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Real-World Experience 101: Preparing for a Career in IT

By  Aug 3, 2008

Topics: Certification

Preparing for a career in information technology (IT) can be very confusing. Those entering the field are greeted with a variety of options and choices, each one having the potential to greatly impact their career. For those considering an IT career for the first time, even the ways of getting into IT can seem overly complicated and technical. What are the training options? What are your training costs? Are some training methods more appropriate than others? Do employers have a training preference? Is experience more valuable than training?

Unfortunately, there is not a single universally accepted method to prepare for a career in IT. Some jobs require a Bachelors degree or higher; for others, technical certification is more than enough to get a foot in the employment door. Relevant work experience adds another ingredient to the mixture. How much experience do you require? How do you get it? Do you really need it? Preparation, research and clear career direction are what you need to find these answers.

Training Versus Experience

Consider the following scenario: two people apply for the same job. One has one year of experience working in a similar environment, and the other has just finished a two-year training course that prepared him or her for exactly the job available. Who is more likely to get the job?

Well, the answer to this question certainly will depend on the policy of the employer; however, the person with the experience will most likely get the job. The reason for this dynamic is that companies can typically train people with relative ease.

On the other hand, experience can be gained only by the expiration of time, which you simply cannot purchase.

Actually though, the situation is more complicated than that. The person with the experience in-hand has already proved that they can do the job, cope with the stresses involved and emerge successfully from the other side of the experience.

By contrast, the individual with the qualifications may possess a wealth of intellectual technical knowledge, but how does the person react when things go awry in a production environment?

Ponder the following hypothetical situation: You are planning to have your home repainted. Would you rather hire a professional painter who has been painting houses for over a year, demonstrating time and again that he can get the job done, or would you use someone with a certificate in painting who has never actually painted a whole house, but understands the underlying theory? The example may seem a tad flippant, but you must get the point.

The Importance Of Experience

There can be no doubt about it, work experience is important. It gives you the real scoop; a look at the good, the bad and the painfully ugly aspects of the job you are pursuing. Nothing else can substitute for this practical experience.

If, for instance, you decide to become a PC technician because you enjoy fixing computers for friends and family, a little work experience will reveal that troubleshooting computers for family and friends bears very little resemblance to a career in PC repair. Your Uncle Joe, for instance, is likely to be more understanding about your difficulty fixing his printer than the fifty accountants waiting to print off client invoices.

Several factors make work experience an essential part of your IT career plan:

* Real work experience in your chosen career will allow you to confirm whether your choice to enter the IT field is a good one. Being able to try the job gives you the opportunity to see first-hand if it is what you imagined it to be. You will be able to personally experience the fun and exciting aspects of the job as well as the routine and mundane ones. Being on the job is the only way to get a thorough understanding of what the job is like on a daily basis.

* Work experience is a résumé builder. Résumés of job candidates are far more attractive to potential employers when they include relevant work experience. In fact, some employers will not even consider résumé from candidates who lack the advertised experience.

* Being on the job allows you to network with other professionals in your chosen field. These coworkers and contacts become a valuable resource and can often provide an inside track for employment opportunities.

* Work experience can increase your confidence in yourself and your ability to do the job. Your first day employed as a systems administrator could be less stressful if, for instance, you have already had some experience with the equipment and software in use at that shop.

In my next installment in this series I will offer you practical suggestions for gaining hands-on experience in information technology.

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