Should I start over, with a new career in computer networking?
January 4, 2008 12:31 PM   Subscribe

Help me with my mid-career freak out: should I change directions and move into the exciting world of computer networking?

Background: So I am 25, living in NYC, and have majored in biology from a small liberal arts college. Basically I have been pursuing a bio/medical career path for awhile. I have long been a computer hobbyist (took a couple CS classes here and there), and have been the go to guy amongst family and friends. At every job I have had, I always end up doing minor IT work on the side to help out, and everyone is always saying "wow, you should work with computers". I have been playing around with different linux flavors for the past 2-3 years, and have a modicum of networking experience. Basically I have always loved computers, and wonder if maybe transitioning from computers as a hobby to a career is a good idea.

Basically, my questions are, how feasible is it to get into the field with no directly related experience? Is the CCNA the best certification to get? Are there other certs that are more practical to the real world/respected by employers and those in the field? Is the job market stable? What kind of salary, hours, and life should I expect? Am i to late/old? Should I give up and become a bum?
posted by rosswald to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Don't bother with certifications. Sure, they'll help you get a job if you're already a candidate, but they won't help you if the job thinks you're unqualified. If you want certs, get your new employer to pay for them. They're not cheap.

By far, the two easiest jobs to get are web programmer and support. The job you want if you want to get into either a Network Analyst or Systems Analsyt jobs is a support job for a big company that has a big systems department -- good choices might be a bank or other financial institution, a university, a biotech company (where your background would be helpful...) or something similar. Shit, if you don't mind leaving NYC, I've got a job for you down here in south-central texas. We're having a bitch of a time finding people...

Whatever you do, don't work for a company like Stream that outsources tech support. While they hire anyone with a pulse, that's the kiss of death on a resume.

As far as hours go, expect to always be tied to a pager/cell phone. Your skill directly relates to how often you get called in at night to fix something stupid. Do well, and it's not a big deal. I keep 9-5 with an hour for lunch and maybe have to remote in to fix something once a week, and we're still transitioning to doing things 'my way'. (I'm a linux sysadmin -- Systems Analyst II is my actual title -- for a big research university.) Salary, I can't speak to in NYC, but around here don't take anything under $35k/yr -- look up a comparable cost of living from my area to yours.

And no, you're not too late or old and your degree really doesn't matter - just that you have one and have the skills.
posted by SpecialK at 12:57 PM on January 4, 2008


This is my first stab at answering a MetaFilter question, so I hope that I can be of some assistance. I work as a software manager in Manhattan. I have a CS degree and several years experience. What I can tell you is that right now the market for talented IT professionals is very, very strong. I would suggest diving into a junior position, learning as you go, and studying for the CCNA. It's a good one to have, but MCSE is very valuable too, especially if you're interested in working for large companies.

That said, talent and ability are worth so much more than certs. No question. When I hire tech people, I take note of their degrees and certificates, but I care much more about how they respond to my direct questions about their experience and their knowledge.

And no, you're not too old or too late.
posted by netaustin at 12:58 PM on January 4, 2008


Addendum: I'd say $45k a year for NYC to start. If you're talented, that will ramp up fairly quickly. Web Programmer is a fairly easy job to get at $45k, but don't take it unless you're serious about wanting to be a better programmer (for the sake of people who do my job, please!). Support is OK too, but I'm not sure the upwards trajectory is quite so good. If you're a programmer, you can quickly earn much more based on your ability to produce high quality code.
posted by netaustin at 1:02 PM on January 4, 2008


I interview for good people (personality being a fit, that is) with aptitude first and skills second. If your skills are lacking but your aptitude is high, we'll hire into a junior position and go from there - I'd much rather do that than hire a super-talented egomaniac that won't play nicely with our team.
posted by kcm at 1:06 PM on January 4, 2008


If you're not fixed on more traditional IT/systems stuff, a biology background can really help someone trying to get into bioinformatics. Looking into things that overlap both technology and medicine might be the best way to leverage the degree/experience you've got, while still moving towards what you want to do.
posted by Nelsormensch at 1:07 PM on January 4, 2008


25 to old? Argh. Makes me feel old. I entered the IT field at 24 by landing a basic Help Desk job and working my way up. Not much experience and no schooling other than being a vocational school dropout (I feel I was a born geek who started working with computers in the 80's as a hobby and the vocactional school I went to seemed a waste of money considering I knew most of what was being taught).

In my opinion the IT field is too swamped with available workers with plenty of education and job experience fighting for the same job. Over the years I had to compete with people with Masters degrees in IT for a job that requires nothing but experience. Luckily, I entered the IT field prior to the dot com phase.

These days I would seriously consider looking at work in Network Security which is a high demand career choice, but if you really want to consider a networking career, take some A+ tests, the CCNA or Microsoft Certification tests or else try to find employment that would give you some type of IT experience (Geek Squad, Level I or II help desk) and work your way up.

The salary/hours/work environment will really depend on the specific job you are looking at. Personally, working as a network support person sucks for some jobs because you are usually on call during weekend hours, some people get burnt out on help desk work after a few months and you don't always get chances to advance.

Starting off with a basic help desk job might include having a employer pay for further training in advanced topics and also gives you a great introduction to what life would be like.

If you like fixing computers, put a ad in local papers, craiglists, or tell your friends and family to start advertising for you by telling co-workers, small business about your skills. You can certainly make more money this way than working for the Geek Squad (experienced speaking here).

Good luck!
posted by randomthoughts at 1:45 PM on January 4, 2008 [1 favorite]


How feasible is it to get into the field with no directly related experience?

This is very doable, but be prepared to start off with less glamorous jobs getting your foot into the industry. You may find yourself lucking out greatly acting as a resident tech at a small business however (where you could pretty much name your title for resume purposes). Abiet the pay won't be that great at first most likely.

Is the CCNA the best certification to get?

There's lots of certs out there, just pick out ones you think you would enjoy pursusing or ones you think could help satisfy requirements for a position you're interested in. This guide may help. Certs are also helpful if you don't have much experience in the field. Employers do give them weight either way.

Are there other certs that are more practical to the real world/respected by employers and those in the field?

You're going to get mixed results on a MCSE, which is a track of certifications that end up costing a bit of money. Same goes for a CCIE (which is the big brother of a CCNA and is very difficult to obtain). I would start small...things like A+, Network+, MCP, maybe a linux cert or two. Starting off you really don't want to invest too much time and money on certs until you've got a foot in...this way you can guage your career better and get the certs that count (plus there's the possibilty of the employer helping out).

Is the job market stable? What kind of salary, hours, and life should I expect?

You should research this on monster.com or dice.com a bit to see what it is like in NYC as well as in areas around it. For example...where I live, I'm doing a job that could pay 20k or more a year if it was in a different area (of course COL factors in a little). If you're doing callcenter work expect normal hours...contractual or on call work is not uncommon however, and can involve nights, weekends, and traveling. (Systems Admin as well....really research the nature of that kind of job before you consider it though...some would say they'd never wish that fate on a human being...a lot is funny exaggeration though).

Am i to late/old? Should I give up and become a bum?

Yes :P Just kidding, you'll do fine, just keep in mind that lots of the bigger companies like to soak up fresh college grads. What will work to your advantage is building a year or two of experience, which can make you an ideal, more mature candidate. Speaking of college, never rule out your local university for job opportunities, which can sometimes help out with tuition costs (more valuable than certs). You essentially want to build a resume that involves tech stuff ASAP.
posted by samsara at 1:55 PM on January 4, 2008


Computers as a hobby rarely relates to much beyond a Helpdesk poistion. You'd be likely starting at the bottom regardless of how skilled you may really be.

Also, keep in mind that working with computers daily is a good way to get burned out on computers as a hobby. My "tinkering" at home has decreased with every increase in work responsibilty.
posted by madajb at 3:29 PM on January 4, 2008


"Also, keep in mind that working with computers daily is a good way to get burned out on computers as a hobby. My "tinkering" at home has decreased with every increase in work responsibilty."

Well, do you at least feel like your knowledge has increased? Do you enjoy your work?

"If you like fixing computers, put a ad in local papers, craiglists, or tell your friends and family to start advertising for you by telling co-workers, small business about your skills. You can certainly make more money this way than working for the Geek Squad (experienced speaking here)."

Its definitely not a bad idea, but things like health insurance and stability are important.

"If you're not fixed on more traditional IT/systems stuff, a biology background can really help someone trying to get into bioinformatics. "

That does sound interesting. I will definitely look into it.

Thanks for all the input people! So far its sounding entirely possible, though that doesn't diminish the fear.
posted by rosswald at 5:36 PM on January 4, 2008


Well, do you at least feel like your knowledge has increased? Do you enjoy your work?

I'm in the same boat as madajb. I do high-level Windows desktop support for almost 1000 people. I am the *whole* A-Team (If you have a problem and the help desk is a bunch of brain dead idiots and local support says "Not my problem," maybe you can find... me.) I used to tinker a lot. Multi-box home networks, the whole shebang. But after about ten years in IT I want to cry if my home PC flakes. I'm off the clock, dammit!!!

I know a shitload more than when I started and while I don't like getting up to go to work, I love the people I support once I get there. It's hard not to feel at least a little good after nine hours of people saying, "Thank God you're the one who showed up!!!" Of course, I'm face-to-face in user's offices. If you're wanting a job in the IT Cave and don't like dealing with users directly your experience will be different.

I had dreams of network admining once. That didn't happen but I found my way into an IT job I really like. The only downside is the constant outsourcing.

Also, I didn't get started in IT until I was 26, so you're fine there. And I have an English degree 'fer chrissakes.
posted by Cyrano at 7:49 PM on January 4, 2008


madajb: Also, keep in mind that working with computers daily is a good way to get burned out on computers as a hobby. My "tinkering" at home has decreased with every increase in work responsibilty.

rosswald: Well, do you at least feel like your knowledge has increased? Do you enjoy your work?

Like cyrano, I know way more than when I started. Hell, I came into this job that I'm in now as the hotshot, and I've learned way more from the junior person that I work with.

What I had to do was move around a bit until I found a role I liked. My role started out as HTML monkey, but that's boring these days. Then I moved into web programming and got burnt out. I really like web programming, but it's something that I *have* to do on my own time when I feel like doing it -- it's not something that I can do with a gun held to my head on a deadline.

What turned out to be the right role for me is being a systems operator / engineer / analyst. I basically point the department I'm a part of in the right direction and start kicking until it moves. I handle more of the strategic architecture, the guy that I work with fits in better as a day-to-day admin guy with some user support duties. Mentally, I'm a better communicator and big-picture thinker than he is. He can focus on the pedantic for hours and chase down a bug I would've blown off unless it repeated itself. I identify machines that need to go away and kick people until they move things off the machine to various places, he traces the bugs that the moves create. Works out well.

You'll find your niche, but be prepared for a few years of hunting around before you do. Whatever the case may be, you are NOT too old to make a change, and you are NEVER EVER too old to redefine yourself and chase something different.
posted by SpecialK at 8:44 PM on January 4, 2008


Oh yeah, and I've got a business degree with a focus in Logistics, and the best programmer I ever hired had a dual degree in Religion and Philosophy from some liberal arts school in CT.
posted by SpecialK at 8:50 PM on January 4, 2008


thanks everyone!
posted by rosswald at 12:40 PM on January 5, 2008


A little late, but still wanted to chime in. Can't comment specifically about IT career changes (although I think the poster would be super suited for it!), but I'm also considering a career change right now and I've been reading a book that I had always thought was going to be really square but has actually been really helpful: "What color is your parachute?"

It has the perfect mix of 'trying to figure out what you want to do' with 'once you know, this is how to get a job that will make you happy.' It's still a little square, but is a really easy read and something that can be mostly absorbed in a weekend. And it has really changed my perspective about job searching and what it can look like. It's also given me more confidence to try and find a job that will make me happy instead of one that will only pay the bills. It makes it seem really possible to have a job you don't hate.
posted by mosessis at 7:57 PM on January 7, 2008


Another chime late to the party: I recently hired someone who is looking for a career change. He has a Doctorate in another field and is in his early 40s.

He's been fantastic. People who are hungry and curious trump someone who has a specific degree. The way I see it, someone with a degree in a particular field says they can follow instructions. I want someone who takes instructions and can do something extraordinary.

When I introduced him software development tools like source control, he wanted to know how it worked. Telling him "I don't know" is actually a pretty exciting thing. I learned something new as a result.

If your curiosity comes across in a job interview, you have me sold (sure, you have to show aptitude). It tells me you will be better next month and better the month after that. Those are the people I want to hire.
posted by pedantic at 11:40 PM on September 10, 2008


« Older Is there a Bible for liberals?   |   Because I can. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.