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Break into the IT Industry
Experienced IT professionals share how they first broke into the IT industry, plus their top tips for newcomers.
by Karen Robertson-Kidd

As many of you know, breaking into IT can be tough, especially with today's tight job market. To make matters worse, there's no one clear path into the IT industry. Sometimes, it helps to know the stories of those who've gone before. That's why we contacted six IT professionals at various stages in their careers and asked how they got their start, as well as what advice they have for others trying to land an IT job today. Here's what they had to share:

Elton J. Howze
Title: Network & PC Support Specialist
Location: Atlanta, Georgia
Years in IT: 3
Certifications Held: None

Elton J. Howze got his start in IT at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta, where he still works today.

Howze has been a member of the Atlanta organization since 1989, when it was only the Boys Club. In 1996, he began working as a counselor at Camp Kiwanis, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta's residential summer camp. It would be October 2000 before he landed his first IT position.

His break came at Camp Kiwanis. BGCMA provides an annual staff retreat at Camp Kiwanis and they needed camp staff members to volunteer that weekend. Howze volunteered and it was there he met the manager of the MIS Department. "He had to install some memory into a staff member's computer," Howze recalled. "I took it upon myself to go introduce myself and let him know who I was."

Howze let the MIS manager know he was interested in entering the IT field, rather a bold move for Howze, who was just out of high school with no IT experience other than home study. Luckily, the MIS manager was impressed enough to put Howze in contact with the head of the MIS department. There was skepticism, but Howze was determined. "What I proposed was to work or volunteer for a couple of weeks to prove [to] them what knowledge I had and that I was fully qualified for the job," Howze said.

They accepted Howze's proposal. Within a few weeks, Howze had impressed the department enough that he joined the team as a PC support specialist administering computers and networks at more than 20 locations. "I worked two and a half years as a part-time staff member. I eventually received a promotion and raise to a full-time staff status," Howze said. "I am now a network and PC support specialist, which added a few more duties and assigned tasks."

Tom Lorenze
Title: Network Administrator, founder of tcc.f2o.org
Location: Monterey, Calif.
Years in IT: 8
Certifications Held: MCSE (NT4), MCP, NTCIP, CCNA, CAN, A+, Network+

Lorenze described landing his first IT position at "pure luck." He'd just gotten out of the military and he found out rather quickly how useless being a radio repairman was in the civilian sector, Lorenze recalled. "So, I had decided to try going up a skill level and computers seemed to be the right way to go."

That was quite a leap for someone with no computer experience. "I knew I would be starting at the bottom," he said. "But I was fine with that. I figured I would go in and work my way up."

And so he did. Lorenze applied for a job at a small local computer store. "Luckily the service manager liked my military background and gave me a job on the spot," he said.

That was in late 1994, a peak time in IT's fondly remembered boom period. "Luckily I got in early enough to make it worthwhile," he said. "I would never take it back. I love IT. I love helping people and I love working on and in computers, especially networking."

Ginger McGuffie
Title: Web Developer
Location: American Falls, Idaho
Years in IT: 3
Certifications Held: None

Like many who network their way into an IT job, McGuffie said she got her first IT position through "a very good friend" who found she was a great fit for their Web team. That independent contract position lasted seven months. It "gave me my first exposure to working in this environment as well as experience that immediately translated into the ability to do some small Web sites on my own, constantly building my own skills and techniques, until I obtained a full time position," McGuffie recalled.

McGuffie is now a Web developer for AMS Inc. in American Falls, Idaho, and a member of Women In Technology's Mentor-Protégé program, which provides support to women trying to break into IT.

McGuffie said she would urge newbie techs to "focus on distinguishing yourself from the broad generality of people in your chosen field -- especially in a poor market."

Stacie J. Clark
Title: Senior Technical Recruiter and Executive Director
Location: Houston, Texas
Years in IT: 5
Certifications Held: None

Stacie J. Clark is a senior technical recruiter and the executive director of Women in Technology International (WITI),Greater Houston Chapter in Houston.

Her first job in IT was with a small automotive parts distributor. "I saw the need to automate our daily tasks, so I developed a database and program to do just that," Clark recalled. "I then had the opportunity to move into a new company where my role as a recruiter was to put people to work in the technology field."

As for advice for those breaking into IT today, Clark takes a cautious view of IT certifications, one she developed by watching and helping other IT professionals in their job searches. "Employers won't typically trade practical experience for a certification," Clark warned. "Certifications carry more weight when coupled with practical experience. You're better off investing your time finding a way to get some hands-on experience."

Clark added that certifications can make a difference in getting a job, but they simply do not, by themselves, guarantee a job. "You will rarely make the money back that you invest in a certification, but in a competitive marketplace, certifications can give you the edge," she said. "Make sure you research which ones carry the most value in a given market. What was valuable a year, or even six months ago, may not carry the same weight today. You can talk with recruiters, HR managers or hiring managers to find out this information."

Sean McCormick
Title: Systems Administrator
Location: Edmonton, Canada
Years in IT: 8
Certifications Held: MCSA, MCSE (W2K), A+, Network+, I-Net+, CTT+, Linux+ and LPIC1

McCormick described landing his first job in IT as an "accident." He was a trained chef but a sever back injury ended that career. "I became an avid computer hobbyist while on disability and this, in turn, lead to my being offered a job as a 'distance education support technician,'" he recalled. "The position ranged from blowing dust bunnies out of aging audio teleconferencing equipment to deploying Internet-based synchronous training environments."

His first duties included service and support for sales demonstrations of audio teleconferencing data units. "These were specialized little boxes that worked in conjunction with a primitive slideshow type program on 286 and 386 computers to deliver audio and data to groups of learners over standard telephone lines," McCormick recalled. "What made the systems so special were that they worked with most teleconferencing bridges at the time.

"I also became heavily involved with standards-based (H.320) video conferencing when we started selling that type of equipment. To this day I'm fairly conversant with both VTEL and PictureTel systems."

McCormick remained with this company about four years, during which time the company became a LearnLinc reseller. "LearnLinc is a synchronous training tool that delivers training to groups of learners over the Internet -- no long distance charges," McCormick said. "I wound up being the primary support person for all Canadian LearnLinc installations and many in the Western U.S. Pretty much every LearnLinc Installation in Canada was deployed by yours truly."

While certifications did not help him land his first job, he credited certifications with "helping me escape the first IT job and landing the second one that paid much more." Certification also helped advance McCormick's career. "My last three employers have all indicated that my certifications played a large part in their decision to hire me," he said. "In addition, pursuing certification has helped round me out technically by forcing me to pry into the obscure corners of the products I support so I learn things I never would have noticed during the normal course of my work...I've gotten my money back from my certifications and then some."

William H. (Bill) Turgeon
Title: CEO
Location: Prince George, BC, Canada
Years in IT: 20
Certifications: CNE, MCNE, MCSE, A+, i-Net+, Network+, Server+, IT Project+, Security+ and BSc. (computer engineering)

Bill Turgeon is CEO of ComputerWise Consulting Inc. in Prince George, BC, Canada. Turgeon has worked more than 20 years in IT.

As did so many other IT professionals who entered the field about 20 years ago, Turgeon entered IT via electronics. "I owned a service company doing electronic repairs and we were asked to repair some digital NC machines that no-one else in the Vancouver area could fix," he recalled. "I went from that to industrial IT work and then into the PC arena when they entered the market. I pretty much grew up in the IT field. My initial training was in Electronics Technology and that led to an interest in computers when they were very much in their infancy."

Unlike Clark, Turgeon said he feels certification is a must for any budding tech. "In my case, certification as a technologist was paramount in getting work," he said. "As I grew in the IT industry, adding certifications served notice to my customers that I was serious about being the best at my chosen vocation."

However, Turgeon firmly cautioned certification alone is not enough. "One needs experience to put into practice the knowledge one gains from the measured attainment of certifications," he said. "Neither component by itself has any real intrinsic value. Certification without experience is of no more value than experience without certification."

"Knowledge only really becomes valuable when it is put to use."

Tips for Landing a Job in IT
When you're an aspiring IT professional, every piece of advice can help. That's why we asked our interviewees to share their best advice with us. Here's their top tips:

Make sure IT is what you really want to do: If you do not love IT, working in IT will eat you alive. "Don't jump into the IT industry unless you're completely in love with it," warned McCormick. "Most people looking to get into IT are focused on the money and don't take the professional hazards into consideration - long and variable hours, constant pressure, the never ending need to keep learning and upgrading, etc. You need to come into this industry looking for more than a paycheck."

Be realistic: An IT newbie might land a systems administrator job right off the bat, but chances are that newbie won't be able to do that job right away, and the sharp learning curve can be an enthusiasm killer. Turgeon recommends that those who enter the IT field avoid the temptation of trying for a meteoric rise in the industry. "Resolve to enter the IT field at or near the bottom and WORK your way upward," Turgeon recommended. "It will be hard but immensely satisfying." But don't sell yourself short. "Whatever you do, make those goals high but reachable," Lorenze recommended. "You know you, and you know what you're capable of doing. Set your goals just above that, once those goals are met, make new ones."

Resolve that you will be a great tech: "In a lot of situations in the IT field, you get hired for one job and end up having to learn or do an additional job along with the one you were doing already," Howze said. "This is good for a person, actually. The more you can do or knowledge you have about your particular field the more marketable or skilled you are."

Start small: You need to get that experience. Internships and volunteer positions are especially good places to start. When you get that first paying IT job, small companies often are better choices than larger corporations. "Most of the time, smaller companies can not afford a full-time technical person," Clark said "So they might hire you to do 50 percent administrative work and the remainder of time you can work on their IT needs."

Network, network, network: Let your peers in the IT community, especially those with the resources to employ you, know that you exist and you're worth a shot. "These days, such a large percentage of jobs are filled by a friend of a friend," Clark said. "Especially when you are an unproved commodity -- no experience in the IT field. The best way to get your foot in the door is to follow the path of least resistance through someone who already knows you as a person."

Be ready to work hard before -- and after -- you land that first job: "Its really hard these days to get into a job but very easy to lose that job," Howze cautioned. "Companies these days are really picky about who they hire and watch employees close."

Never stop learning: IT skills are not set for life. If you go into IT, expect your job -- and what you'll have to know to do it -- to change constantly. "As the saying goes, 'If you're coasting, then you're going downhill,'" McCormick said. "I'm currently working towards certification on Windows 2003 Server. Even though it's not necessary for my current position, having the certification will help make me more marketable and pursuing it will force me to keep my skills sharp."

Karen Robertson-Kidd
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