WHAT NOW? – Tips for IT Grads

It’s tough to find a good job in Information Technology. In fact, it’s tough to find a good job in any field. In IT, as in many fields, you as graduate job hunter are up against stiffGraduate Icon
competition from seasoned veterans with plenty of experience (not to mention degrees and certificates), college graduates and other trade school grads with the corresponding IT certifications (MPC, MCSE, A+, etc.). All of whom are competing for the same jobs, but with varying levels of skill and experience.

You will certainly be interviewed, at some point, by a prospective employer who may have become skeptical of IT school grads that have several certifications but no experience. This is especially true since IT jobs have decreased somewhat (due to layoffs), while the people to fill these jobs has increased not only due to layoffs, but partially due to increased graduates. I believe that this situation is turning around and that there are great possibilities for IT graduates who are willing to adjust to certain conditions.

One of the problem areas in the past, principally for computer enthusiasts hoping to move into an IT career, but who have no real working knowledge of Information Technology as a profession, is the spin the IT trade schools put on the job market to attract prospective students. I think criticism has forced them to soften their enticing ad headlines. A typical tech trade school advertisement from the mid 2000’s issue of a local computer magazine in the Los Angeles area says, “Get the certifications employers are looking for!” There were dozens of similar ads in every issue and in most comparable magazines. Those magazines, such as Micro Times, don’t even exist anymore. The television commercials of this type are even more persuasive and are aired at the time of day when a higher percentage of unemployed might be watching, like late at night.

They’re not lying. And it’s hard to condemn them since they are selling a product, education. I believe employers only look at certifications as indicators of the knowledge and ability they hope to find in a prospective candidate. Many tech trade schools and colleges often make it sound easier than it seems to be for most folks. I have read many letters in these same magazines, and on web logs and newsgroups, written by disgruntled former IT students who are having trouble finding the “dream job” they thought they could find. The fact is: Certifications, even a degree will get your “foot in the door” and that’s all. It takes more than that.

I wrote this article because several friends have asked me how to get a job in Information Technology. I don’t know how. I only know what I did and what happened to me. I have seen the statistics, and honestly, there are “lies, damn lies and statistics.” Even when you do everything right, it still takes some luck. I have been very lucky, but nevertheless paid some dues.

Here are my top 10 tips for getting a job in Information Technology, after graduating from a tech school with little or no professional experience. These tips are totally based on my own personal experience.

1. Be willing to start at the bottom.

You may not have to start at the bottom, but you must at least be willing. I have never heard anyone say, “When I graduated from high school, I went to work as the President of the company.” That’s not the way it works.

In spite of the fact that I had a previous career in the construction trades and was accustomed to making top construction wages, my first job in IT was as a computer technician for a retail outlet. My hourly wage was less than a third of what I was previously earning. You may need to be willing in this area, especially if prospective employers keep rejecting you due to lack of experience. You must gain that experience somehow. Besides statistics (there they are again) show it is easier to find a job when you are employed, than when you are unemployed.

2. Continue learning.

Something I have heard on several occasions has stuck with me. Just this: “Certificates must be renewed. A degree lasts a lifetime.” That is why I chose to get a degree, but continued to earn certs and take various classes to expand my knowledge.

Here is my IT education, the short version.

  1. Worked at low paying job for 2 years, gaining experience while going to school for an A.S. degree; cost some bucks.
  2. Took IT courses at community college; cost about $125 a Unit.
  3. Worked at another low paying job for another 2 years, gaining more experience while going to school for a Bachelor’s degree. That cost some more bucks, but the end result?
  4. Found my dream job as an IT Manager with a great company and wonderful people; priceless.

I am still learning – this can never end in Information Technology. It is a requirement of the field as it is in most occupations these days.

3. Keep your resume honest.

In an early version of my resume I had a category called SKILLS. Under skills I had listed Novell since I had taken a class called Administering Netware 3.11. Now I do not list something as a skill unless I am completely comfortable with it. You may have a successful entry interview with someone from the personnel department, but eventually you will have to answer questions posed by IT administrators. At one such interview, it only took my interviewer two questions to realize my experience with Netware was from a class and my knowledge was shaky at best. I wasn’t trying to hide it, but I was not very forthright about it.

I modified my resume to include a category called COURSEWORK. As time passed and I gained experience, I was able to move items out of COURSEWORK and back into SKILLS. I could never be secure in a job where I was expected to know something I didn’t. A good job is one in which both you and your employer are satisfied with your skill set (which is constantly increasing). The Novell Netware issue had a happy ending which I will get to in a minute.

4. Look outside the IT field.

When looking through the want ads on on-line ads most computer employment is under the topic COMPUTERS or PROGRAMMERS. But, I found many computer related jobs under industry related topics, such as Insurance or Construction and also under less obvious job titles such as processor (electronic document processor) or inventory control (for a system board distributor). A data processor promotion could be to Database Administrator in some circumstances.

My second job “in IT” was actually as an office manager for a construction company. I heard about the job from a friend (the other kind of networking). And I took it because the boss wanted two things. One, he wanted the computers in his office connected (they were using floppy disks). And two, he wanted a company website. I did both for him and gained some experience with Windows networking and with developing a web site.

5. Look outside the Tech industry.

Highly technical companies hire highly technical people. After I graduated I found it hard to think of myself as an IT person. I didn’t yet feel comfortable with a lot of the things I had just learned. I had already begun to look for computer jobs in the construction field when I was told about the job above.

I also had years of experience in construction which helped me hit the ground running. It stands to reason, if you have a few years of experience in insurance, travel or some other industry, then that would probably be a good place to start looking for work. At the very minimum, it would help you understand the “corporate culture” as they say. Since I had several years of experience in the construction trades, it helped me greatly managing the office and technology for a construction company.

6. Look at small businesses.

According to the Small Business Administration’s web site, 99.7% of U.S. employers are considered small to medium businesses. They account for 60% to 80% of all new jobs annually. Oops . . . statistics! What does this tell you about your chances of going to work for Sony, Microsoft or IBM? It tells me that there are a lot of small businesses out there that will survive based on the adaption to various technologies. Many of them use consultants because they do not have a full time computer person. They may just be looking for someone like you!

As a small company grows, the most computer literate person in the office usually takes care of the computer problems. When something comes along that is over that person’s head, they typically hire a consultant or ask outside the office. At some point in the life of a small company, the annual cost of the consultant plus the cost of lost time for the computer person add up to a decent salary for an entry level IT Manager. That is exactly how I got started.

The help wanted ad for my IT Manager’s dream job read: “Computer person needed to maintain website and computer network.” It was in the Sunday Los Angeles Times.

7. Spread yourself out.

I have read article after article stating that the best and most permanent jobs are acquired by networking. Start with your family and work your way outward to friends and acquaintances. Your might even try a previous employer, if you left on good terms. Working your way outward could be geographical too. Is there a small company in your area or that you know of that is still using one of their employees as “the techie?”

If all you do is pick up the Sunday paper and answer the computer want ads, you may be looking for a long time. Get all the newspapers in your area and scour the classifieds. Go online. Many companies, even small ones have a available jobs area on their website, if they have a website. I only looked at classifieds and only at well known web sites. Be prepared to fax, email or snail mail your resume.

I also applied at a temp agency. A temp job is a good way to gain a variety of experience in a short time without becoming tied to a low paying job. It also often leads to a permanent position. Many experienced IT people even prefer temp and contract jobs for the variety of experience they provide.

The next three items on my list (and the first three) are common sense, or at least to me they are.

8. Keep your interview honest.

The job placement counselors at both the tech schools I attended, told me to list as SKILLS all my classes, which I previously referred to and to what I did about it. They also said to state having experience with anything I had successfully completed in a school lab. I just couldn’t do that without relating that it was in school. I have never regretted that, job or no job.

At one interview, I was asked if I had any experience with Novell networks. I responded by saying that it was limited to a school lab setting and the version of Netware was older than the one they currently had in place. But I was enthusiastic about being able to learn whatever technology they currently had in place with an eye towards newer technologies. Long story short: I got that job.

I am retired now but I put in fifteen years with that company and manage a Novell Netware network with over 100 licenses and eventually moved them into a Windows network.

9. Dress the part.

This is just a no-brainer. Even if you are applying for a job bagging fries at a burger joint, wear a suit or a business pants/suit or dress to your interview. I have seen people show up wearing Levi’s and a tee shirt. The Google office culture does not apply everywhere in the business world.

My idea of a successful interview is leaving with the belief that I impressed my interviewer. Part of that involves the first impression which includes what you wear, how you are groomed, how you carry yourself, how you communicate, etc. If you wear your “everyday” clothes to an interview, you will probably feel like you do every day. When you are dressed well it helps you feel good about yourself. Be prepared, focused and ready to do your best.

10. Prepare and follow up.

Companies that have a web site are sometimes easier to prepare for, especially if they have an employee information page. Even if they don’t have a website you may be able to find information through Super Pages, the phone book or even calling the receptionist and asking what the company does. The idea is to find out as much as you can. This is a company you are trying to go to work for. After all, you may not even want to work for them after you find out they recycle nuclear waste.

After your interview, following up with an email or phone call is a great idea. The best way to insure you are prepared for this is to always grab a business card during your interview. Most people have them on their desk. I have always tried to call the day following an interview and thank the primary interviewer for the time spent and the opportunity. One time I was interviewed by the General Manager and two officers of a company after which I was interviewed by the President. The next day, early, I sent the President a “thank you” email and mentioned how refreshing it was that the president of the company took the time to speak with a prospective employee. Small businesses are like that. They tend to have a familial atmosphere.

There is actually a tip number 11 which has to do with more than just job hunting. Maybe it should even be number one. It has to do with life.

11. Have a good attitude.

In one of my early computer classes, the instructor gave the class the following morsel of wisdom, which I have never forgotten:

“When it comes to computers, there are three kinds of people in the world: People who don’t know about computers, people who only know about computers because they have to work with them and people who love computers.”

I am in the third category and I hope, if you are reading this and have a desire for a career in Information Technology, you fall into that category too. All efforts towards professional achievements of this significance don’t come about only from a desire to make more money. Since you spend about one third of each 24-hour weekday working, it only makes sense that enjoying what you do is not just desirable, but is truly a necessary characteristic of a great job. There is no substitute for a love of technology in helping you realize this career dream.

The second component of this good attitude tip is enjoying people and getting along with co-workers. Unfortunately, all too many IT people have the reputation of being geeks who speak in acronyms and techno-babble and who can’t relate well to the end users they support. Although as an IT Manager, I reported directly to the General Manager and CEO, I have always felt that I actually work for all the employees in my company. If their computer or network hardware or software is not working correctly, they not only have less productivity but often become frustrated. As an IT person I hope you will want your fellow employees to know they can count on you to take whatever steps are necessary to make the technical aspects of their workday world less confusing, more productive and as pleasant as possible.

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