How can I save my IT career?
December 19, 2012 6:20 AM   Subscribe

How can I get a new job in IT with limited experience, no relevant education, and an unusual employment history?

I dropped out of college after my first year. I then dealt with a health issue that prevented me from working consistently. At age 25, I found myself working at McDonald's. Out of nowhere, a friend offered me a job working at a start-up based on his knowledge of my technical skills. When asked about my employment at the time, I lied. (I feel guilty about this and will not do it again.)

I've now worked for the start-up for about a year, and it seems to be failing. There is not enough money to pay employees. They owe me over $10,000. Recently they tried to offer everyone stock options in lieu of pay and asked me to live off my savings. When I let them know this was unacceptable, they sent me a few thousand dollars, but they haven't made any further commitments.

I'm now trying to look for a new job in the same field. I know I'm good at my job, but I'm very worried about my resume's shortcomings.

How can I save my career?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Certifications. I don't know what flavor of IT you are, but you need to get some books and study for and get the appropriate certifications. While it's not quite the heady days of the late 1990's any more, where certs were exponentially more valuable than a college education, you can still get a foot in the door for interviews with the right certs for your job.

Most importantly: Actually learn the material you're being certified on. Nothing is more frustrating for an IT manager to hire someone and then discover that they're a paper certification (ie, they just crammed for the test and are functionally useless).
posted by Concolora at 6:26 AM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with Concolora a thousand times over. However, if education is off the table another approach might be to find a non-IT type job in a company that is open to a lateral move to their IT dept later down the road (you'll have better luck with this in technology companies, or those who invest minimally in IT, unfortunately.) That's how I got my first "real" IT job, and it was because they knew I had existing technical skills but needed a little more training to get over the hump. They essentially allowed me to move to their IT dept, attend training classes on their dime, and learn on the job. The drawback was they paid me significantly less than other IT staff with a more traditional educational background because a) they were training me and b) they knew how badly I wanted to switch positions. It's tough because you don't want to go into a job interview saying, "Yeah, I will do awesome at job X for a year, but eventually hope to move to your IT dept." That would put some hiring managers right off, so you sort of have to feel it out and research the companies a little bit. Good Luck.
posted by Rewind at 6:40 AM on December 19, 2012

For many IT businesses, particularly the small ones, being able to demonstrate that you can actually do something can often outweigh any paper qualification or employment history. Some of the biggest mistakes I've seen (and made) in hiring IT staff have come from assuming that someone could do something because the paperwork said they could. Conversely, the most competent IT people I've known have frequently been those with unrelated qualifications and work history. Also, your fit as a person into a company's culture is no small thing - if you've got 'people skills', those are as valuable as your technical ones. So I'd say that you need to (a) make a good inventory of your skills and the things you've achieved with them, (b) try to think of things that you might be able to do that will allow you to demonstrate those skills, and (c) identify the kinds of potential employers who might be a good fit for someone like you.
posted by pipeski at 6:46 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of the biggest mistakes I made too was hiriing a heavily certified person who turned out to be a drunkard who didn't know how to copy and paste. And couldn't remember when prompted. And couldn't retain it when trained. I now rarely give certs much consideration.

When I interview candidates I usually go lightly on anything more than a functional level of certification and instead focus on other things like formation and following of process and procedures, documentation and other sorts of things you'd have to do while you were doing the tech things. I also focus on the weird technical details you'd know about a technical task if you were doing it, not necessarily reading about how to do it or doing it in a hands-on lab context.
posted by kalessin at 6:51 AM on December 19, 2012

my technical skills

What are your skills? More importantly which skills do you most want to utilize in your next job? Also what skills are being asked for in current IT ads in your area that interest you. Write them down, then write down examples proving how and when you used them. Don't try to create a resume, just honestly detail what projects you could show someone who asks if have skill X or skill Y. This should show you the deficiencies in your portfolio, the holes that IT managers care more about than gaps in your employment history. Perhaps you really know X but you have nothing demonstrating that knowledge. Then think of a project that would demonstrate X and pursue it, all the way from design to production. Repeat until you're comfortable that you have a portfolio that proves all these skills. Now start replying to those ads.
posted by 0 at 6:52 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Create a resume with your IT job on it. If you can easily get a certification or two, so much the better. Don't worry about other non-IT jobs you've had, they're irrelevant to your current job search. Don't worry about your lack of formal education either.

Get on LinkedIn, create a profile and start looking at postings there.

Look for ads that are looking for your specific IT skills.

I'm a Admin, and people call me all the time wanting to know if I'm looking. Some skills are like that.

Check out your local Community College to see if they offer certification classes, or classes in a particular language or program.

Focus on the positives of what you know, not the gaps.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:00 AM on December 19, 2012

Certifications, I agree. If I were you, I'd start with A+ and Network + from CompTIA, which is a consortium of big companies in the computer industry, and covers your most basic skills tech skills. Pick up the books by Mike Meyers (no, not that Mike Meyers), which are super-readable, and you will nail down some basic skills and the certs will get your resume past some HR barriers and into the hands of the IT department doing the hiring. A+ and Network+ will qualify you for a Hell-desk job anywhere.

Depends on your learning style, of course, but most likely you don't need a class to get these certs-- the books will do fine. Practice tests, both in bookstores and online, abound. Use them! Heck, start with some, to gauge your starting knowledge level.

From there, there are lots of avenues: the MS track formerly known as MSCE, the Cisco track (CCNA/CCNE), the Security track (Security+ if you feel like it, and CISSP), plus a million specialized ones. Also, Project Management tracks, PMP*.

Also helpful: structured cabling certification. Structured cabling refers to knowing how to wire a building, what cable-grade/routers/patch panels/bridges and such are required by a modern network, and so forth. At least, you should definitely know how to add jacks to cat-5. (And you don't need a structured-cabling cert for that.) Because as muchas you'll be behind a desk, or under a desk, you're also going to be in the hanging ceiling (plenum), or crawl-spaces, or under dinosaur pens (raised floors), or in the walls.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:22 AM on December 19, 2012

I am involved with hiring (a specific flavor of) IT staff.

You have the advantage here because the job market in IT right now is very much an employee's market, especially in certain specializations (which you don't specify, so consider this generic advice).

To be honest, I place very little value on certifications. The only thing a certification tells me is that you took a test and passed, which could mean you really know your stuff, you crammed for 12 hours the night before the test, or you got lucky. If certs were so powerful, you'd be hired on the merits of them alone.

What I want to know is not what command, or function, or language you know the syntax for; I want you to demonstrate a fundamental understanding of why you choose one thing over another, or why a particular command works, or what is happening behind the scenes. Sure, you know the difference between a star schema and a traditional RDBMS, but I want to know why you choose one over the other given a situation. Why you would choose log shipping over direct replication. Why an 'ls' command and a 'df' command on the same linux NFS directory can report different sizes.

Of course, this is just me. Every hiring manager / IT supervisor is going to be different, so mine is not 'the answer', it's just an example of what someone who might interview you could be looking for.

It really depends on what you're specializing in and the specific job you're looking to fill, but I wouldn't sell your resume short. A year of experience is a lot better than some of the resumes I see, and it's not a deal breaker, especially if you are aiming towards the junior end of the job spectrum. I would expect you may have some stiff competition for a top level, senior spot, but as long as you are able to demonstrate knowledge of the theories that form the cornerstones of your specialty, and you're as good at your job as you claim to be, you should be fine.

Everyone tends to exaggerate their knowledge, but I would definitely not lie about actual work history.

If you happen to be from the Minneapolis area, PM me.

Good luck!
posted by SquidLips at 7:32 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hi, you are me. I dropped out of college and had zero certifications and fell into IT at the age of 25. Just throw your resume out there for an entry level IT job like desktop support or tier 1 tech support. Every time this kind of thing has happened to me, I ended up making more money at a better job than the one I left. Do you have any friends or families at tech companies? Reach out to them. Don't lie about your history, and don't exaggerate what you know, but list every single technology you worked with or would be comfortable working with. Just don't lie about how much you know about them in the interview. What IT employers are looking for in entry level people is basically intelligence, adaptability and customer service skills, just emphasize those attributes on your resume.
posted by empath at 8:43 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure you're getting really practical advice here. You have a set of skills and a year of experience, and you are currently employed. Go apply for other jobs with a truthful resume, and see what happens. Skills and experience still count for more than a related BA for many employers. Focus on smaller employers if you're not meeting the HR hurdle at larger places.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:10 AM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I had some limited IT experience years ago (mainly hardware repair while in college), but was a graphic designer (my degree is in design and my previous jobs were as a designer). I wanted to get back into IT so I got a job running IT for an ad agency, supporting graphic designers. I was able to get that with limited professional IT experience because I understood how the designers worked (and they paid very little). So maybe you can find another company doing the same thing (ie same industry) as the startup you're at and get an IT position there. Hiring managers like seeing something in your past that relates to what their company does and what the position entails.

I went on from there to a managed services provider, and later founded my own company. I have no certs, only experience.
posted by ridogi at 11:34 AM on December 19, 2012

Yeah, I'm going to disagree strongly on the certification thing. Unless you're already well-versed in those areas or have extra time on your hands, those certifications (especially, A+, Network+ and Microsoft) are not useless, but they're pretty minimal in terms of hiring impact.

I'd spend my time writing a great cover letter on what you did at this job and what you're good at. If you do tech work as a hobby, talk about it. If you're an infrastructure guy, build some machines at home connect them, break them and the fix them.

Again, the certs aren't a bad idea, but only if you have the spare time to pursue them and already have knowledge in that area.
posted by cnc at 11:52 AM on December 19, 2012

Once upon a time, I hired a number of people like you into their first or second real IT job. Most of them proved to be good hires, and all of the good ones have made successful IT careers for themselves.

I tended to discount certifications, though in retrospect most/all of the people I hired had one or more certifications. I was looking for people who were smart, self-motivated, and actually liked doing stuff with computers. Their cover letter was as important as their resume because it gave me the story behind their resume. One guy had worked at a call center doing support for Adobe products, another worked as a sales clerk at a musical instrument store, another had been a teacher, another had been an admin at a small real estate office, and another had graduated from a college with a history degree a few years earlier and had spent much of the time since recovering from a bad auto accident. Their cover letters all hinted at the qualities I was looking for, and the interviews helped confirm it. They were the people who ended up being the defacto tech people in their families, or non IT workplaces. In context, the certifications validated that impression by demonstrating initiative and effort to improve their understanding. Without the story though, i would have been concerned that they were just getting certified because they had been convinced that more certs=more salary, and that they would be lost when confronted with anything they hadn't been certified in.

None of that is to say that you shouldn't consider getting certifications, but they take time and money, which don't sound like anything you have right now, plus, I think you can find something faster without them so you have time to regroup.

1. Sounds like you are right, your current employer is going down, soon. I'd suggest you make them your lowest priority, but don't abandon them completely, because you want two things from them. 1) A good reference: you'll have to figure out how likely it is that they'll give you one. Do not let them extort unpaid, or unlikely to be paid, work from you by using the promise of a good reference as leverage. Keep in mind, this reference doesn't necessarily have to come from a superior, a good refernce from a colleague is much better than no reference, or an ambivalent one from a superior. 2) if it comes down to it, you want to be laid-off, so you can collect unemployment while looking for a new IT job.

2. Create your resume and cover letter: Emphasis on skills. In the cover letter, tell your story, that you have recently started your IT career after long being interested in tech and you are excited for the next step. Get feedback from people on it. Adapt them, as needed, for each position you apply for.

3. Network: you probably don't have much to start with if this is your first tech job, but let people you know know that you are looking fir a new job, let them know what you are looking for, and that you'd appreciate introductions to anyone they know who could get you closer to that goal. This is basically how you got your exising job, which is great, because it means that people who know you probably already have a sense of what you can do. Build on that. There are also often groups for people with interest in various technologies which can be a great way to meet other peoole working in the field.

4. Find tech staffing firms in your area. These companies help other companies staff their IT projects. Ideally, you'll be able to make contacts with recruiters in these firms through your network, but if that doesn't work out, keep an eye on the jobs they list, and apply for the ones you think you are best qualified for. The goal is to get an interview so tht even if you don't get the job, you will be more than just a resume when it comes to future jobs. Try and get your foot in the door with as many of these firms as possible. You probably don't want to spend your career working contract jobs for big "body shops" but it isn't a bad step for you right now.

5. Apply for jobs, every day. Research the companies and tailor your cover letter and resume to the company and position.

To put this in perspective: your best chances of getting your next job are via networking, so this should be your main priority, but the pace of your networking efforts are going to be limited by various factors, so you can and should fill your time with other efforts. The staffing firms are the second priority, because they can be an entre to lots of positions at lots of companies. Applying for individual jobs at individual companies is lowest priority because it is low leverage. A secondary benefit of your efforts is that they will help you better understand the marketplace, and will give you practice talking yourself up.

good luck!
posted by Good Brain at 12:09 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know lots of people in IT with no formal training or certs (although both, in the long run, will help). Figure out what your skills are, research which employers in your area could use them, and pick up the phone.

The only way you can get through this is by cold calling.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:09 PM on December 19, 2012

DarlingBri: "I'm not sure you're getting really practical advice here. You have a set of skills and a year of experience, and you are currently employed."

I donno, it sounds like anon is at this point currently volunteering for a for-profit. A doomed one, no less.

So anon, what can you do in the short term? Exploit your professional network. Presumably you're not the first person to jump ship, and if you stayed on good terms with them, they might have warm contacts with their new company's recruiters. Certainly start reaching out to friends in other startups / firms (in private).
posted by pwnguin at 11:49 PM on December 19, 2012

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