannot recommend working for an organisation like this more than enough. This is a good place for a junior to begin – and admittedly, I sort of saw this as a backwards step for myself, albeit, engaging and never boring. In terms of career progression, this sort of role will only take you places once you have an established career, and work for a larger organisation offering the same sort of services to larger enterprise clients. NORAC, unfortunately at the time, didn’t have room for me to grow as a professional – certainly not to be confused as a negative thing to say about the company!!

And this is where I started contracting. This is another kettle of fish. In terms of benefits you have almost next to none. I wasn’t really interested in contracting until I had submitted my resume through a recruitment agency, who asked if I was interested in the position. I didn’t really ask how much it was paying salary wise, but the consultant let me know the hourly rate exceeded $50/hour. After quickly calculating that in my head, it was pretty obvious the money got the better of me. It was still a massive risk for me to move from permanent full time work, into a contract position (it worked out about $100k/yr with tax, just a little jump from my average low end sysadmin pay). The contract I ended up taking was only 3 months, so I had to weigh up the fact I would have to find something again in 3 months time, and had to pull my act together in terms of managing my money, just in case.

Coming up to Christmas, I’m faced with the fact that I won’t be paid holiday pay. This means I’ll be working over Christmas making up my hours, as well as rationing. This will be the first Christmas I have spent contracting, so it will be an interesting time, and will really test me in terms of my personal finances.

On the flipside, contracting got me into a Queensland Government role, at DEEDI, where I was working on an infrastructure project (of the IT kind). This was a challenging environment to work in, in terms of the ICT program’s structure, politics and the task at hand. It was extremely eye opening to see how certain technologies were being implemented. I had a lot of influence with a new Citrix environment which had been deployed, and whilst I had no requirement to utilise my privileged access, I was heavily involved in troubleshooting teething problems, and designing new solutions to deliver business applications. Working with a broad range of 3rd party agencies was exceptionally challenging. The experience, however, was rewarding. I was recognised as being proactive, and very knowledgable, despite little experience with such technologies as Citrix. I also scored a trip to Cairns and Townsville. Thanks Queensland, it was a nice holiday.

And that led to my position now at QR National. I must say, when I initially applied for this position, I was extremely excited about it. A very successful interview resulted in a phone call 30 mins later saying I had gotten the job, and I started 4 weeks later. I’ve been there since, and am hoping to stay on for a long time yet. There are alot of opportunities here to expand my knowledge, with products I have only briefly touched previously. I’m extremely interested in the work I am doing at the moment with Forefront Threat Management Gateway, essentially a web proxy and firewall product from Microsoft, which has replaced the ISA name.

Where from here? Back to my original recommendation, I suggested that Alan write a career plan, outlining where he wanted to be and how to get there. To add a bit of a twist to this, I’d have to say I never really did this. When I started in IT, I didn’t really think of how I would progress my career in the industry. I knew I wanted to be a systems engineer, but it never occurred to me that I could be doing greater things. My idea of progressing was pay rises, or swapping to a new job. I spent around 5 years on the same salary over 3 different jobs. Whilst at my previous full time position, I realised that I could be getting roughly $20k more in a systems administrator / engineeer roles with other companies. My resume didn’t exactly have some of the broader range of experiences that these positions had asked for, however, and so I missed out on even securing an interview. Contracting on the other hand, opened doors for me.

My resume is highly Active Directory and Exchange related, and so my first contracting position utilised this knowledge. In doing so, I was subjected to the likes of Citrix, Microsoft’s Systems Center, Configuration Manager and Operations Manager (SCCM and SCOM), Forefront TMG, and Symantec Enterprise Vault. Simply putting these on my resume and having little amounts of experience with them has paid off, at least for my technical skills. Additionally, project work at DEEDI really gave me more professional skills than technical.

It was working with the people at DEEDI, however, and seeing how broad the project was and how everyone comes together, that got me thinking where I wanted to be next. I also had an epiphany  whilst at uni one night with a classmate, who described how he had gotten in to his post graduate degree (read: Masters). These two experiences combined, and looking up to one of my peers at DEEDI, really set me on track. So, get to the point Ashley, what do you want to be in 5 years time? A solutions architect.

Skipping all that boring stuff, some bullet point tips to cap it all off:

  • Have low expectations entering the market – you won’t get much more than a ~$40k role with no experience
  • Clearly define where you want your IT career to lead – do you want to become a systems administrator, a team leader / manager, or just the best software developer possible?
  • Weigh up the benefits of accepting a position that may not relate to your chosen career – a help desk support role doesn’t sound glamorous, but is the best place to start learning how things work, and how to fix them.
  • If IT isn’t already a hobby, best you take it up ASAP. You won’t be able to just break production systems at work to test something you want to try… Break your own stuff first. This is also a good way to learn, and shows initiative.
  • Qualifications do not make up for experience, ever.
  • Qualifications are still highly valuable, however.
  • Industry certification is generally much more useful, in my opinion, than university degrees. Universities don’t teach you about Active Directory, Exchange or Terminal Server, which you will find yourself dealing with as a systems administrator. If you are a programmer, your university degree is quite possibly the highest certification you can possibly achieve for that role.
  • If you know people in the industry, utilise your social network to get into the industry. Talk to friends/family to find out how they like working in IT, and find out if there’s any positions going where they work (or if they know of any in general)
  • Ensure your resume is professionally written and presented. I see a lot of resumes which are really basic and boring to look at, whilst they are simple, effective, and probably do the job just fine, they don’t show much attention to detail. I, for example, show too much detail (which is also a no no).
  • Get in contact with a reputable recruitment agency. In Brisbane, I’d recommend PeopleBank, Talent International, M&T Resources or Paxus.
  • Lead an active and social life, not alcohol wise, but generally socialise, play a sport, and get out of the house. You will not meet people and learn how to interact with others if you sit at home playing WoW or COD all week/end.
  • People skills will get you a long way! (My thoughts on this confirmed by another LinkedIn user – “I completely agree with Ashley’s advice above (our history is quite similar). People skills will get you anywhere you want to go. Be engaging, learn your craft, find passion in an area of IT, and work won’t seem like work. Your natural enthusiasm will do the rest. “)
  • Use LinkedIn. Connect with recruiters, and ensure your details are up to date. Most recruiters don’t mind connecting with random strangers, it just adds to their possible database of candidates. To put things into perspective, I receive at least 1 message a week on LinkedIn from recruiters who have read my profile and want me to apply for a position.
  • In addition to IT as a hobby, have some “real” hobbies as well. No one likes a nerd who only does nerdy stuff. Get out of the house, play a sport, hang out with your friends. Conversation starters, like, “what did you get up to on the weekend,” are killed when the nerdy IT guy says “oh I slayed a level 70 dragon”. Good for you dude, good for you.
  • Realise that some positions may be “stepping stones” – you may not like job, the people, or the money, but the experiences you will learn will help in your career development. Make the most of this! When it’s time to move on, move on.
  • Some companies may offer no career progression at all. As per the previous point, this doesn’t have to be a negative. Take what you can, and when you’re finished, leave on good terms.
  • Don’t burn your bridges. Maintain previous working relationships if possible (LinkedIn helps). Using your previous boss as a reference could be dangerous, or it could be extremely beneficial. My previous boss, for example, left me an amazing reference on LinkedIn…
  • Dress the part. Alot of IT guys these days are siding towards vendor branded polo shirts (I for one, haven’t been so lucky – what up Microsoft?). I may look out of place dressing all “businessy”, but people take you more seriously. Look at upper management, and follow their lead. This also goes for grooming. Sorry, but the “comic book guy” look won’t get you anywhere.
  • Read “ Time Management for System Administrators: Stop Working Late and Start Working Smart ($19.33 on Amazon) “, if you want to go down that path.

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Adel Koubitary
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Adel Koubitary

hey,
its rare for me to read such long articles but the headline got my attention since im a MIS fresh graduate, working in a IT soltion company as a Junior Systems Engineer.i really liked your article, gives lots of encourgement, and lots of tips
thank you for sharing.

Keaton Neville
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Keaton Neville

Hi Ash Last time we spoke I was looking to move up in the world of IT and your article certainly helped me out. One of the things I’ve always said about IT is it’s similar to being a doctor. You don’t want someone with 10 years experience and no qualifications doing a heart transplant or someone fresh out of uni. IT is an industry where it’s good to have a mix between the two, qualifications for the resume and experience for getting the job. I wasn’t as lucky as a lot of people my age and wasn’t fortunate enough… Read more »

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