A question that I often get from people looking at going in to IT is how to decide, from the vast array of career options, what paths make the most sense. IT is a massive field and the range of careers within the field is pretty wide and the differences that exist between different types of firms is very wide as well. Few fields offer the dynamic range that IT does and this is both a blessing and a curse. Few people entering the field really have a good idea of what they are going to want to do and can be lost simply because too many choices are available to them.
If you are coming to IT from nothing more than an interest in computers and technology you may easily find that the doors are just too wide open and there is no clear path upon which to set out on your IT career adventure. Surely there are career paths beckoning you but they may be hard to identify.
There are, in my estimation, two basic ways in which you can set out to decide effectively where you want to begin your IT career. The first is through academics whether formal or self-study. This is the traditional approach and has its merits. The academic approach allows one to sample many career tasks rather quickly and offers the benefit of creating academic credentials while doing so. The disadvantages are significant, though, most notably that the sampling that you receive is often very much unlike what a real world job often entails and the insight gained may be skewed dramatically from reality.
The second approach is to do projects on your own attempting to mimic the field and, when possibly, move into entry level positions or internships where you will have an opportunity to sample many career paths. Some companies actually have special programs designed especially for this purpose – to give young professionals, often recent college graduates, a chance to move through many entry level technical positions sampling each one for several months giving them time to settle in, learn the basic functions and get an appreciation for the challenges and rewards of different roles.
Of course, blending these two approaches is an option as well. Taking just a few college classes, working on an entry-level industry cert and playing with several different technologies at home are all great ways to earn an early position or an internship so mixing and matching for your time, ambition and personality is advised. The goal is to discover what career path holds the most interest for you and getting exposure is key.
Some IT careers like desktop tech, helpdesk and developer are highly exposed and moderately well known to people outside of the field. Other career roles such as systems analyst, database administrator, network engineer, architect or application support may be a bit too abstract and uncommon for someone just entering the field to really understand. The only true way to get a feel for many of these positions is to work in IT for some time and get exposed to their roles and experiment with their job tasks.
There is no one method that works for everyone. Often people looking to enter IT have a good feel for whether or not they want to be in the standard IT support track or in the software engineering and development track but it is not uncommon at all for people to err on the side of development just to discover that “programming” is a thing that a lot of non-IT professionals say but seldom mean and that the imagined world of development is not at all what most people think of as IT.
While any advice should be left to an individual basis, someone with the time and resources to explore multiple options should carefully consider the benefits of taking a broad-stroke approach. Local community colleges often offer some pretty good introductory courses at reasonable prices that provide part time students with access to professors, other students and some structured learning. Even just two or three classes covering basic concepts like programming, web design, hardware support, databases or similar classes could go a long way to providing exposure to a variety of job options.
This knowledge can then be applied to self-study. If databases are of interest, for example, then installing, configuring and tuning some database products might be a place to start. A few good books, some free trial or open source software and you are on your way. Once a good idea if this is a career for you has begin to take shape you can leverage this focused information into looking for an internship or entry level position that will, hopefully, provide some exposure in the area of IT in which you are most interested.
Once you start in IT it is generally pretty easy to move from one job role to another. IT experience is often measured primarily in total experience time in the field and not in terms of experience within a specific job role. Specific experience will be used to move vertically up within a specific job role but horizontal moves are common and expected. Once inside the industry, getting a good look at the jobs performed by other roles and the way in which they work is easy and a better understanding of options can be acquired.
The most important piece of advice for anyone considering going into the exciting field of IT is, of course, get started right away. IT is more accessible than just about any field so peruse the local college’s course offerings, swing by the local book store, read “Do IT” on SGL, pick up an extra PC, download some software… get started and see what you enjoy!