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Now What? – The First Steps into IT

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  1. Some Personal Questions
  2. Conclusions
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Now what? Many career changers do not know how to get into the booming IT market. The key to breaking into any profession is being able to ask the right questions. One IT professional looks at some of the questions you should ask when considering IT as a profession.

Now what? Since "Now What? A Career Changer's Odyssey" was posted, I have received numerous e-mails and comments from career changers wanting to know how to break into the IT profession and which IT path to pursue. It is obvious that many people have heard about the booming IT industry, and want to participate in this field. They just do not know how to get into the IT world. The key to breaking into any profession is being able to ask the right questions. You will never get an answer that you are satisfied with until you ask the right question. I want to take this opportunity to interrupt this series of articles and share with you a number of personal questions that I use when I am wrestling with IT career paths, and then respond to a number of career-oriented questions that I have been recently asked by readers of the Now What? series. Using broad strokes, I want to do it under the heading of Now What? The First Steps into IT.

The three questions that readers have asked that I want to address are the following:

  1. Which certification is a good place to start? It is apparent that certification is a requirement for an IT job.

  2. I am going the self-study route, preparing for the A+ exam. Should I pursue the MCSE or one of other available certifications?

  3. What is a good salary in IT?

Some Personal Questions

My journey has continued to involve refining the way I ask a question. Right now, with all of the certifications that I have, I am still refining my own questions. I am asking Now What? again. Why? I need some information, and the way to get it is by asking a question or two. Also, the industry is changing. The economy is slowing down, and many IT professionals are being laid off. Some sectors of the training industry are slowing down as well. I don't want to be a negative statistic. I don't want to have to retool again. I want to leverage what I know and what I can do, and continue succeeding in the IT world. Currently, I am trying to decide whether to pursue the Cisco CCIE over the course of the next two to three years, or finalize my formal education with a Ph.D. in education. I can see the value in both. The questions I am asking right now are Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How? These are valuable questions for career changers.

Who will hire me if and when I reach my goal? Who can I go to in order to get good advice on attaining my goal?

What career options are available if I earn the CCIE or if I get a Ph.D. in education? Because I love to teach, what opportunities will there be for me to teach with the CCIE or the Ph.D.? What types of training are available that will not interfere with my work schedule?

Where should I go for training? Where in the world will there be ample employment opportunities when I reach my goal?

When will I finish the CCIE or the Ph.D.? Can I wait that long if the industry is truly changing?

Why should I look at the CCIE or the Ph.D.? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each? Why bother with all of this extra work? Why not just use what I have, milk it for all it is worth, and hope I reach retirement without any more training and effort on my part?

How much is each goal going to cost me? How much will I earn with the CCIE? How much will I earn with the Ph.D.? How long will I be able to earn a living with the CCIE or the Ph.D. without having to go back for more training, more retooling, more tests, more hoops to jump through, and more money? I am getting older and it is easy to get tired of the IT learning curve—but technology continues to change, and so do I.

These are not easy questions with easy answers. They require a lot of thought, discussion, and research on my part. I am methodically looking at each question and seeing what other questions are generated before I make a career choice.

The jumping-off point to all of these questions is a philosophical point of view that I have shared with my students of all ages and that I take seriously. When you are searching for a career, find one that you love and one in which you can earn a good living. If you love what you do and do not have to worry about financial concerns, life is very good. Many who are employed today, who are career changers, are either unhappy with their current job/profession or are struggling financially—or both. Those who are professionally content and who are not struggling financially are sitting in the catbird seat. Until I entered the world of IT, I was not happy with my employment circumstance and I was not financially satisfied. I struggled with both issues. Since I earned the CNE/CNI from Novell, I love what I am doing, and I can pay my bills without worry. In order not to stagnate, I have continued earning vendor-based and vendor-neutral certifications. The continued study and growth have opened up career options that I never considered.

Several other philosophical points of view that I share with my students who are seeking IT career advice include the following. No matter what sector of IT you go into, be prepared to work very hard. This is not a cakewalk. Be prepared to continually upgrade your skills. Lifelong learning is a way of life. Finally, enter the field with a desire to excel, not just exist. The IT field has taken off because many in it have a philosophy of excellence, not mediocrity. Those in IT who do well are not just trying to make a fast buck, but to make a difference. It does not matter if you are working in programming, networking, Internet design, database administration and design, or training. Keeping your skills up-to-date and being the best in the business are keys to success in IT.

Question 1

Which certification is a good place to start? It is apparent that certification is a requirement for an IT job.

This is a question I am often asked by my students and by those trying to decide which class to take and which certification to start with. There are so many certification titles, so trying to figure out which one is the right one is a tough decision. One of the first things that you have to do is decide what you want to do and what you like to do. Are your interests in computer hardware, computer software, networks, programming, data entry, computer applications, the Internet, or databases?

For people wanting to enter IT from an unrelated field, the best place to start is with one or more of the vendor-neutral certifications, such as those offered by CompTIA or Prosofttraining.com. I will be looking at the CompTIA and the Prosofttraining.com certifications in upcoming Now What? articles. If you are brand-new to IT, the best place to start is the A+ certification offered by CompTIA. This will validate a baseline knowledge of the computer hardware and operating systems used on PCs. Many of the top solution providers require new hires to be A+ certified within their first six months of employment. After the A+ certification, I highly recommend CompTIA's Network+ certification if you are interested in networking. It is recognized by Novell and Microsoft, and validates a baseline knowledge of networking technologies and the language of networking.

If you are interested in Internet technologies, there are two options for people new to the field. The first is CompTIA's i-Net+ certification, and the other is Prosofttraining.com's CIW-Associate certification. With either of these, employers see that a new employee has a baseline understanding of the technologies and skills used on the Internet.

Additionally, each vendor has its own entry-level certification. Novell has the CNA, Microsoft has the MCP, Cisco has the CCNA, and Oracle has the OCP for Database Operators. I began my training with Novell's CNA. It was a good place to start for me because I was working on a Novell network. I eventually took the A+, Network+, and i-Net+ exams. I would have taken them early on, but they were not available. They are a great place to get your feet wet and discover a little about the field.

Question 2

I am going the self-study route, preparing for the A+ exam. Should I pursue the MCSE or one of other available certifications?

This is not a tough question to answer. It depends. If you are working in a geographic region where Microsoft is King, pursue the MCSE. If you are not sure if Microsoft is the vendor of choice, it is not a bad idea to earn the MCSE, anyway. Microsoft's MCSE has such name recognition in the current market, that those with the MCSE (whether they are labeled "Real-MCSEs" or "Paper-MCSEs") are MCSEs, and are recognized by all IT employers. The MCSE is a fantastic way to get into the current IT market in the networking arena. If you are in a region where Novell is King, the MCSE would not be my first choice, but it would be a close second. If Novell is the dominant player, first pursue the Novell CNE and then follow up with the MCSE. Dual-certified IT professionals are highly sought-after, and have great bargaining power during the hiring process.

One reader asked whether he should pursue the MCSE or the CCIE? The CCIE is held in the highest regarded in today's market. It is also the most difficult to earn. The CCIE requires a great deal of hands-on experience with Cisco equipment. As I said earlier, I am considering the CCIE, but with the understanding that I will be practicing, studying, and looking for opportunities to work on Cisco equipment over the next 18–30 months. The MCSE is not as elusive as the CCIE. Between the two, an entry-level person is much better off pursuing the MCSE initially. The skills learned obtaining the MCSE are invaluable for those who do pursue the CCIE gold ring.

If you have no background in IT, and are thinking about the MCSE, I must encourage you to look at the A+ and Network+ certifications before pursuing the MCSE. Microsoft has publicly recognized the value of the Network+ certification. Personally, I have had a number of students in MCSE classes who did not have either A+ or Network+. They struggled more than those with the A+ and Network+. This is just an observation, not a hard and fast rule. The A+ will give you a good background in hardware and network operating systems, whereas Network+ will give you a solid foundation in basic networking.

Question 3

What is a good salary in IT?

That depends on where you are located, what you like to do, what the market is paying, and how much you need to live. Salary surveys can be misleading. I currently live in north Florida. In the early '90s, the CNE was paying in the neighborhood of $65K. Now, entry-level CNEs are making $30K. Entry-level MCSEs with no experience are earning around $40K–$50K. With experience, all of those numbers change. If you want experience you can document, you might think about volunteering at a local school that is trying to build an IT program. If you are dual-certified CNE/MCSE, the numbers increase significantly. If you are in a large urban area with a lot of competition, the numbers fluctuate. Those who have the best skills that are in demand and who are willing to work hard are those who make the best living. The national average for CCIEs is $100K–$130K per year. Some make less, and some make way more. To make the big money, realize that you might have to travel extensively or relocate. That is one of the costs of working in IT and making a large income. I was offered well over $200K if I would travel 50 weeks a year. I opted not to accept the offer. My family was worth more to me than $200K.

My salary took a significant boost when I simply got the CNE and entered the world of IT. I found out its value in 1997. I took a trip to New York City to visit some friends. I was a contract CNE/MCSE living in north Florida. I went to check into a very nice hotel on the eastside of NYC on a hot Sunday afternoon. When I went to check in, the network was down. No one could register. The people behind the desk did not know what to do. Guests were lining up, filling up the lobby, and getting irritable. I waited about an hour and then decided to ask one of the hotel registrars what the problem was. She had no idea. She asked me if I knew about networks. I said yes, and was asked to come behind the desk and see if I could fix it. It was a Novell network. It had locked up shortly after midnight while doing a FoxPro database backup. After about five minutes of troubleshooting, I had the hotel network back up and running. All guests could register. That evening, I was called several times by the hotel's corporate CEO, who asked me if I would consider a six-figure position with its chain. I turned it down, but was flattered. I enjoyed the flexibility I had as a contractor. That would have never happened if I had not entered the world of IT.

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