If you had your druthers, what IT career would you recommend?
December 3, 2007 2:23 PM   Subscribe

If you could recommend any career within the computer/IT field, what would it be? The primary factors I'm considering are salary and job security.

As I mentioned in a previous question, I'm two years into school at a large public university. At the moment my major is undeclared. Although I had considered either journalism or something related to writing, I'm now looking at other options that might make more sense financially. Considering my experience with computers, I'm thinking something in the IT field might be a better choice in terms of getting the bills paid. I do intend to get a bachelors degree in something, whether it be related to IT or not. From what I understand, my school does have a respected computer science program, so that may or may not be a good option.

I've been using computers and the Internet since age 12, primarily on Windows, although I've had some experience with Unix and OSX. I'm great at troubleshooting and I enjoy learning about the underpinnings of an OS. I have a pretty thorough knowledge of HTML and a smattering of PHP, but I have no programming experience beyond that. I am pretty terrible at math and would prefer to avoid anything that requires advanced knowledge thereof. In all other areas, I am a fast learner. I am comfortable installing hardware and have built a couple of PCs. Essentially, I am the lucky person who gets called by friends and family any time someone has a computer problem. And I'm OK with that.

Taking all that into account, what would be a good IT career for me? I'm interested in recommendations that would maximize my earnings potential and be as future-proof as possible. Whether it requires a degree, certification(s), etc., I'm open to any possibility. Having said that, I'm also not a big fan of 80-hour workweeks.

posted by iamisaid to Work & Money (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately with doing something in IT thats skill-based (i.e. windows admin, dba, network engineer, etc.) most places expect you to be on call 24/7. That said, the best way to ensure you aren't going anywhere is to develop strong skills in something that is mission critical. If you really want to maximize earning as a doer of IT as opposed to a manager of IT your best bet is probably networking. While its insanely difficult to get, the CCIE is very lucrative. Security can also be extremely lucrative, but its hard to break into it and requires quite a bit of varied knowledge.
posted by zennoshinjou at 2:40 PM on December 3, 2007

Does your school offer an IT/IS degree in its business school? With a degree in IS, you don't peg yourself as a engineer / programmer, and get exposure to programming, business analysis, project management, and general business. It puts you in a good position to get an entry level position in a lot of IT positions. Can you get a job at the school's computer lab? That's a great way to get exposure to working a helpdesk, and peering into what a I.T. department really does.
posted by jasondigitized at 2:44 PM on December 3, 2007

Ok, before I get into what my choices would be -- Computer science might not be the course for you if you are less of a mathematical mind and more of a written mind. I got a business degree focusing in logistics and business operations and then transitioned into IT from there based on my web programming skills, which I built up in my own time.

The traditional role of a computer science grad is engineering. Most of the people who go through CS do so to become engineers. However, there's a significant need these days for people to go into CS from an operations point of view, and this doesn't necessarily include those math nerds.

If I were you, I would focus either on IT management, Database Administration, or Systems Administration. Those are the fields where, if you have a logical but wordy mind, you'll be happier in web programming / scripting which is more the systems and less the engineering side of things.
posted by SpecialK at 2:45 PM on December 3, 2007

Systems Administration. I've been doing it since 1995, and people will ALWAYS manage to screw up their systems or want someone to run the boxes for them. It's also not quite as easily-outsourced as telephone tech support.

I started in college wanting to be a programmer, but found myself more of a systems guy who dabbles in scripts and programs to solve problems.
posted by mrbill at 2:48 PM on December 3, 2007

Oh -- and my career advice to ANYONE considering a career in IT -- never stop learning, and be flexible to the way the wind is blowing in your organization. If the higher ups decide that Perl is the way to go for web programming, learn Perl... even if it makes no sense whatsoever. The biggest risk you can take with your job is trying to champion one technology over another.

I've been almost-sidelined twice in my career -- once when the company I was working for picked Perl over PHP, and once when they picked SuSE linux instead of my favored Redhat.
posted by SpecialK at 2:50 PM on December 3, 2007

I agree with SpecialK on all points. The two IT-related jobs where I see people getting paid the most are DBA and Systems Administrators. Either way, you need to learn Unix. Wipe out your Windows system and use Linux instead. It's the best way to get started using that environment; I did it myself on a whim eight years ago, and that one decision became the launchpad for my entire career.

You probably realize it, but it bears explicit statement: you can't expect to always have a job and always make good money if you aren't indispensible. You can't expect to be indispensible if you aren't any good at what you do, or if you have an unprofessional attitude as an employee. You always have to be stepping your game up, learning new things, and proving your worth to your employers through quick, nimble-fingered solutions under fire. You can expect to be on call, and to occasionally have to troubleshoot issues for people calling you in the middle of the night, speaking to you in thick Indian accents, over staticky cell-phone connections in Bangalore. If this sounds like a slightly jaded point of view borne of personal experience, it is : )

I love my job, I love this industry, and I thank my lucky stars every day for the breaks I've gotten. Embrace change, challenges, and the unknown, and you'll always be in demand. When people you know get fired or laid off, figure out why they weren't worth keeping, and make sure you avoid their mistakes.
posted by autojack at 2:55 PM on December 3, 2007

If you just want to make great money and be technical, be an Oracle DBA. If you want to make crazy money and be more business focused, become an independent SAP consultant.
posted by jasondigitized at 3:03 PM on December 3, 2007

A couple things to consider. IT seems to be calling for people who have great problem solving skills, logical minds, and have x amount of people skills. Its less and job and more a lifestyle. Ive been stuck doing support for a few years and its fairly miserable. What keeps me going is that when you finally do get a decent break in IT it can be pretty lucrative, but you absolutely need to pay your dues. Depending where you work its more like being an actor. If you get the breaks early on then good for you, but please remember that these breaks are far from guaranteed.

If you just want a desk job, decent pay, and security, then IT isnt for you. I'd get a CPA then.
posted by damn dirty ape at 3:09 PM on December 3, 2007

Study to be a DBA.

Excellent salary, excellent job security.
posted by mphuie at 3:20 PM on December 3, 2007

The primary factors I'm considering are salary and job security.

In most IT shops, you can have one of those two. That said, nthing the DBA suggestion - it takes time and gruntwork to get there, but once you get there, if you're good at it you can generally write your own ticket, especially if you are willing to go the consultant route.
posted by pdb at 3:30 PM on December 3, 2007

Oh, BTW - Take it for what it's worth, but I spent my first two years in a Journalism program ... two of the best years of my life to date... and then made the transition to combining IT and Business Ops.
posted by SpecialK at 3:51 PM on December 3, 2007

I do desktop systems management for a large media conglomerate, using tools like Novell ZENworks and Microsoft's SMS.

In theory, the better your work, the less support staff are needed, so job security is sort of a built in function of the job.
posted by JaredSeth at 5:03 PM on December 3, 2007

A talented systems administrator is hard to find, and it's a lucrative career (eventually). Also, a systems adminstration program is hard to find. If you decided to pursue this, look around for cadetships and internships at your university/college. Consider pursuing the various certifications around, and also consider taking a course or two in project management. Also consider getting involved in open source software projects - it's a cheap way to get a lot of experience, and if you're really good, visibility.
posted by ysabet at 5:59 PM on December 3, 2007

When I was in college at a big ten school, I worked for the university computer labs as a general lab technician. I did everything from help desk to system administration and general network maintenance. I was pursuing an English degree, but all they were looking for was good work ethic and troubleshooting skills. While the college IT world is not indicative of the "real" world, it can give you a good idea of the positives and negatives of the field.
posted by rabbitsnake at 6:37 PM on December 3, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the information.

jasondigitized, my current school does not offer an IT/IS degree, but a nearby school does offer a B.S. in Information Systems Technology. Does anyone have thoughts on this as a major?

RE: all of the DBA suggestions, what is the usual career path here and is the above degree a good start? What about the MSDBA cert?
posted by iamisaid at 6:39 PM on December 3, 2007

If you could recommend any career within the computer/IT field, what would it be? The primary factors I'm considering are salary and job security.

I realise that you listed a whole bunch of techo-related computing interests & skills, but I'd recommend something less hands-on nuts & bolts, and more on the management, policy & process side of things - business analysis, systems analysis, project management, project / program managment office (PMO) work, process-based expertise like ISO & ITIL, that kind of thing.

The reason for this recommendation is my perception that techos are constantly having to remain up to speed on the latest technologies, which keep changing at a phenomenal rate, and in which you are subject to the whims of whatever is hot now. This requires heaps of training & re-training, often in your own time & at your own expense.

In contrast, the areas I've suggested rely a lot more on softer skills like being able to communicate well, which never become obsolete, but only become easier over time. Plus, you find yourself constantly exposed to new business environments, so it never gets stale. There's enough technical detail to keep you interested at that level, without it becoming a necessary core part of your job requiring constant self-education, because you have no need to understand the technology in minute detail. Overall, they are good jack-of-all-trades kinds of roles, leading nicely into consultancy work.

For what it's worth, my background is in high maths & hard sciences at high school, humanities (sociology & law) at undergrad uni, and now a postgrad qualification in IT. If you have a similar kind of left/right brain balance (as I'm guessing with your journalism & computing), then you might find the kinds of work that I suggested appealing to your various & opposing strengths.

(oh, afterthought: if it wasn't clear, what i've recommended is what i do for a living)
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:46 PM on December 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

In my experience, on the metrics of job security and salary, database administration is pretty high up there. Systems administration--yeah, but there's more "we're calling it systems adminstration but it's really just a helpdesk" sorts of jobs out there. So, DBA, if I had to pick one.

I would counsel you, though, that while job security and salary are important they are hardly the only criteria by which you can pick a job. It is my experience that finding the work you enjoy is generally preferred.

If you enjoy the work, A) it won't matter as much how much you're paid, and B) you're going to improve much faster because you'll be breathing the stuff. When you get better faster, your job security is better (you have more experience).

Plus, of course, if you enjoy the work, you're--you know--enjoying your work. Deep, I know.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 9:25 PM on December 3, 2007

As almost everyone said, DBA is the highest paid IT job.
And If you manage to mix it with a critical position in financial IT, it will be pretty lucrative. (the banks have the $$)
Even some java developer are getting really high salary today in specific financial areas.
As a bonus you will be able to easily relocate to big financial places like london, or hongkong if you want to travel.
posted by anto1ne at 1:00 AM on December 4, 2007

i'm an oracle dba and i make bank.

go download the free oracle-xe and play with it from oracle technet. it's basically a mini version of the real thing.

getting your oracle dba certification is pretty much a guaranteed $100k+ per year gig, on the west coast.

you need to be a stickler for details as a dba though, and know systems, storage, etc.

it's a big job, but if you can pick it up, you'll be set.

also, an internship is the absolute best path into the IT industry. it's the fastest path direct to the inside of a good company, without much hassle, and they'll teach you everything you need to get the next gig.

so switch to MIS or CS or something similar, and put all your effort into getting a good internship, doing database work, and you're golden.
posted by jimjam at 3:29 AM on December 4, 2007

As almost everyone said, DBA is the highest paid IT job.

That's simply not true. CIO (chief information officer) is the highest-paid, not at all surprisingly.

Sydney figures show more than a dozen roles that have an upper limit above DBAs - architecture, security, senior project managers, programme managers, management generally...

More to the point, I think there's a definite glass ceiling with technical roles like that one. Where does a DBA go, other than perhaps to become a team leader of a bunch of DBAs - a role that is only ever going to report to the manager of development, support & maintenance or operations, equal to a whole bunch of team leaders of parallel skill silos, like the heads of datacomms or server support?

Without much direct exposure to business management or broader IT strategy, architecture & management, I think that most DBAs are pretty much stuck in that silo, and unlikely to ever make the jump into the really lucrative roles, which are always going to involve a much broader perspective & skillset than a narrow technical expertise, however crucial, and far more direct involvement with business units at the management / executive level.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:42 AM on December 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

an afterthought, still relevant to the question: i was wondering whether any DBAs out there have any thoughts on the extent to which DBA work is going to go the way of becoming a commodity (not unlike datacomms, physical hosting of data storage, or desktop support) especially considering that it's the one single part of operational support that is completely capable of being done remotely. short of outsourcing systems to an ASP model, what are the prospects for DBA work to become an outsourced, on-demand commodity, even for in-house hosted systems?

the answer to this would have important implications for the long-term viability of DBA work as a lucrative skill. it would tend to concentrate the work in larger & larger outsourced IT shops, most likely in India or similar, leading to fewer & fewer positions, and therefore a buyer's market for those skills...
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:00 AM on December 4, 2007

I think Ubu is right to suspect DBAs won't always make a mint.
A lot of the skills needed will become less important over time. For example, optimisation is less important when you have faster hardware, plus there will be more competition (from journalism students prepared to switch to IT for the money, for example).
You can get great IT job security in the military.
Another possibility is becoming a pre-sales technician. If you have the personal and communications skills, coupled with some technical knowledge, you can make very good money, and with pretty good job security in my experience.
posted by bystander at 10:10 PM on December 4, 2007

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