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Now What? — A Career Changer's Odyssey

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Many of us who are in IT and have been somewhat successful never started out with thoughts of being involved in technology. We have had to ask, "Now what?" This is one IT professional's answer to this universal question.

Now What? A Career Changer's Odyssey

Now what? That is a question that more and more professionals are asking. Layoffs, corporate mergers, and this unpredictable economy are causing workers all over the world to ask that pointed question. No one is immune to this question, especially those of us in IT. Most of us in IT never planned on a career in IT. So we ask, "Now what?"—especially when it comes to our careers. My career has been no different. What is funny is that many of us who are in IT and have been somewhat successful never started out with thoughts of being involved in technology. In fact, the acronym IT did not exist 25 years ago when I got out of college.

Over the last six years, I have made a great living as a Contract Technical Trainer, specializing in training those interested in Novell, Microsoft, and Prosoft technologies. One of the benefits of being a Contract Trainer is that I get to know some wonderful people who start out as my students and wind up as my friends. The students come from a variety of backgrounds. They come to class with different goals and dreams. I learn so much from each class, not only about IT, but also about life and myself. One class that I taught last year stands out.

In January 2000, I agreed to teach an NT 4.0 MCSE track at Florida State University's Center for Professional Development. The class was scheduled to meet one day per week—on Sundays for eight hours. The track would take a little over seven months to complete. This class started out with 16 people who were classified as "Career Changers." Most in the class had heard that the IT industry offered some great opportunities for improving their income and future prospects. The class was made up of several folks from health care, several who worked for agencies of the state of Florida, and several who worked for various industries. A majority had at best a limited computer background. All of the students wanted to improve their future employment opportunities. In August 2000, the track ended with 12 people finishing, eight of whom completed all of the requirements for the MCSE. This group of "Career Changers" has become one of my proudest accomplishments. During those seven months, this diverse group challenged me on many fronts: technical and non-technical. Two questions that this group posed to me were the following:

  1. How did you get to where you are—a successful IT professional?

  2. Now what? I have enrolled in this MCSE track; now what do I need to do to get certified? What is the process and what are the benefits? Why should I invest the time and money in this process? Will I get a better job, and what can I expect?

As I thought about their questions, I realized it was not too long ago that I was asking the same questions. In fact, if the truth were told, I am the ultimate "Career Changer." I am still asking the questions, for it is in the questions that I have found my direction. I spent a good deal of time telling my class at FSU the story of how I got to where I am now. Each of them took something unique away from the story. What I am going to do in this series of essays is address both of these questions. The title for the series is "Now What?" In this month's installment, "Now What? A Career Changer's Odyssey," I will share with you how I got into the world of IT and began to experience a little success. Over the course of the next five months, I will address some of the major certifications. For example, next month's essay will be "Now What? The Novell Certifications." Following that article, I will deal with Microsoft certifications, Prosoft CIW certifications, Cisco Certifications, and CompTia certifications. Depending on reader interest, I will address Oracle and Lotus certifications.

Each vendor's certification has its own strengths and weaknesses. The certification treadmill is what educators used to call "Lifelong Learning." You just do not obtain a certification and live happily ever after; you must continue learning and changing with the market in order to be successful. It can be maddening. You no sooner get certified when you have to—or want to—upgrade the certification or pursue additional certifications. That is the reason for the title "Now What?"

My dreams and goals, for as long as I can remember, were to pursue a career as a medical doctor and a member of the clergy—in short, a medical missionary. I attended a religious high school that had a reputation for academic excellence. I did well in science and math, and knew I was on the right track. My undergraduate career was focused on the same goal. My undergraduate career in the early 1970s was spent majoring in chemistry with a minor in biology.

I have two memories of computers from my time in college. The first is seeing classmates taking piles of punch cards to the computer lab. I remember one of these folks dropping a whole stack of cards in the hallway on the way to the lab. Boy, was he upset. The other memory is working on a college mainframe whose name was Wilbur. Whenever I tried to do something on Wilbur, Wilbur would die. I hated computers, which meant mainframe computers in those days. They never did what I wanted them to do, and no one could explain to me what the problems were. I did not care; I was going to be a doctor. I would not have to interact with a computer. In retrospect, I cannot believe how foolish I was. As it was, I did not get into medical school. My grades were more than adequate, but the times they were a' changing.

I left college in 1975, asking myself: Now what? I spent the next several years working for a medical college, not knowing what to do. In 1978, I decided that while I was young enough (25 to be exact), I would enter Seminary. I figured if I could not get my whole childhood dream, I could get part of it. I spent three years in Seminary, and loved the interaction with people. I loved teaching. I left Seminary with a Master's degree and some career ideas. Guess what? Nothing panned out. Due to a shift in the politics of the church, I was never ordained and never employed in the church. I was back to...now what? I was shell-shocked. I was 29 years old and still trying to figure out what career to pursue; I was still trying to figure out what I was going to be when I grew up.

For the next six years, I worked for a major New York City hospital in its Engineering Department. I needed a job. Forget finding a career. One of the jobs I was given in this department was compiling an inventory of the stock held by one of the shops. I did it with pencil and paper. In 1985, we did not have PC access. I asked if there was some way to automate the inventory database process. The Engineering Department brought in some fellow who in three hours tried to teach me about a new phenomenon called DOS on an IBM XT computer. He never could explain what DOS was or how I could compile a database on this IBM XT. It was deja vu all over again. I was told to use the computer, but no one could explain the logic of the computer to me. I went back to my pencil and paper. Now what?

After six years with the hospital, I left New York City and health care, and moved to northern Florida. I became a high school science teacher. This was a radical career change for me, but it was a great change. At least I was doing something that had a relationship to my formal education. In the eight years I spent in this setting, I was forced to come to grips with the now what? question.

In my first two years in the classroom, I was able to allocate two Tandy computers for my students. My students loved them. Their interest forced me to take a class in Computers for Educators. This class primed my appetite for a host of educational possibilities. In fact, I started to do a great deal of self-study trying to stay one step ahead of my students. The last two years I was with the public school system, I was asked to do two things: train the faculty in how to use a computer, and install and manage a school-wide Novell network. Teaching the faculty was easy. I had no idea how to install and manage a Novell network. I requested formal training and was told NO.

So, in 1995, I decided to spend my own money and sit in on a Novell Administration course. It was the best decision I ever made. After the first day of a five-day course, I knew what career I would pursue. In that first day of the Novell Administration class I had an epiphany. Now what? had an answer. I was going to become a Certified Technical Trainer. I owe this epiphany to my instructor, Jerry Sullenberger-CNI. I finally had an answer and a direction. I invested $10,000 of my own money over the course of the next five months, and obtained the CNE and CNI from Novell. I was a Certified Novell Engineer and a Certified Novell Instructor. I had great dreams for my students. I was going to establish a training program in the high school for them. When I voiced this dream to the hierarchy in the school district, I was laughed at. When I presented my certifications to my superiors, the certifications were thrown on the floor. That made me mad. Now what?

Five months later, in 1996, I resigned from the school district and became an Independent Contract Trainer. I have never regretted the decision for a minute. No sooner did I go out on my own than I realized that I needed more training. The more classes that I could teach, the better the opportunities, and the better my income would be. It worked.

In late 1996 and early 1997, I became a Microsoft Trainer-MCT and a Microsoft Systems Engineer-MCSE. My work as a Contractor has suffered through some slowdowns. When a slowdown occurs, I am back to asking, "Now what?"

In the spring of 2000, Novell was experiencing a decline in authorized classes and Microsoft's Windows 2000 classes had not hit their stride, so I had to find a way to make a living. Based on a friend's suggestion, I pursued the Prosofttraining.com's Certified Internet Webmaster certification. I became an authorized instructor-CIW CI and a Master Certified Webmaster in Prosofttraining.com's Designer track and Administrator track. Work picked back up and has stayed strong, right up to the present.

However, I am still saying "Now what?"—right up to the present. Thankfully, I asked that question in December 2000, when I decided to pursue the Cisco CCNP. I sat a Cisco CCNP boot camp in January 2001 that was offered by CCPrep.com. Just like the Novell Administration class that I sat in on in 1995, this was a remarkable experience. I earned the CCNP certification after 12 days. I also had my second IT epiphany. It was the result of my instructor in this course—Ron Anthony.

When I finished with the class (now what?), I had an answer. I am in the process of beginning the work required to become a CCIE—Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert—and eventually an Authorized Cisco Instructor-CCSI. The roller coaster is still rolling, and it is a great ride.

One of my revelations is that I love to teach. I love to see the epiphanies that my student's have when they learn a new concept or figure out their answer to now what? It is fantastic. My experience cannot be and will not be your experience. We all come from different times and places. We are all Career Changers. We all ask, "Now what?" What I have learned through this continuing odyssey is that if you are willing to ask "Now what?" in the world of IT, you might not like or understand the answer, but you will get an answer. If you are willing to take the ride, it will be fantastic. I never in my first 41 years on this earth thought I would fall in love with a career, but at 47 years old I have. Could it change tomorrow? You bet! But I will just ask "Now what?" and go on from there. Some have said that I am nuts to have pursued and obtained so many certifications. Maybe I am, but I have been working steadily since I got my first certification. I have been making a good living, and I have been happy and at peace.

In the upcoming months, I will take a look at the various certifications that IT vendors offer, many of which I hold. Stay tuned. Next month, I will take a look at my first set of certifications, the Novell Certifications. Now what? The Novell Certifications.

Want to continue reading this series? Click over to Warren Wyrostek's page to see all of his "Now What?" and other career and certification articles.

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