How do I get a job in Information Technology and the mythical career path

getting a job in information technology

I get this question or some variation of it A LOT! Probably weekly. I also see it posted on numerous forums and other discussion groups. It might be asked or presented one of these ways:

I am looking to break into I.T. but every job requires experience. It’s a Catch-22, you need experience to get experience. How do I find a job in I.T.?


I’ve completed my schooling and have X degree and/or Y certification. I’ve been working in as a level 1 helpdesk but want to get into network administration. What additional classes should I take to become a network administrator?

Both questions are rooted in some misunderstandings about careers in general and education and getting a job specifically. If you want to find the “job of your dreams” or even a really really good job, we need to dispel the misunderstandings and myths and replace them with a different way of thinking.

The Myths about career paths, being prepared for a job, and finding work

Myth #1: there is a mythical career path you should follow

I give a presentation titled, “The Value-added Technologist” – about.. well, the need for I.T. professionals to focus on the value they bring the organizations they work for. (this works for both employees and consultants by the way).

In that presentation I address the myth of linear career paths and growth. This is a similar concept.

In I.T., there is this idea that you attain your desired job by doing the following:

  1. Get your degree or certification (? Years)
  2. Get hired as a level 1 tech support pro (? Years)
  3. Move into a level 2 tech support pro (? Years)
  4. Move into a level 3 tech support pro (? Years)
  5. Become a Network or Systems Administration (? Years)
  6. Become a network Manager (? Years)
  7. ?????

It’s neat. It’s tidy. I gives a clear path to attaining that position as a network administrator, system administrator, or network manager. It’s also often stagnant and mythical. It does not exist. Many aspiring I.T. professionals end up stuck on the help desk for 20 years.. or more.

They walk away with a rather cynical attitude or change fields. Or they believe that management and lack of opportunity is to blame.

Myth #2: Degrees and certifications prepare you for a role in I.T.

There is a belief that a degree or specific certification prepares you for a job in I.T. Specifically, that it prepares you for a specific job in I.T.

The job seeker sees the requirements for these degrees and certifications on job board and in job descriptions, so they are convinced that this is their path into that job.

The truth is, it is almost never “that degree” or “that certification” that gets them the job.. In fact, it is always that “next degree” or “next certification” that gets them that job. It is frequently a “down the road” sort of thing. The aspiring I.T. professional is often one degree or certification behind the job they want.

Myth #3: You find jobs by having a good resume and posting on lots of job boards online.

This is an interesting phenomenon. And this isn’t just true for I.T. professionals. Most people, are now trained to believe that you find jobs via job boards. This becomes their single method for looking for work. It ends up being a wait and see game where they check their email incessantly – hoping that some unknown and nameless robot across the Internet finds their resume that has been sprinkled with enough key words to make it past the gilded walls of HR.

Dispelling the myths about finding work in I.T.

First.. I’m not knocking education. Get educated. Get as much as you can without breaking the bank or getting into a bunch of student debt.

Truth #1: there is NO mythical career path you should follow

Careers are seldom (almost NEVER) linear in nature. They are chaotic and driven by changing opportunities and desire. Your flexibility, adaptability, and creativity are keys to navigating this reality.

But rather than this leading to confusion, understanding this is liberating and opens your eyes to new and countless possibilities.

For instance, many aspiring I.T. professionals believe that their career is best served by landing a job in a large corporate I.T. department. This almost necessitates the need for them to adopt all 3 myths above.

Why? Because you must go through the corporate job website, find an open position, meet the minimum qualifications, and post your resume to person and systems you know nothing about.

But I.T. does not only happen in large I.T. departments. In fact, I.T. happens in small businesses and in non I.T. specific positions.

This requires you, as an aspiring I.T. professional to be less concerned with a title and more concerned with opportunities to learn and implement technologies. It also requires you to create a strong peer network but from a career standpoint, this will serve you in both small business and large corporate I.T.

What if your first job was NOT level 1 help desk but as “Administrative Assistant?” And rather than answering help desk calls for 8 hours a day, you were answering tech support questions, training users, setting up new systems, finding a way to pull or track data, researching and then implementing a small business server, etc.

It’s just a thought.

Truth #2: Implementing solutions, not school, prepares you to implement solutions

Sounds redundant right? Hmmm..

And how do you solve that “need experience to get experience” dilemma?

First, see “Truth #1”. Small business I.T. is less driven by job boards and more by direct connections with that small business. And we know more people than we think we do. We’ll talk about this more in truth #3 but suffice to say, if you believe your schooling as a programmer prepared you to take on the responsibility of programming critical systems for some organization, you are likely mistaken.

Internships (er.. pro bono work) may be needed

Internships are a challenge plus the term itself could be a barrier. First, a lot of people want all internships to be paid. I’ve written about this in the past.

If you are an aspiring I.T. professional and are in school and you want to be able to find a job as quickly as possible, find a place to apply some of what you learn. If you expect your school to find it for you, you are giving too much power and responsibility to people outside of your control.

I’m going to suggest that you reach out to friends, families, and again – local small businesses. Part-time, pay or not, called an “internship” or “helping a guy out” – whatever!

You can get experience and you can get it pretty quickly.

Reality check: Mind you, if you live in a 200 person burg outside any city with growing commerce, you might need to move.

But be realistic. You learned some things in school but you did NOT really learn how to be an I.T. professional.

Truth # 3: You find jobs faster by connecting directly with those who need talent.

“Yeah.. of course Matt. Obviously! But how?”

I’ve posted for need to develop soft-skills for years. My book is nearly solely focused on soft-skills and your value- proposition. And yet, when I do, I sometimes get a vitriolic reaction for “seasoned” I.T. pros. As though, you are “tricking people” and have no technical talent if you are good communicator and networker.

I would suggest that the contrary is true. You are a superior I.T. professional if you adopt a business first, value-driven, great communicator mindset. You’ll better understand the businesses you serve and you will better recognize and deliver what they need.

That some guy can write code more succinctly is probably NOT the litmus test for being “good” as an I.T. professional.

I actually had a programmer who pointed out that he could write some 20 lines of code that I wrote in only 14 lines. Awesome! Do it! What he didn’t do is conceptually arrive at the right conclusion. I’m happy to have geniuses who can write code more succinctly. But I’m most interested in the guy who conceived of the solution for the business. They are different skills and the conceptual and business-centric is the most valuable of those skills.

And so.. how do you find work outside of job boards?

Well, first, use job boards if you would like. I am not saying to close down any pathways to a job. But rather than solely use job boards, get out in your community. Walk into some businesses and meet people. Drop off a simple resume and find out if they are hiring and want someone with some technical training.

Did you say go door to door? Aaaahhhhhhhh!!!!

I did! Scary right? Or is being out of work for 8, 10, 15, 20 months scarier? Is working as a help desk tech for 8 to 10 years scarier? You have to decide this.

I’m not talking selling copiers or fragrances (nothing wrong with that but I don’t want to do it). I’m talking about saying something like:

“Hi My name is Matt. I am looking for a job and want to drop off my resume. I do technology work but am willing to work in other areas as well for a good opportunity.”

That’s it! That’s your big scary sales pitch! Oh.. and if your name isn’t Matt.. don’t use the above line verbatim.. but if I had to explain that to you, there are other issues to attend to.

What you need to understand is that many small business NEVER post jobs online! NEVER!

A job posting is a last ditch, desperate measure – even for a large company. They’ve exhausted their better channels for finding talent. They’ve gone through who they know, personal referrals, and referrals from employees. Now, they enter the open market. So they craft the most restrictive job description possible. This is necessary to reduce the thousands of resumes they receive to just a few hundred.

It is time-consuming and costly. And they still might end up hiring a psychotic axe-murderer.

And the other thing is, do you really want to be competing with 200, 500, or more other applicants?

That sounds scary and risky to me.

And that is how you find a job in I.T., develop a career, and overcome the need experience to get experience dilemma.

Do you agree? Disagree? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Posted in career development, job search.

One Comment

  1. Matt,
    This is very good advice. I think for the first time I am understanding your idea of concept over process. I think this is very helpful advice. My Cisco 4 teacher was talking in class the other night about how he got into IT. He told us that he worked in a computer repair place, and he voluntarily fixed and helped people with their computers. He ended up doing some work with a small business that had problems with a router. From there he ended up getting a degree, certifications in Cisco, and a job at a big company by networking with people he met along the way. He preached about voluntarily helping people with computers pro bono and help desk stuff. I really never thought about how big companies use the public as a last ditch effort, but after reading job postings, they are extremely detailed in what the job seeker has to be able to do, and it is scary. I never qualify for anything close to what they ask for.

What do you think?