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The IT Career Builder's Toolkit, Chapter 3: Information Technology: A Great Career

Why IT Is a Great Career

With a job market apparently teeming with people but suffering from scant opportunities, it would appear that IT has seen its day as a great career. I hear from technologists who have paid thousands for certifications and spent months looking for their first opportunity. Many are now second-guessing their decision to become technologists. The promise of unrestricted growth, high pay, and opportunities has given way to a somber realization—they cannot find a job.

Perhaps the preceding description fits you. Perhaps you entered IT, excited about the prospects of attaining success in a lucrative field, and one that has the byproduct of respect, too. But now you worry that you have made the wrong choice—that you've been had. If that is the case, I want to give you some hope.

I do not believe that the career prospects from IT are dead. In fact, I believe that the current status of the market makes sense in the context of the past boom, and it is cause for guarded optimism, if not outright celebration.

Why? Because IT remains an incredible career for the same reasons I started down that path in the 1980s. The primary reasons are these:

  • Options
  • Performance-based advancement
  • Opportunities for continuous learning
  • Pay and perks

I'll address each of these in the sections that follow.


Options. That one word might be a defining reason why IT is so compelling as a career choice. It is a vast field. In fact, it is segmenting daily into new and growing areas of specialty, including the following:

  • Multimedia
  • Network operations
  • Application development
  • Web technologies
  • System analysis
  • Database administration
  • Security analysis
  • ...

This segmentation is a great predictor of opportunity. Companies are looking for expertise in a number of areas. Each area represents the need for talent, whether you are an in-house expert or whether you work for a company that provides these valuable services. In each case, a person, a job, must be created to fill that particular need.

Because all these varied areas fall under the IT umbrella, career moves are more easily made, providing movement from one area of expertise to another while maintaining the consistency of being an IT professional. It creates an artificial sense of job continuum while allowing you to move, in fact, from field to field without having to rebreak the entry-level barrier.

That's exciting! If you are a technologist who has expertise in an outdated technology, you can parlay your conceptual knowledge with your actual years of experience into new career directions without starting over.

This is why I counsel programmers, for example, to frame their careers in relation to their broadest skill set. I explain that they should not say they are a "Cobol programmer" or a "VB programmer." This has the effect of placing them in the undesirable position of having to be completely retrained in newer, more prevalent languages. Instead, I want them both in conversation and mentally (in their own psyche) to refer to themselves simply as "programmers." The language of choice is simply a tool they currently use.

In this way, when programmers learn a new language or even begin their study of that language, they are simply continuing to advance their career as a seasoned programmer who uses .NET or VB as a tool.

IT provides choices unknown in other industries. More exciting, however, are the prospects and qualifications for advancement.

Performance-Based Advancement

IT certainly provides its practitioners with choices. It is neither industry nor geographically limited. This means that your expertise is not tied to where you live or the type of company you work for. Every company out there, from large multinational conglomerates to the mom and pop bakeries down the street, uses computers in one way or another. Yes, this is exciting, but the qualifications for advancement are even more so.

IT as a career offers a unique opportunity for what I call "performance-based advancement." What this means is that you are not limited by a specialized degree, as, for example, a doctor or attorney is. After you are in the door, your success will largely be gauged based on the perception and actual practice of the users of your product.

This is great news! If you are confident in your ability to produce effective solutions with the technology at your disposal, you have the capability to quickly separate yourself from the rank and file. Technology, when properly applied, has a dramatic effect on how successfully people work.

Because of the incredible positive impact technology can make within a company, your effectiveness at developing solutions has the potential to propel your career. When you, as a technology professional, make a solid contribution to your company, it is noticed.

It quickly becomes apparent that you are a producer. Technology affords this notice much more readily than virtually any other industry. Understanding this phenomenon is a key to rapidly developing a successful career. Learn to identify the areas of need in your company and proactively develop solutions using technology, and you will reap the rewards.

Opportunities for Continuous Learning

I am impatient and easily distracted. I admit it. Prior to entering the IT field, I bounced from job to job. I drove a plumbing truck, managed a bookstore, worked for a bank, sold copiers, and had assorted other jobs. Keeping my attention has always been a challenge. What is new seems to shine and catch my eye, while the mundane and repetitive quickly lose my interest.

Looking back over many years as an IT professional, I recognize that a technology career was a savior of sorts. IT is in a constant and rapid state of change. It forces professionals to remain in a state of constant learning and provides new and exciting avenues for growth and career direction.

Many careers have continuing education requirements involving an hour or two a year to stay current. In contrast, technology's continuing education requirements are daily.

In fact, this should be a factor in your decision to stay in the field. Although performance-based advancement might be a wonderful product of the field, if you do not want to be under the constant pressure to learn new technologies, study the upcoming trends, and watch other sectors of the industry, you will quickly reach a point of burnout.

To remain at the top of your game, you must include time for reading new literature, the quantity of which can be huge. Of course, there are creative ways to manage this.

When running my own company, I discovered that the number of weekly technology journals and magazines was amazing. We could receive 3 to 5 magazines on any given day. Titles included Information Week, Eweek, Network Magazine, and Windows 2000 magazine, to name just a few. Often, we would receive one for each person in the company. Most sat unread and became huge quantities of recycling at the end of the week.

We all wanted to read the magazines. But the fact was that most of the content was not pertinent to our careers or current company projects. We did not, however, want to miss the mention of a product or methodology we could adopt personally or as a company.

Our solution was to assign different magazines to different people in the company. Each person's job was to peruse his magazine looking for those nuggets of wisdom that needed to be shared with the rest of the company. If someone found an article that included information that the rest of the group might find interesting, he copied and distributed it.

I still employ this tactic today with other peers in the contracting and independent consulting fields. I simply make the request that if they read something they feel I might have an interest in, they should pass it along. Sure, sometimes I receive duplicates of items I've already read, but in most cases, they are passing me articles I have either overlooked or forgotten about.

This think-tank approach can greatly help you with the tasks of staying up to date on evolving technologies and trends. In addition, it forces professional correspondence with your peers which, as you will see in Chapter 12, "Building an Active Contact List," is critical to accelerating your career growth.

Pay and Perks

Although the recent job market includes a trend toward lower pay for technology professionals in general, I want to emphasize the positive outlook for pay in the industry.

Once again, you must first understand the unrealistic pay previously offered to the rank and file technologist during the late 1990s. Of course, as the correction is made, the pay offered to entry-level technologists will drop greatly. You should expect this.

In most cases, the dropping pay scale is primarily focused on what I consider "widget" technology. These are technology jobs that involve repetitive clerical-type tasks. An example of this is a LAN administrator who maintains desktops and adds users to the network.

This type of job has never required extensive training or experience. It is not synonymous with network engineering, system architecture and planning, and more importantly, aligning IT projects with the business model and goals.

These are entry-level types of positions. They are where you start your career, not the apex of your career. If you view them as such, you will be far less concerned about reports of lower pay.

The fact remains that technology professionals fare much better than those in other industries when you compare education and experience.

For example, consider someone entering medicine. This person spends 9 to 12 years in school, at considerable expense, and then puts in a few more years as an intern before he can achieve the financial rewards associated with the career.

If you are a technology professional and have put in a good 10 to 15 years of career development, chances are you will be earning a decent salary, too. If, however, you expect to be earning the big money 1 to 5 years after entering the field, you have set yourself up for disappointment.

Technology professionals are those who have worked to perfect their craft, add value to their companies, and put in place the various tools at their disposal to advance their careers. For them, the pay and perks will always be available. If you are willing to put time and planning into your career development, you can also earn good money.

These reasons make IT one of the greatest career choices you can make. Current market conditions notwithstanding, you have the ability to advance more quickly, in more areas, without the burden of performing the same stale tasks day after day, week after week, and year after year.

Take that as an affirmation. If the idea of constantly learning new technologies and tackling business challenges appeals to you, IT might be a great career choice.

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