Do It: Breaking In – Interning

Often overlooked as a means of entering many industries is the practice of interning. While paid cooperative learning experiences and paid internships might relatively rare the more traditional unpaid internship is still widely available. Unpaid internships are hardly glamorous but they do offer a significant means of rapidly entering the IT profession.

One time in an interview early on in my career a technology recruiter told me that six months experience was considered to be equal to or better than a four year degree specific to the field (i.e. an IT or CIS degree and not a CS degree – unless you are doing research, of course.) Now this might be an exaggeration but in what direction? Perhaps real world experience is worth even more than that. Maybe some less but my experience agrees with that assessment. Experience beats certifications, education – anything.

Some people manage to get entry-level jobs without having to intern, get a cert, take a class or whatever. These are the lucky few. I happen to be one of these. I got a very entry level job just two weeks out of high school. I happened to have been in the amazing position of having proved that I likely possessed the skills for the job and was offered a very low-paying position that I hadn’t even applied for or knew existed. I took it and the rest is history. The job paid so little that I might as well have been an intern but it gave me real world programming experience and introduced me to large scale UNIX systems that I had never worked on previously. I did my first networking and worked with lots of hardware that I had never even seen before this job. I did this entry-level position for a year and a half. It made more difference than anything I have ever done before or since to advance my career.

That first job put a stake in the ground and declared, in writing, that I had a “start date” in the industry as well as someone to use as a reference. Even today my “career length” is still determined by that first day working in IT. It is unlikely that anything else that you do in your career, at least for the first several years or decades, will have so much effect as your start date. Everything that you do before getting your first position should be focused on getting that first position. Once you get that entry level job, no matter how mundane (but beyond working at Circuit City,) you will be amassing “experience” that will add to your total from there on out.

One of the great advantages to interning, paid or unpaid, is that because of your incredibly low cost and obvious ambition you have a better chance of being allowed to work with technologies that you might be barred from otherwise due to your lack of experience. And your boss will probably love you because you are costing him or her next to nothing. It isn’t hard to get an incredible return on investment under those conditions.

Interning is not designed to be a means for gaining gainful employment with the company that you are interning with but, obviously, that is a possibility. Do a great job as an intern and the company is very unlikely to turn around and give their next job that you can handle to an unknown entity when they have someone that they know right there. But this is not always the case.

Interning is not meant to last forever. Six to nine months is usual enough. A year isn’t out of the question. Interning is my personal recommendation for anyone who is starting their career during their normal “college years” and has the advantage of living at home with the folks. If you are older it might not be something that you can reasonably do. If you are really motivated or lucky you can often get into a good internship during your high school years. This is the optimum solution. You can often walk out of high school and right into the field. Or even get work before then. It is rare but it happens.

If you intern for too long the benefits will start to go away. You can only work for free for so long before it becomes a problem. I suggest looking for a paying gig starting somewhere in the six to nine month range of your internship. It may take a while for the right position to open up. Interning is perfect because the company that you are at can’t complain about you heading off to interviews.

While interning you shouldn’t be kicking back and taking it easy figuring that you are earning it because you are not getting paid. What you should be doing during this time is working on certifications. Even if you just get one or two during this time it shows a lot more ambition than just interning alone and it provides more material for your resume which is critical at this early stage.

As an intern you should act as much as possible like a professional employee. This is your chance to learn how to be a professional without the pressure. Take advantage of it. Do the best work that you can do. Show up early and work late. Work hard, do your best, take time at home to study the technologies that they are using in the office and be persistent in asking to be allowed to work on more and more advanced projects once you have proven yourself on more menial tasks.

Chances are if you are able to seriously consider interning you are either one of those amazing people who doesn’t need to sleep or else you are young and living with family and have few or no bills that you have to take care of yourself. If you or your supporter(s) argue that interning is a waste of time, that no one should work for free and that college or university is a better use of your time and money then consider this:

Interning can begin during high school or, if not, as early as being immediately out of high school. This gives ambitious interns months or potentially years of a lead on their college-bound peers and their lead puts the proverbial stake in the ground showing the beginning of their careers. College does not do this.

A four year college student who waits until after graduation to pick up their first IT job could be five or six years behind their peer who left high school to take an unpaid internship. That former intern could potentially be well situated in a lower mid-career position before the college student starts looking for their chance to “break in.” That lead is very tough if not impossible to overcome.

Additionally the college student probably has debt. A lot of it. Racked up from years of not working and spending like crazy. Most colleges are very expensive and most require that you spend a lot of money on dorm rooms and activity feeds. Not only has the intern way ahead in debt load but has probably been making positive cash flow for almost the entire time that the college student was in negative cash flow.

Now the obvious retort is that the college student has some level of education that is so valuable that he or she will instantly be able to do more tasks and advance their career faster than the former intern. Perhaps. I will talk about that issue in another article. But assuming that the educational advantage is real lets look at the equation again.

The college first person has a four year university degree and finds and decent, entry-level job right out of college. Life is good. Degree under their belt and the first job underway. The former intern has four or five years of experience under their belt and no degree at all. We will assume that both of these potential professionals have an equal number of certifications and other factors are generally comparable. At this stage the former intern has the massive career and financial advantage. It will take two to five years for the college graduate with the same skill and drive to likely approach the interns career potential at this point in their career. That is a long time.

As we move into the future, let’s say another five year, we see the college student now has five years of industry experience and is now mid-career. During the past five years the former intern, being a mid-career professional, was given the benefit of getting to go to university as part of their pay package. Educational benefits have a tax advantage for both parties and many companies will pay some or all of college education and often other types of education. So after ten years the college first professional has five years experience, a college degree that is very out of date and a large debt load to show for it. The intern has ten years of experience, a more recent degree and no collegiate debt.

The bottom line is that college is a huge risk. It is a gamble. In many industries college level work is required to gain entrance but in IT it is more likely to be a barrier. The risks associated with foregoing real experience to spend time in college are very high. College isn’t the “safe” route that it is with other industries. Often IT professionals are more likely to look at “dedicated” time spent in college as party time as so many professionals did their degrees while working. IT is not other fields and people going into IT should think carefully about how taking the “safe” route will affect them in the long run. A four year degree is very likely to be enough to get you an entry level position but for an ambitious, career-minded IT professional it can be a stumbling block that can have ramifications that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Additionally, an the intern had a safety, a fall back, all along. If, at any time, they were to be in a position where they were unable to find a position whether due to a contract ending or being laid off or whatever they could simply enter college at that point. Take classes until another position came along and then switch back to working using college as something to fill the gaps. Or they could do college at a slower pace doing evening or distance classes which are generally geared more towards motivated professionals and not full time non-professional college students.

One of the big mistakes that people often make when considering a career in IT or soliciting advice about moving into the career is to look at IT as if it was any other professional domain. But IT is very unique. It is larger than other fields and has more of an employment gap. It is a constantly changing field where a college student going to school for four years is likely to have the knowledge learned in their freshman year be nearly useless by the time that they graduate. This doesn’t happen to engineers. This doesn’t happen to teachers. This doesn’t happen to chemists, to pharmacists or lawyers. All of those fields change but IT changes at a pace that other industries cannot even imagine and it is likely to stay that way. IT is broader than other disciplines. IT is different. Accept it. Embrace it. It is what makes IT so great but don’t be fooled because what worked for your cousin to get that job as in insurance is not going to get you into IT.

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