Getting your foot in the Info Tech door

In today's world, both programming and networking skills are in high demand. More businesses than ever require software developers, and there's an equally large demand for high-quality office, or even inter-office, networking. Everyone is talking about all of the IT-related jobs available, and some people are ready to take those jobs right now. For those who have less experience, however, what are the first steps to take? How does one go about landing a career in these fields? There's not a definitive, one-size-fits-all checklist, but there are some good basic steps to take.

Educate Yourself

While technically not a necessity, a college education can go a long way toward landing you a job in programming. IT careers are not minimum wage jobs for a reason. Most require a specific skill set that goes beyond basic terminology and entry-level know-how. Programming requires you to understand concepts and structures that are integral to well developed software. In the professional world, there tends to be a stigma associated with self-taught programmers, because they often lack basic core knowledge or habits. Not because they couldn't learn them but because they simply never came across them.

Businesses are more likely to hire a properly trained programmer, or at least a demonstrably competent programmer, over someone who claims knowledge but lacks a proper education. The more you know, the more hireable you will be. Since even the longest journey begins with a single step, you would be wise to make that first step count: Get a college education.

Studying at a university level will help you gain a solid understanding of the work you'll be doing, including the invaluable, risk-free hands-on experience of working things out in a classroom environment. You'll also gain insight into the state of the industry through the professionals who teach you. There's no reason to make common mistakes yourself when you can learn from others and avoid the pitfalls of the inexperienced.

Get Certified

While a college education shows persistence and learning ability, certification ensures that your knowledge is current and practical. Programming and networking are not new fields, but the technology landscape is constantly changing. This means that your rapidly aging college degree won't be worth as much without accompanying certifications to demonstrate that you've kept up with rapidly evolving trends.

There are many avenues to certification, and many technologies to consider. In networking, do you learn Microsoft, UNIX, Cisco or Novell? In programming, there are several different coding languages that are very different from each other. You could certainly attempt to learn all of them, and there are people who do, but that takes time and odds are that you'll want to be employed well before you've finished. A good rule of thumb is that the tech that matters most is the one being used at the company you want to work for — so do your homework.

Websites like CertificationKits.com offer full training kits for all Cisco products, and other sites provide similar training for other technology. By attaining proper certification, you'll have a leg up on applicants with nothing to show but a college degree. (Also, remember what they say about working smarter: Many colleges and even high schools now offer certification along with your education. Take every chance you get to earn a certification while completing your schooling.)

Decide where you want to end up, then work backward to the present and see which specific skills matter the most to you right now. You might need to learn both Microsoft and Cisco, for example, or you might find that one is more valuable than the other for the specific entry-level position you are seeking.

Develop Your Skills

Work on projects, wherever you find them. It may mean sacrificing free time and it may occasionally mean working for free, at least initially. The only way to build your experience, however, is by working — and paid work may be hard to get until you've gained a certain amount of experience.

As a programmer, you'll gain experience with the entire process. When developing a program for a specific application, you'll be involved from development all the way through the cycle to maintenance. More importantly, you'll gain skills in non-technical areas such as teamwork, as well as get practice with basics of coding. You'll learn the rules everyone follows that separate the pros from self-taught amateurs.

You'll also gain confidence in your field and can add career specific experience to your resume. Aside from making you more hireable, it will also make you better at your job. With enough repetition you can become good at just about anything, so the more you hone your skills by simply taking on projects, the more valuable you will be to a prospective employer.

Take Related Jobs as Needed

The economy still isn't great, and outsourcing is an unfortunate reality in today's IT world. It is often the entry level jobs that are being outsourced, which means it may be difficult to find work initially. You may have to find a job in a related field that allows you to work your way over to the desired department.

For programming, look for jobs in QA, maintenance and support. For networking, sometimes filling a more basic IT department post can get you started. Wherever you land, work hard, build up your skills, and set a goal to cross over to your desired position either within your current company or with a different one, opportunity permitting.

Moonlight

It may be possible to get an after-hours job in programming or networking, though that could also prove difficult to find. That doesn't mean, however, that you can't moonlight in your current company. Speak to your boss about taking an extra shift, and ask your coworkers if there are any small, simple jobs that you can do for them that might make their lives easier. Depending on your boss, you may have to do this on your own time, but that is certainly a small sacrifice when you consider the depths to which you can potentially ingratiate yourself with the very people who have the power or influence to move you up the ladder.

You'll be gaining invaluable experience and building strong interpersonal connections with important people. From there, it's just a matter of waiting for a position to open up and making the switch. Generally speaking, employers are much more inclined to hire someone they already know and work with than a stranger off the street.

Achieving your goals requires both persistence and creativity. The path is not always clear and hardly ever direct, but if you keep making choices that get your closer to where you want to be, then eventually you will arrive there.

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