Training for a new career in IT
November 16, 2010 9:34 AM   Subscribe

I'm ready for a career change and I've always wanted to work in IT. What would you recommend?

A second bachelor's or a master's degree in IT? Certificate training program? Or is downloading ebooks and self-study the way to go?

Which online certificate programs aren't scams? What are some good online resources otherwise? The Google University Python course was interesting; are there more things like this?

My interests lie primarily in programming, but also in system or network administration. I'm really looking for general resources covering the broad range of IT fields.
posted by anonymous to Education (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
For programming specifically, the #1 thing you want to do is write a lot of code and do as much real-world project work as possible. There are tons of free resources online to learn a given programming language or related technology, and it's easy to work on a hobby project or open source project without spending any money at all, so really the only limiting factors are your ability to learn and the time you have to devote to it. In a job interview with technical people, your actual skills and experience will count for a lot more than an online certificate. With that said a bachelor's in Computer Science is definitely a great way to get your foot in the door, I don't know enough about the current job climate to know how much of a requirement it is for entry level positions these days.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:54 AM on November 16, 2010

For a change to systems admin, I can tell you that another degree will NOT help you. During my previous career as a sysadmin, I could count the number of my co-workers with an IT-related degree on the fingers of one hand, and none of those people were exceptional at their jobs in my opinion.

If you want to go into software engineering another degree might help, but I still don't think there's a ton of value there if you already have another degree. Taking a couple of programming classes couldn't hurt you, but I think a degree is more likely to be counterproductive in terms of cost-benefit. Self-study can be great, especially any exercises associated with those classes, but you don't get the documentation benefit of being able to list on your resume "Additional coursework at Foobar Community Technical College in C++."

What I would do is look at the ads for your area on and, and see what specific skills employers (if any) are looking for.

The one pitfall I see a lot of new IT people fallling into is allowing themselves to become one-trick ponies. A server administrator without a decent background in networking is useless, for example. Even if you want to specialize in something, you still need to be somewhat of a generalist as well to be effective - just to understand how the pieces fit together.
posted by deadmessenger at 9:59 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, anon, it might help if you could pass a message through the mods to tell us what you do now.
posted by deadmessenger at 10:01 AM on November 16, 2010

I can't answer your question with direct regard to career-changing or education... but I can offer some observations I've learned working in IT for the last 20yrs or so.

Regardless of what training or certifications you achieve,.. its been my experience that the following 4 things are of pretty crucial importance:

1.) Having good troubleshooting skills. If a problem seems large/complex or especially strange, can you break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces? Can you isolate or eliminate certain aspects in order to "flush out" the real root cause? Are you asking the right questions (When did this start happening? Has it ever worked? What changed?)... Are you able to duplicate the problem or test on a 2nd set of identical hardware/software?

At a certain point... good troubleshooting is somewhat of an art-form. There are "best practices" when it comes to troubleshooting,.. but sometimes you have to "feel out" the situation and go with your gut instincts. Also, its crucial to keep your eyes and ears open about things going on around you that might be factors in the problem. (example: Twitter feed for local community college might "tweet" about their fiber-optic line being cut... that may be important if you work nearby or share that fiber-ring)

2.) You don't have to "know everything"... you just have to be good at finding information/answers. Lots of people can use Google,.. but knowing how to use it effectively, and to interpret the results you get are also important. (don't just click on the first search result,etc)

I often find while searching for answers... that I have to read 3 or 4 different links... and combine different aspects of each answer in order to craft a solution that fits MY environment. (example: search result1 says to delete a certain Registry key.. but search result2 points to a different Registry key---- WHY?.. which key is important in OUR environment?)

3.) Communication is important. I had a job with a school district that meant I did tech support for everyone from janitors to K-12 teachers to Superintendent's. You can't talk to all those people in the same way. Some want a technical explanation. Some just need to vent and its important for you to listen. Some want the creative answer that helps them teach a class. You have to be able to adapt your communication style - sometimes abruptly on the fly - to fit your intended audience.

4.) Being able to spot patterns. Lets say I have 20 Helpdesk calls in my queue. Some people would just robotically go through them, oldest to newest.. and call it a day. I'm not sure that's the best way to get the job done. I look for patterns in my work. It might be that Helpdesk ticket #12 teaches me something I'll need to solve ticket #3 (or vice versa). It might be that 6 of the tickets all relate to printing outages.. and there's something going on at the Server level. It might unfold that the piece of hardware you recover from ticket #19 can be used on ticket #1.

5.) Look for ways to be efficient. Whenever I approach a problem, i always try to take 10 or 15min and think to myself: "Whats the best (hopefully longterm) way to solve this?". In what way can I solve this problem so that it not only benefits the effected end-user, but might also benefit those around me. (Example: if an end-user requests to be added to the Address Book on a network printer - that might also be a good time to review the Address Book and remove non-existent employees, or add other new employees.)
posted by jmnugent at 10:23 AM on November 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I started taking classes at a local city college and am working towards a masters in CS. Its a long path, but it would be a good way to get feel for it (taking intro to programming) and might get you started.
posted by alkupe at 10:25 AM on November 16, 2010

Also you should know that programming and network administration are very different skill sets. You need to get clear in your head which you want to pursue, and focus on that.

I agree w/all the other comments that say degrees & certs aren't 100% necessary. However, in my experience one needs a natural degree of ability with computers to master either of these disciplines on their own.

There are other considerations too, if you are looking to develop skills to get a job or just to learn.

If you want to pursue network admin - decide on the platform you want to learn on. Windows, Mac or Unix (Mac and Unix are similiar, but I'm sure there are differences). Typically speaking learning about network admin on *nix is going to have you working at a lower level than Windows (which is more interesting -- to some), but may not be as marketable a skill.

Likewise, if you want to pursue programming, decide on a platform and a language. Lots of people start w/PHP, but I would suggest Ruby - everyone that programs in it loves it, and it's relatively easy to build out powerful apps.

A much steeper curve, but probably more lucrative is learning to program for iPhone or Android. Stanford has posted all of the materials for their iPhone application dev course, free, here.

It's a huge field and learning to "program" is only part of it. I think it's important to spend some time to narrow your scope, and learn new skills in manageable chunks.
posted by askmehow at 10:40 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would just add that Information Technology is a very broad space. There is room for more than just programmers and network administrators. Someone has to work with the customers ( Business Analysts ). Someone has to make sure stuff gets done ( Project Managers ). Someone has to test stuff ( Test Manager, Testers ). Someone has to make sure stuff stays safe ( Security Specialist ). Someone has to plug in cables ( Field Services ).

Keep that in mind.
posted by jasondigitized at 11:00 AM on November 16, 2010

I am going to go against deadmessenger . In my expereince a degree i nIT ALWAYS trumps just certs. Businesses are starting to wake up .Anybody can pass a test. degrees usually make sure you know what you are doing.

I got my current civil service it job over people who just have certs. I have an associates of network tech and a bachelors of managent of IT.

Yes you can get a help desk job or it admin in a small company with just certs but if you want a high end job more and more big companies and DEF civil service you will need a degree.

Starting off at say geek squad part time will be a big help. then you can work up to small businesses and go from there.

Though you have to decide what you want. programming and network admin are very different. A comp sci degree will teach you next to nothing about IT. Technical schools have great associates in Network admin taught by real people in the field.

I had a tcp/ip class with a chinese man who was a big wig in our government, in chinese government and in grumman. He new a ton of stuff that helps me to this day.

An associates degree will do wonders. With a degree you would also get help from that college on finding a job. this help in this economy is a BIG help. especially when a lot of these teachers might offer yo ua job at the companies they work for.
posted by majortom1981 at 11:58 AM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

In my expereince a degree i nIT ALWAYS trumps just certs.

Yeah... that's wishful thinking. For low level IT jobs, most managers look for a 'good fit' (troubleshooting skills and good personality) rather than a specific skillset. At the mid-levels and up, experience is king and certs (for better or worse) are what we use to show experience.

Look at it from the hiring manager's point of view. A generic IT degree is no help if I need someone to manage an existing database from VendorX or roll out a wireless network using Vendor Y's gear.
posted by anti social order at 1:39 PM on November 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is going to be a little bit of a story about me, that will hopefully be helpful to you. Other people starting out have told me this is helpful.

I'm in a position now where I worked my way up from the very bottom. Started at a call center, then as a contractor at a Help Desk, moved up to Desktop Support, Desktop Support Supervisor, Desktop Engineering, and then into a Senior Infrastructure Mgmt Analyst role, which is kind of a Business System Analyst, Messaging Engineer, and Sysadmin all rolled into one. I'm the primary on implementing and managing a records management system for a large company. I work on getting different systems to talk to each other, fixing or escalating bugs to vendors, and coming up with creative techniques for working around problems or creating reports that vendors say can't be done. I also administer large messaging (e-mail, mobile device) infrastructures.

EVERYONE along the path (6 years from the beginning, fresh out of college to the beginning of this current position, changing jobs every 12-18 months) told me that no one ever advances in IT in any organization. And but for a few of us, most people in those positions have stayed at those positions or been let go.

The thing that set the rest of us apart is the willingness and desire to learn and to educate, as well as the desire for more responsibility. That desire for more responsibility led us to do things that weren't part of our job description, like writing technical articles, KB articles, helpful scripts and process documents, and other extra-curricular activities. But the key is to do that because you find it stimulating, and not because you think it'll get you something special. All the naysayers were the ones saying "I won't create a KB article or tell anyone how I fixed this thing or run a ticket report for anyone because they don't pay me to do that." Then they wondered why they never got any opportunities that came up.

I spent about 30-40% of two of those years in the middle of Desktop->Engineering traveling for our client. It started from a situation our client was in that needed someone competent, reassuring, and who was generally likable (as in not a traditional "Computer guy as jerk" person). I fixed the situation, which involved breaking a LOT of rules and going against my own management for the benefit of the client. The end result was that everyone was happy, and I got to travel to places I actually enjoyed traveling to, and developed a lot of good relationships.

So it's the thirst for knowledge and lack of complaining that will set you apart. I was hired into my current position despite having ZERO experience with the subject matter, because everyone I had ever worked with had no doubt that I could pick up anything I was handed, and likely improve it in the process.

Very few people I work with have degrees in IT. The two best managers I've had both had Ph.Ds; one in astrophysics, and one in teaching. My coworkers have degrees in theology or business or English. Very few of them have certifications. Several of them hold patents and make in the low six figures. One friend who has been moving up parallel to me doesn't have a degree at all, yet holds a similar position and currently being wooed by another company who wants to pay him twice as much. He is among the 3-5 people out of hundreds that I have worked with that I would ever recommend to any employer without hesitation.

We are all usually too busy working to get certified, and have enough people who know the quality of our work that finding another job wouldn't mean needing to get certified. The one person I work with who has a degree in IT is completely incompetent, seems quite unintelligent, and is not self-starting or capable of learning. I worked with a lot of people at the Help Desk who had plenty of high-level certs, yet didn't understand the most basic concepts or how to troubleshoot.

That being said, there may be some government, education, hospital, or other non-corporate jobs that simply will NOT hire you without a degree in your field or certification.

Also, what you do now is probably important. If you're well-respected in your field and make good money, do you really want to get your foot in the door somewhere in IT with an entry-level position that you may have to endure for several years before moving up?
posted by MonsieurBon at 2:48 PM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Der. Should have added "I also do not have a degree in IT."
posted by MonsieurBon at 3:10 PM on November 16, 2010

Love IT and don't be a Jerk*. This will make you distinctive enough that a decent level of competence will mean progression.

*Unfortunately spending any length of time in this industry will destroy both of these qualities.
posted by fullerine at 5:55 PM on November 16, 2010

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