Everyone is always happy to tell you how important experience is over certifications and degrees when working in IT. Few things are so readily agreed upon within the industry. What is shocking, however, is how often that advice does not get translated into a practical reality.
New IT hopefuls, when asking for guidance, will be told the value of experience but then sent everywhere except towards experience with the advice that they receive. This makes no sense. When applying for IT jobs, hiring managers and human resources departments are interested in knowing when you started in IT and how many years you have been in the field. That’s a hard number and one that you can never change once it has been set. Your start date is a factor of your career with which you are stuck for the rest of your life. You can get a degree anytime. You can get certified anytime. But your entry date into the field is permanent, it is the most important thing that an IT professional hopeful needs to be focused on.
Many things will qualify as the first “start date” in a career. What is important is getting into a real IT position, or a software development position, to affix that date as early as possible. (Nearly everyone in the field accepts the software engineering field as experience directly relevant to IT even though it is technically not IT.) This counts towards experience which can, in turn, count towards other things including eligibility for positions, pay increases or even vacation accrual or similar benefits. Often IT professional hopefuls do not think about the range of possibilities for establishing that entry date into the field and overlook opportunities or they downplay the value of the entry date and opt out of opportunities that would have greatly benefited them choosing to focus, instead, or more “socially accepted” activities that ultimately play a far smaller role in their overall career.
The most obvious example of an IT entry date is obtaining an entry level position in the field. Because this is so obvious, many people forget that there are other options and can easily become overly focused on finding their first “normal” job, typically on a helpdesk, and may lose sight of everything else.
Even worse, it is common for assumptions to be made about how a first job is typically acquired and then, because of the assumed steps to get from A to B, often the focus shifts to those steps and the real goal is missed completely. For example, it is often assumed that a college degree and industry certifications are requirements for getting into an entry level position. Certainly it is true that an education and certifications can make breaking into the industry much easier. But these themselves are not the goal, they are tools to achieve the goal. Getting work to start a career is the goal, but often those extra steps get in the way of career opportunities and a loss of focus leads would-be IT pros to misstep and skip career opportunities because they have become focused on proximate achievements like certifications rather than looking at their life from a goal level.
I have heard many times IT students ask if they should take a job offer in their chosen career or continue with a degree path instead. Even if the job is very good, it seems that almost ubiquitously the choice will be made to turn down the critical professional position because the student has lost focus and is thinking of the proximate goal, their education, and forgetting about the true goal, their career. This reaction is far more common than anyone would realize and very damaging to students’ prospects. Perhaps they often feel that since an opportunity came along before they had completed their studies that good entry level positions are common and easy to acquire, perhaps they simply forgot why they were going to school in the first place and perhaps they simply are not concerned with their careers and wish to spend their time relaxing in college before taking that next step. Many students probably fear being able to complete their education if they take a position in IT before completing but there are very good options for this that would allow for both the critical needs of their career and completing their education in a good way too. Taking a career position does not need to have a negative impact on the ability to complete an education if the educational process is deemed to still be important.
There are several avenues that allow for starting the “career clock”, as I like to think of it. The easiest for most people, especially those relatively young, is to find an internship. Internships can be found even very young, middle school or early high school and generally into the mid or even late twenties. Internships can be amazingly valuable, both because they often allow the earliest entry into the field (specifically unpaid internships) generally many years earlier than other options with the fewest up front expectations. Students pursuing internships from a young age can often get a career jump of two to ten years on their non-interning counterparts! The ability to leap forward in your career can be dramatic. Internships abound and few students take the time and effort to invest in them. Those students honestly interested in an internship will likely have no problems securing one.
Internships can be much more valuable than regular jobs because they, by definition, should include some amount of mentorship and projects designed to educate. An entry level job typically focuses on simple, highly repeatable tasks that teach relatively little while a real internship should focus on growing and developing skills and an understanding of the IT discipline. Because of this, a good internship will generally build a resume and establish experience much faster than most other methods, often allowing a wider range of exposure to different areas of IT.
Another good path for getting into IT as early as possible is volunteer work. This is a little like interning except requires more effort and determination on the part of the hopeful IT professional and lacks the expectation of mentoring and oversight. A volunteer role is always unpaid but because of this often offers a lot of flexibility and opportunity. There are many places that need or welcome IT volunteers such as churches, private schools and other non-profits running on tight budgets. With volunteer work you will often get greater decision-making opportunities and likely exposing the needs to think of IT within financial constraints which, while typically tighter at a not for profit, exists in every instance of IT. This business exposure is even better for resume building.
Volunteering is generally more difficult to do at a young age and a level of maturity and knowledge is often needed but not in all cases. Volunteering at a larger non-profit which already has paid IT or more senior volunteer IT might combine volunteering and a nearly intern-like situation. Whereas a smaller non-profit, often like churches or similar, might result in dealing with IT alone which can be very educational but potentially daunting and even overwhelming to a younger or nascent IT professional in the making. A volunteer in a small non-profit may be in a position to run an IT shop, from top to bottom, before even being employed in their first traditional position.
Of course no single approach need be taken alone. Interning with a for profit firm and volunteering as well can be even better, making for an even stronger and more valuable IT entry point. Sometimes intern or volunteer work may continue even after traditional, paying employment is found because one pays the bills while the other builds the resume.
Even less traditional options can exist such as starting a business on your own, which is generally extremely difficult and often not possible at a young age or finding traditional work while very young. Starting a business will often teach a large volume of business skills and a small amount of IT ones and can be extremely valuable at a potentially devastating cost. Compared to other approaches this is very risk under normal circumstances. It certainly can be done but would rarely be considered the best choice.
What matters most is finding a position that establishes a starting point into IT. Once that stake is driven into the proverbial ground it is set and the focus can shift to skill acquisition, broader experience, education, certifications or whatever is needed to take the career to the next level. All of those subsequent skills are soft, they can be enhanced as needed. But that starting date can never be moved and is absolutely crucial.
It is often not well communicated to high school and college age IT hopefuls that these opportunities are readily available and just how important they are. So often society or the established education machine encourage students and those in the collegiate ages to discount professional opportunities and focus on education to the detriment of their experience and long term careers. IT and software development are not careers that are well supported by traditional career planning and are especially not well suited to people who wait to jump into them until they feel “ready” because there will always be those with ambition and drive doing so at a far younger age who will have built a career foundation long before most of their peers even consider their futures. IT is a career path that rewards the bold.
There is no need to follow the straight and narrow traditional path in IT. That path exists and many will follow it; but it is not the only path and those that stray from it will often find themselves at a great advantage.
No matter what path you choose to take in your pursuit of a career in IT, be sure to be extremely conscious of the need to not just acquire skills but to establish experience and start the clock ticking.