IT's a job thing
May 7, 2012 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Can I fast track myself into a freelance IT career in a week? (I don't work in IT, nor have I any experience.)

So, I know how to use a computer. I've dabbled in Obj-C/Cocoa (made a couple of simple apps), CSS, HTML, JScript, Python (a light scratching of the surface), a tiny bit of 6502 assembly when I was a lot younger, Inform 7 (and a few other largely irrelevant languages), and I'm not afraid of using the Terminal (although I'm not fluent in BASH, or whatever it's called).

I can rip a PC apart and put it back together and, although I tend to rely on forums and other internet sources to help me solve problems like system configuration and registry hassles, I can get a sluggish machine to run like happy again.

I'm a Mac user though I've used Windows much of my life. I use computers almost everyday -- mostly using audio software as part of my day job -- and this requires me to maintain a functioning machine.

That's the back story.

Tomorrow, I have to go back to work after a month break.

I don't want to . I'm dreading the thought of going back to the cage that's trapped me for almost a decade. I want to leave. I have to leave. I have no money. I have no soul.

But I can't leave. I have no useful qualifications nor any work experience that would aid me in getting a better paid job.

But there's the IT thing. I feel there's potential. I'm comfortable enough with the technology and concepts to know how to apply my knowledge to a particular problem but I know nothing about the IT industry. I've never met any proper IT people; be they software developers, web designers or helpdesk types. And so, I have no idea where to start -- where to look for that window of opportunity.

Ideally, I want to work from home. I don't want to be tied down to a 9 to 5; I have a family and I want to be part of my children's day. I need (to keep the wolves from the door) to earn at the very least £25k -- ideally I'm looking to earn > £40k. (That's GBP not USD)

But where do I start? Is there a usual root into IT? What kind of jobs are available. Am I being unrealistic when I say that I want to switch careers within the coming week/month? Are there any decent resources on the web for people who share my intent?
posted by popcassady to Work & Money (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Freelance IT is less about technical skills and much much more about sales and marketing. The work is usually the easy part - finding people who are willing to pay you to do the work that is the tough part. It takes quite a while to be able to build up enough of a customer base to be able to support yourself full time, and if you don't have six months to a year's worth of expenses in the bank that you are willing to draw on, I would SERIOUSLY recommend that you don't do this.
posted by deadmessenger at 8:06 AM on May 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Finding a full time entry-level IT job is possible. Finding a company that is willing to hire you (and pay decent wages) to freelance for them with no experience or no references, not so much.

If this is really what you want to do, you need a longer-term plan. Consultants usually become consultants after years of work in their field and plenty of recommendations from others.
posted by sarahnicolesays at 8:21 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think you can go freelance in a week, as others have said. A better idea might be to find a small company that is looking for full-time in-house IT support. The smaller the company, the more likely they are to value your generalist skills. That way, you could round out your knowledge, perhaps find the areas that most interest you and get the career experience you need to take the next step.
posted by KateViolet at 8:26 AM on May 7, 2012

Entry level IT is usually either desktop support, junior network engineer, or junior developer. The only thing going for you against your competition (CS-degreed hyper-certified offshored 24/7 service desks for whom half your desired starting salary is at least comfortable if not generous) is your ability to put your face in their faces and your butt in their chairs. Working remotely in IT generally involves either a spectacular rare skillset or experience and seniority and a trust relationship because non-IT people think that IT people are wizards, possibly evil ones, who need an eye kept on them.

You can sometimes get desktop support jobs just by being able to use a computer and put stuff in them. I know that's how a lot of my generation started (at rather significantly less thank UK25K). This work does actually require skills. On the upside, it's still a very real-world-experience field, which means that IT hiring managers (not the same as non-IT hiring for IT, mind you) would rather hire someone with the ability to acquire skills than a potentially meaningless piece of paper that says you've been in the same room with some skills at least once.

You seem brave, have you considered sales?
posted by Lyn Never at 8:28 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not to put too fine a point on it, you're being very unrealistic.

Without any documentation or referenceable experience to back up your skills, you're going to have a hard time lining up clients. Hell, even with documentation and referenceable experience you'd have a hard time lining up clients, because there are so many people who think that just because they use a computer every day they "know computers".

At this stage, you'll have to find somebody willing to give you a break into the business. Given your description of your knowledge and skills, I'd think you'd want to aim for IT support in a large organization. After you've worked for them for several years, then maybe you could think about hanging up your own shingle. Even then, as deadmessenger said, you'll need to have a proper business plan, funding for the business, and enough savings to make a go of it.

If you're serious about wanting to switch careers, I think I'd start with school.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:28 AM on May 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

To be fair, I don't work in the UK or IT, but it took me a good year or two of really grinding it out to get to the point where my freelance work would pay my bills and keep me afloat rather than being a nice second income. And that's with a lot of experience and contacts in my field. And even now, I tend to depend on a few really big contracts and a smattering of smaller ones. (One of the agencies I work for is exactly the same, in fact, I helped do some bizdev for them when they had a "Oh, shit, all our big contracts are running out soon!" crisis last month).

Could you? Feasibly, if you have money saved up to ride out the lean months--and they might all be lean months--and can hustle like crazy but you're going to have trouble getting hired with no experience and no contacts in the field and no references.

If you want to do it safely and sanely, though, you're going to have to switch careers to IT, probably at entry-level or small company generalist-type positions, and work your way up enough that people would trust you freelancing. Unless you want to do something consumer-level like one of those "I delete spyware and fix your computer" guys, which I think might be a nice side income but doubt it would pay enough to go full-time for a long while.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:30 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in some kind of tech-support franchise like these. (If you are, make sure you understand what you're getting into, and have the skills needed to run a small business.)
posted by philipy at 8:37 AM on May 7, 2012

My route in was via a help desk. If you know enough about Windows you could conceivably start out as a level I support person. Once you've done that for awhile your other skills will be noticed and you will find yourself being pulled into different areas of IT. For me, every IT job I had, since I lacked the certifications, I needed to start on the help desk, keep my nose to the grindstone and volunteer for things.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:39 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

You'd probably be best off trying to work it out with your current company to move to the IT department, or if you don't have one, to have some clearly defined IT responsibilities added to your role, and an appropriately techie sounding addition to your title.

Breaking directly into IT in a new company without documented experience will be difficult, and IT (as opposed to application development) can be a fairly low margin operation for even highly experienced free-lancers because nobody wants to pay for it.
posted by rocketpup at 8:56 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm in agreement. You can't just quit and put an ad on Craigslist and expect the world to beat a path to your door.

Check out the job sites for jobs in IT. See what qualifications employers are looking for. Apply to the jobs that seem like good springboards to what you ultimately want to do.

While you may not be able to frelance, you might find a job where you can work remotely. (Perhaps not at first, but eventually.)

The great thing about working for an organization is that they will fund your continuing education and give you a place to gain experience using that education.

Another great thing about working for an organization is the regular paychecks.

I'm just sayin'.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:57 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

It'll cost you money, but can I recommend you get an A+ and Network + Certifications? Try some online tests to see if you feel comfortable taking them right away, otherwise grab a book on the certifications. These certifications will get you past a lot of basic HR filters when it comes to looking for IT work; A+ even has a specialization version called "Depot Technician" which covers a little customer service and the ethical treatment of other people's computers.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:04 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need to get a job in IT first and make connections and build your resume. "Knowing computers" isn't enough to get hired for freelance work. Having certifications will help you get an entry level job only.
posted by empath at 9:07 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

My route in was the same as KevinSkomsvold. I used to be 'the guy who knew about computers' in my previous customer service job, and that helped me into my helpdesk job. I then moved up to being an operator (monitoring backups mainly, plus a bit of level 2 stuff) with the same company, then moved to another company a few years later (who I'm still with).

I don't know what part of the country you're in, but £25K seems unrealistic even in London. I'm in the South West, where you're probably looking at an entry level salary of £15-17K. Good luck!
posted by etc at 9:14 AM on May 7, 2012

I made good money programming for quite a long time. Eventually I got sick of the whole IT upgrade treadmill and having large amounts of other people's income depending on my unending competence and my willingness to work like a crazy man to meet arbitrary project deadlines, and decided my programming days were behind me and I'd rather be a taxi-driving slacker and live on as little as possible instead.

A few years later I was roped back in, against my better judgment, and once again found myself doing high-stress project work for bucketloads of money. And then I gave it up again after getting married and moving out of the city.

I got my start in the early eighties, when anybody who had ever written anything in assembler on an Apple II could get offered programming work just by showing up at the computer club. It's a lot harder to get into programming now, basically because every worthwhile project runs on hardware that's three thousand times as capable and therefore requires hundreds of layers of ridiculously over-engineered software complexity to slow that hardware down to the point where it doesn't freak people out. There is no fast-track into programming any more. These days, becoming employable as a working programmer takes serious amounts of preparation.

But because everybody has a computer now (even if they call it a "smart phone"), and because all computers are savage heartless bastard contrivances existing solely for the purpose of wasting their purchasers' time and causing them endless grief, it's now pretty easy for conscientious and personable technophiles to make a modest living doing this for money. Despite my complete lack of tertiary qualifications and my complete unwillingness to do anything amounting to serious programming ever again, it's what I'm doing now, and life is pretty good.

Go get 500 business cards printed up, saying that if it's got silicon in it and it's busted you'll fix it (no fix, no fee). Pin up a few on local noticeboards. Find out what your local big-name tech support franchises charge their customers per hour, and undercut them by 50%; you'll be working for yourself, and because your business is going to spread by word of mouth and you're going to do excellent work and the only tools you're going to need are a power screwdriver, your own transport, and the ability to use Google on your customers' own machines, your overheads will be minimal. Leave behind a dozen business cards with every customer whose problems you fix and ask for referrals. As your skills and confidence build, inch your hourly upward to take account of the fact that most of what you do is going to end up taking fewer hours. But always offer a better deal than the poor saps who think they have to wear somebody else's uniform to get this kind of work.

You won't get a viable business happening within a week; you will need to go find part time work to cover the gap. But there's no reason you shouldn't be able to build a viable technical support business within a year.

Just don't agree to take people's computers home with you; that way lies madness, procrastination and stress. Fix them onsite, coming back several times if necessary. I expect you'll find plenty of people willing to pay for your services on that basis.
posted by flabdablet at 9:14 AM on May 7, 2012 [9 favorites]

But where do I start? Is there a usual root into IT? What kind of jobs are available. Am I being unrealistic when I say that I want to switch careers within the coming week/month? Are there any decent resources on the web for people who share my intent?

Next week, I am going to free-scale climb The Shard. I saw it on a youtube video once, and I do pull-ups, what could possibly go wrong?

Joking aside, it's ambitious but not impossible by any stretch. IT is one of the few careers where there is still an apprenticeship model, where you can start at the bottom with a good set of skills and ambition, and work your way up.

As to how to do it, lateral moves are a good start. You didn't say what you are doing now, but I imagine it has some interface with IT, most things do. If you can flip from being supported by IT, to doing IT support, that may very well be your entry point into the industry.

Two key things required to make this move are 1) natural curiosity (which is sounds like you have), and 2) get the lingo down. IT people speak in technical acronyms and jargon.
posted by nickrussell at 9:29 AM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I would recommend sticking with the current job for now and focussing on ObjC and/or Python until you're confident with those. It's a much more secure direction for you to go in, I think.
posted by rhizome at 10:28 AM on May 7, 2012

Am I being unrealistic when I say that I want to switch careers within the coming week/month?

You're not being unrealistic when you say you want to switch careers--you're being unrealistic when you think you're going to get anything approaching decent compensation in the first couple of years.

Now, I'm in the US, so this may not be directly applicable to your situation, but given the comments of the UK folks who have posted to this thread it sounds like it is: I know several people with outstanding credentials, tons of certs, experience working in IT for universities/hospitals/biotech companies, etc., who are having a hard time making a go of it as freelance IT folks. These are people with lots of contacts, with a strong reputation, with lots of testimonials from satisfied clients, everything one needs for success.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:35 AM on May 7, 2012

Quoting this bit from your question:
"I have no money."
There's your answer. You have to go back to your regular job, at least for now. I say this as someone who worked "regular jobs" for about 20 years, transitioned to freelance about 5 years ago, and who now works 100% freelance.

Expect it to take at least 3-6 months from the time you begin freelancing, to the time when you will be able to scrape together a minimum living wage. In other words, it's not entirely unrealistic to expect you can make the transition within a week or a month... but it's extremely unrealistic to expect you'll be getting paid enough to live on within that time frame.

Your basic billing cycle alone is at least a month, from the time you find a client, sign them, do their thing, bill them, and then finally get paid. If you have no money, and no major clients in mind, then you can't afford to launch a freelance career right now.

The way to do it is to go back to your regular job, and work on building your freelancing career in your off hours. Set up a website, get a business name, some business cards, start stumping for clients, etc.

Meanwhile, save up every single penny you can, to bankroll the transition from "regular job" to "freelance job." (While you're at it, max out your health care and dental benefits, because you will miss them when they're gone!)
posted by ErikaB at 12:31 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

With 30 years proven experience and being highly paid as a systems engineer/analyst my bleeding edge startup ran out of money. Being in your 50's looking for IT/High Tech work is not much fun. Being over qualified and high priced I was forced into self employment. I have been specializing in house calls for any type of tech work from network installation to installing home theaters to website design to database tuning. I can do most anything with tech and exist solely on word of mouth referrals. I charge a ton of money for my time but am generous with it. Anything under two hours is billed as one hour etc... By being high priced and playing the part of the personable friendly professional I get a classier (more wealthy) set of clients.

Thing is my tech business runs like a concierge service. I work out of my house and two or three jobs a week keeps me fed and warm and dry. Get to know professionals with technophobia. Once you have saved them some frustration and get a reputation for fair work you will be turning down jobs after a while.

You do need to be able to deliver though promise nothing you can't deliver on.
posted by pdxpogo at 1:01 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Am I being unrealistic when I say that I want to switch careers within the coming week/month?

Massively. You aren't just 'switching careers' to a field where you don't any have professional knowledge and experience, you're also starting a small business with single product - selling your professional knowledge and experience. I don't mean to crush your dreams, but certain dreams kind of collapse under their own weight.

I'm comfortable enough with the technology and concepts to know how to apply my knowledge to a particular problem

As it stands, there is no way a professional org would hire you for the jobs and salary you're looking at. Home users mostly don't need any coding and don't pay very well. business users are where the bulk of IT spending comes from but most won't hire people without hand-on experience with current systems and applications.

But unrealistic doesn't mean impossible. flabdablet and pdxpogo both have good paths for you to become your local neighborhood tech, but that A) probably won't get you near 40K salary and B) won't let you work from home. Check out the A+ certification and resources. Build up to that rather than just leap.
posted by anti social order at 2:30 PM on May 7, 2012

A career change doesn't necessarily mean either or. If you are looking to change fields, working your day job then working on A+ certification at the night, or trying to start a side income during time away from work is a safer option. This has the added benefit of making your full time job a bit easier too - it's temporary, and the full time job's purpose is to support you with your dreams.
posted by ajackson at 7:37 PM on May 7, 2012

Does your regular job have an IT department? Could you make some excuse to visit the desktop support/helpdesk team and have a chat with them? You never know what might come from that, while still making money from your existing role.

This is how I got into IT. Like you, I knew stuff about computers. So I had a chat with our IT guys (actually at the pub over drinks). First, they said I could be the "IT Champion" for the department I was in. Which basically meant that any issues in that area, I would check out first. Amazing the amount of issues that were simply checking settings in a print driver panel, or checking cables were plugged in correctly.

Once they saw I knew what I was doing, we coordinated with our respective bosses to have me work part time in helpdesk/desktop support. They paid for some of the training I needed to get up to speed.

So you might be able to do something like this. But as others have noted, its different now than it was way back then (pre 2000!) and theres more competition, more people "know stuff about computers" and theres also a lot of outsourcing that makes it "easy" for the entire helpdesk to be moved to another country with cheaper labour costs.
posted by Admira at 7:49 PM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

more people "know stuff about computers"

The thing is, though, that expressed as a percentage of people who actually own or need to use computers, the number of people who "know stuff" about them is actually much lower now than it was in more hobbyist-oriented times. There is no way I would have been able to make even a modest living in home computer support in the early eighties.

There are two main psychological barriers to overcome before launching into selling your services as a paid expert. One is the belief that random, unstructured knowledge you've acquired purely as a side effect of being interested in your field is of no value; the other is that people who don't have at least that level of knowledge are stupid and not worth your time. Neither belief is true, and this is doubly so in IT.

Most computer users don't have even a shred of a clue about how the machinery works. Most computer users are stumped, often to the point of screaming frustration, when the machinery exhibits any behavior outside the narrow range they've been trained to deal with. Simply "knowing stuff about computers" is therefore absolutely monetizable.

Most people are very good at something. Most of the things it's possible to be good at have nothing to do with IT. A lack of IT skills, or IT interest, or IT-related problem solving ability, says nothing at all about intelligence or expertise or worth as a human being. Working in IT support, it's far too easy to lose sight of that. But if you don't fall into the trap of treating non-IT-savvy people as morons, then helping your customers overcome their IT problems becomes emotionally rewarding and highly enjoyable - and the more repeat business you get, the more this is so.
posted by flabdablet at 8:09 PM on May 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

« Older How Do I Limit My Google Alert Results to English...   |   How large is a large onion? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.