Do IT: Breaking In – College and University

Academic experience is the most common way of entering most professions. In Information Technology it likely remains so although it is probably the lowest ratio of such of any technical profession. Collegiate level IT studies suffer from a number of factors that together create a unique situation for the IT industry. The key factors include high income rates for professionals, rapid pace of technological change, easy technology access to younger students and a poor understanding of the field outside of the industry which has resulted in high schools often guiding talented students away from the IT fields from an unfounded belief that there are few and decreasing job opportunities regardless of the continuing vacuum existing in the American IT workforce even after increased off-shoring and professional immigration.

Because of these issues colleges and universities have faced an unprecedented challenge in attempting to prepare the IT workforce. Information Technology, drastically more so than even Computer Science, has possibly the greatest disparity between what the collegiate system is turning out and what industry, and often students, are expecting. Students entering IT programs will often range from novices looking to get their first taste of IT in the hopes of making career decisions to students with more than a dozen years of amateur programming experience, several years of professional experience or work on open source projects, hands on experience with a range of technologies and an in-depth knowledge of many technologies exceeding many long-term industry professionals and professors. While any gifted student can exist in any program in any field it is nearly impossible to find an education student or a medical students or a law student that enter, at age eighteen, into college with years of experience behind them and with having had access almost equal to that of top professionals and researchers! Because of this disparity colleges and universities have a new challenge to deal with that they have never had to deal with previously.

All people learn differently and for some people collegiate work is the easiest or best way for them to obtain new knowledge. Information Technology is an industry based on change and one of the most critical skills that any IT professional will have is the ability to learn and knowledge as to how they learn best as an individual. Students who are self motivated and that can learn without external pressures or resources will have a significant advantage as individualized learning allows one to focus more, advance faster and learn more flexibly than students who, for their entire careers, will require classroom settings for educational enrichment. Most students will benefit most from a blend of educational opportunities.

While continuing academic is a traditional method of entering a profession student in IT related fields should consider this decision more strongly than in other professions because of the abundance of other resources. Academic work in the IT field is often best used as a supplement rather than a comprehensive educational solution. Students using only academic work for their studies will generally find that their knowledge is far too shallow for real world work – even entry level – and that key technology areas have been missed.

Students in academia generally also face the challenges of mounting debt from the college programs themselves. This should not be discounted as that debt could not only be disadvantageous in its own right but could also cause the student to later be unable to take key opportunities that come with higher inherent risk but offer greater career growth rather than sticking with slower growth, more stable positions. IT rewards flexibility more than most fields and students should be considering this early.

I have long suggested that students use collegiate work as a means to “fill in the gaps” between other things. College level work should never take precedence over real work experience. If college is considered to be more important than work than clearly there is a discrepancy between reality and the stated goal of an extended education. If the purpose of college is not to get work and not to advance in your career then by all means spend as much time in college as possible. But if college is not the goal but your career is the goal then college should be treated as a tool in a set of tools that can be used to forward your career.

I suggest that college work, whether done solely or if done while working in the field or while participating in other studies, be done in as “stepped” a manner as possible. By this I am specifically referring to the Associate Degree available in the United States. This is typically a two years degree. A good, accredited “junior college” will offer an array of two year degree choices that will transfer easily then to a four year school. Even if you intend to go directly on to a four year degree there are many benefits to a two year degree but the most important is that you will have obtained a full degree and could then leverage it to get a professional position or a promotion at a current position. And if anything goes wrong and you are unable to complete, in a timely fashion, a four year degree you will have the two year degree in place. Some four year universities like the State University of New York’s Empire State College offer mixed two and four year programs where you take a single program but receive an Associate Degree halfway to your Bachelor Degree.
I heartily recommend college educations because they, like all forms of education, will encourage broadening and may point you in directions that you would not have gone on your own. There are certainly people who will do better with no college level work at all but they are the minority but perhaps not as small a minority as you may think. Some people absolutely need college work and cannot function without it. But for the average hopeful IT professional my stock recommendation is to take classes when they don’t interfere with work or the potential for work (i.e. you don’t have to give up interviewing and contracting just because you have to go to class.)

College and university studies in IT are currently best utilized by professionals in the early portions of their career but after having entered the field. Often It professionals have an opportunity to take college classes part time fully and principally funded by their employers. This changes the picture dramatically as you will not take a break from experience while going to school, you will get the obvious advantage of the degree itself and you have an employer who is likely to appreciate that you were willing to take advantage of their continuing education program.

Because of college’s extremely high costs both financially and in its requirements on your valuable time it is a very high risk when compared to other methods of breaking into IT. While it has its place and should, in time, begin to become more useful as the pace of IT change begins to slow and schools begin to adapt to the rigors of IT college work is still currently not the panacea that it appears to be in other fields and should not be thought of as such. Potential students should consider their options carefully.

Once having entered the field and having begun to amass experience young IT professionals should begin to look at college as a supplement to their ongoing learning and work.  The earlier in your career that a degree is obtained the more time that it will work for you and the more meaningful the material will be.  But if it is done in lieu of actual work experience it is unlikely that even by the end of your career that a college degree will ever manage to pay for the time that it will cost you let alone the money that it will likely cost.

In conclusion, college and university studies are very likely to be highly valuable to you during your career especially in lean economic times and when you look to make a move into management.  But college is not necessarily a good tool for “getting your foot in the door” of your career but is better used as a growth tool after a year or two of consistent work.  Most people seriously interested and dedicated to moving into IT will probably find that three to six months of independent study and working on learning “at home” will be enough to land that first entry-level contract or job which is far sooner than college work will help with the same objective.

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