The Neowin guide to working in IT, Part One: Choices

Life, regardless of your past, present and future situations and decisions, requires you to do one thing; work. Now that exam season is almost upon us, for a lot of students it's the last chance to savour student life before joining the big bad world and the rat race that is career driven employment. The problem is though, from 16 onwards, when so many schools, colleges and university start to put pressure on you to choose a career, do you really know what you want to get from your working life?

I have been working since I was 16, my first job being in customer services working for a (then) massive retailer in the UK called Index. They've since folded, long before the global recession, but I remember out of three and a half years there, I enjoyed about two and a half of them. I studied for a GNVQ Advanced in IT in tech (or college, but in NI, we call it tech) straight from doing my GCSEs and once I had finished my two years, decided not to go to university (a decision I would later regret, but more on that later) and look for a job in IT.

I would love to say that I haven't looked back since then, but that's not the case. I've had knockbacks for positions I desperately wanted, I've been made redundant during the telecoms slump of the early 2000s, got so depressed in my work that I was ready to leave everything that meant and means anything to me, and flitted between six jobs in 3 years hoping to find the right position for me. Sure, I've had regrets, but I've been more than happy to call myself a geek, and allow my wife and friends to call me one too, all for my love of all things good (and sometimes bad) in the IT world.

So, if you have either decided yourself, or it's been suggested to you, that a career in IT is the one for you, where do you begin?

If you love IT, you'll know what you love about it

Okay, I admit that it's not the best way to persuade anyone that IT is for them, but IT presents a very varied and diverse selection of jobs. It's up to you to play to your strengths and choose the right path for your career right from the get go if you wish to have any level of success. With IT being varied, from the outset, there are two paths your career can take you; operational and technical. But what's the difference?


Do you see yourself planning or maintaining?

I see operational as being the persons behind the desk that do scheduling, project management, meetings, finances, procurement, human resources, facilities management, sales, etc. They run the business and bring the money into the companies you will work for. Technical are the people who plan, test, implement, configure, troubleshoot and support software and hardware solutions decided on and sold by the operational staff. Technical is the bread and butter of the operation as without them, the operational staff are offering something they ultimately can't follow through on. The same goes for the technical staff, they can't be doing everything from running the business to selling solutions and implementing them; there's just not enough hours in the day to be honest. While yes, there are lone, self-employed IT consultants that do all the work themselves, when it comes to a business that is supports 30, 40, 50, 60+ customers, some of which need full time support staff or 24/7 cover, there is an obvious and immediate need to hire the right and correct people for the positions that will help drive the growth of the business.


Do figures float your boat?

Say for example, you have the gift of the gab and could sell ice to the eskimos, you could easily sell solutions to customers. But does that mean that you are a sales person, with no need to know the technical aspect of IT? Hell no! I know sales people that could out-technical the best of people I've encountered over the past 16 years, simply because they need to know and learn the product to a point where they could almost plan and implement it. And it goes the other way as well. A technical person will still need to know the benefits of say migrating from SharePoint 2007 to 2013, being able to subtly suggest to customers that the newer version of the product will provide a benefit to their business, while justifying the cost.

This example can be applied to any IT role. There will always be a degree of crossover when it comes to a role and the responsibilities of the person in it. It doesn't mean that if you choose operational, you've got to stick with that route your entire life. The same applies to technical jobs as well. You can jump between the two areas, as long as you have the backing of your (potential) employer, the positions are there to be won and you can prove you can do the job (either through previous experience or relevant qualifications or certifications). There are technical people who have grown into team lead roles and moved on to become senior management or directors. There are, undoubtedly, managers who have had to become more hands on technically as their business has required. It's something that will happen in any career, but don't let that put you off pursuing the area that you love now. Experience, no matter how little, all counts.

Even a technology lover, like me, can use their passion to write blogs, start a website or even write for a popular news outlet like Neowin. So don't think that you're limited to getting a job in a company or organisation, just because that's where traditional IT has evolved over the years.

Technology, technology, technology

This is when IT starts to really come into its own. I've paraphrased Steve Ballmer a little bit, but technology can be anything from the kettle in your kitchen to the latest nanotechnology being used by doctors to diagnose and cure diseases. We as consumers are driven by this inherent need for improvement. We want our computer to do things faster; we want more than just calls and texts from our phones; we want our technology to make our lives easier. The bottom line is that technology is driving society forward in a way that wasn't seen 20 years ago.


Some of the big players in the Enterprise environments today

So in that respect, there is more technology, more choice and more work in IT than ever before. Do you love Microsoft or is Linux your baby? What about virtualization technologies such as Hyper-V, VMware and Citrix? Does being an Apple technician float your boat? Networking technologies? Cloud solutions? Storage platforms?! Do you see where I am going with this? And this is all before I go with software development. What language do you love to write in? Do you see yourself as a web developer or mobile app developer? Do you think developing UIs are you forte? Firmware? Scripting? Application support?! Again, do you see where this is going? But wait, there's more; who could forget about networking and communications? I'm not going to go into much detail on the different positions available in this field, but planning, development, deployment and maintenance of small to enterprise size LANs, WANs and WLANs will all come under this, along with the security, policy and governance aspects of IT.

Like the differences between operational and technical, you can jump between the different areas of technology and vendor with ease. Sometimes more so, depending on the technology you want to work with. It's easier to move between VMware and Linux than it would be to move from PCs to Macs. But not impossible. I've always kind of said that a dev could not do the role I do, much in the same was as I couldn't do the role of a dev. All too often I've seen devs not able troubleshoot Exchange connectivity, so simply reboot the server - once during an offline defrag! But there are exceptions. I work with a guy called Steven; exceptionally talented at the infrastructure side of things, but he's a wiz when it comes to scripting, SharePoint and application development too. He would be the perfect example of someone who knows how to fully manage a hardware and software solution, and be able to customise apps, hell, even develop them to suit a specific business need. So again, not impossible.

Is it good to work with one technology or several? Well, each can have both a positive and negative effect on your career. While it's good to work with one technology, say for example Citrix, there are benefits to working with multiple technologies that work across a range of hardware and software platforms. Citrix is actually a good example of that too, with Receiver being available on Windows, Max, Linux, Android and iOS. To give you an example, I am Microsoft certified in Server 2003, Server 2008 and Exchange 2010, but I am also a certified Citrix Certified Administrator for XenApp 6.0, and am gearing myself up to sit the VMware VCP course and exam for ESX 5.1 and have just booked my first Windows Server 2012 exam for April 25th. I do put myself down to being a Jack of all trades, master of none, which is admittedly not great, but I know my limits and I know what technology I'm comfortable working with and what I would like work with to move forward in my career.

Qualifications and certifications VS Experience VS You

I'll keep this as short and sweet as possible. Qualifications, no matter how insignificant, matter. Don't get me wrong, I know that experience can more than make up for lack of studying and exam taking. But some employers want to see that you've done a degree, or high level qualification. It's partly the reason I regret not going to university and doing a degree; in the past I've seen jobs where one of the essential criteria is a degree or HND in an IT related subject. So I've had to leave it. I've been a bit down about it, but ultimately I wouldn't be in my current role if criteria like that hadn't forced me to apply for other jobs.

But then there is you. No matter what role you go for, your personality will win over an interview panel 90% of the time. It's only natural. So even if you're not the most qualified or experienced, the drive, willingness to learn and flexibility for the role and the potential employer, you show, might tip the scales in your favour. I've been interviewed for jobs I've had no right being interviewed for, based on experience or qualifications, but I wanted to work for the people and prove myself in the role. That obviously came through in the interviews as well as the feedback I received, while ultimately I didn't get the job, was positive. I only lost out to the more experienced person, so coming second is a win in my book.

I'll quickly add that the place you're applying for will always play a factor in how you're coming across in an interview. If you know them, like them and want to work for them, you'll be more determined. Yes, that will put extra pressure on you and your side of the process, but don't let that put you off. As long as you know what environment you're getting yourself into before taking a role, you'll avoid being stung badly like I have.

So where does that leave us? In the second part I want to talk about the low points of working in IT, both from my own experiences and what I've learned from other people who I've encountered throughout the years.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock and the vendors whose logos are shown

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