I didn't know what I didn't know about IT.
July 9, 2008 11:20 AM   Subscribe

I'm an entry-level computer technician looking for advice on what skills are most vital for me in today's market, and how to best achieve them. Specifically, I would like to know what hands-on classes I should look into in the Nashville, TN area.

This is a bit long, but anyone who will take the time to read it and answer will be greatly appreciated.

I'll give just a touch of background: My very first AskMeFi question was a little over a year ago, about how to get an IT security job and work my way up the ladder. At the time I posted it, I was 19, stubborn, cocky, and a know-it-all. Today I am 21 and still stubborn, but I realize now that I was not the computer genius I thought I was then.

Cutting that intervening period short, I will say that I was extremely blessed with an entry-level computer technician job for a great company that I am loving. Because this job has helped me understand the things about IT that I don't know, I'm looking to expand my knowledge further. Being around great guys who know what they're doing is helping already, but there's just not time enough for them to sit me down and train me on what they do, and I wouldn't want to put them through that.

So I'm looking for help. The main questions I have are essentially "what should I be learning to make myself a more valuable employee?" and "what is the best way for me to learn those skills that fits in with my learning style?" I know these are both pretty general, so I will outline a few things to help narrow it down.

I have been using and fixing PCs since I can remember, and I am very comfortable with Windows as a desktop/workstation OS and the user-facing layers of OS X. At my job, we use an infrastructure mainly based on Windows Server 2003 and Active Directory, with some Linux and UNIX server here and there for various purposes. I have been able to handle my basic support tickets very well, but when any of my co-workers discuss servers and network structure and things of that nature, most of it goes over my head. I'm picking up bits and pieces.

So basically I have a foundation that would probably equate to an A+ certification and maybe a little more than that. I have had some hands-on training for the MCP MDST certification, although I never took the test. I have very little experience with UNIX; I know some very basic commands, and that's it.

So where do I begin? I am not a very good book learner, but I can discipline myself if it is important enough. I am really looking for hands-on or classroom training if possible. Please don't recommend I get a degree. I don't want to be short-sighted, but I have neither the time nor the money to pursue a degree with a university at this point. My company will pay $2500 per year for classes or training, but I may be able to get more if the training would be exceptionally valuable to me. I don't plan on leaving the company I work for now anytime soon, but I want to take on more responsibilities and be able to perform tasks myself that I now have to go to my co-workers for.

I have looked into classes, and have found several offerings for rigorous five-day courses in basic Windows Server 2003/AD administration. From reading the description and the coverage areas, I think this would be a good start for me, but I don't want to jump the gun. I also don't know what training facilities or companies are reputable or worth it, so if you have a better recommendation, let me know. As for classes, I am in the Nashville area if that matters.

I am sorry if this was long and a bit scatter-brained, but I am just trying to get all my thoughts out there. Anyone willing to give me a little help would be extremely welcome. Anything you can give is good. Thank you so much in advance.
posted by joshrholloway to Work & Money (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Security, security, security.
posted by fusinski at 11:38 AM on July 9, 2008

Please don't recommend I get a degree. I don't want to be short-sighted, but I have neither the time nor the money to pursue a degree with a university at this point.

Sorry, but you're in field that requires a degree. Plain and simple.

There was a time a decade or two ago where you could rise pretty much endlessly through the IT world on your own "hands-on" experience.

That's not the case anymore.

If you haven't started researching a four-year college program you should start now... you're too young to be going straight into a 40-hour work week career. You need a college education in some flavor of IT.

Why? Because these days you're going to be going up against guys your same age with a degree. You're going to be horribly disadvantaged in the work marketplace and forever relegated as just some "computer guy" setting up hardware for the real employees.

There are endless financial solutions out there for college. If you haven't been beating down the doors of every single admissions office in town you're doing it wrong. When in doubt, go to a two year community college then transfer.

Good luck.
posted by wfrgms at 11:53 AM on July 9, 2008

From my explorations of security one thing that has become readily apparent to me is that you need at the very least a conceptual (and inevitably at least a limited practical) knowledge of all of the major technologies. Security encompasses everything, so to be effective you need to know what it is you are applying it to and how best to do it. That isn't to say you can't specialize, but more knowledge never hurt anyone.
posted by zennoshinjou at 12:01 PM on July 9, 2008

And by major I mean databases, networking, windows, *nix, etc.
posted by zennoshinjou at 12:02 PM on July 9, 2008

Re-reading your question I can also offer some more general advice- expose yourself to as much as you can so you know what you like. It sounds like you aren't sure what you want to do and there is no magical path to success and riches; if you hate what you do its pointless. There isnt a lot of point to taking the Windows course if you don't like windows administration.
posted by zennoshinjou at 12:07 PM on July 9, 2008

Yeah, I would say security is a pretty big one these days. Also, in my job at a 400+ employee government agency, I find myself wishing I had a better working knowledge of the networking infrastructure often. Understanding the multiple layers, and how they refer and rely on each other would be a real asset to any troubleshooting you do, given how many places are moving to centralized apps. So, security and the network is rides on really.

The one thing that I think has helped me in my career is the time I spent working within many layers of the IT infrastructure. I've done pure desk side support, right up to domain administration, often with the benefit on NOT having to be THE expert on any one thing. At this point, I can troubleshoot from the top to the bottom, sometimes having to call in the "experts" from certain areas to answer questions I can't.

So, I would suggest that you make sure you don't shy away from any level of support that is asked of you at an early stage in your career. And learn networking structures.
posted by Richat at 12:25 PM on July 9, 2008

Ditto on the get-a-degree route. I manage a group of GIS-oriented IT folks (in Nashville), some of whom have degrees in their field, some of whom have degrees in other fields. While it's true that you don't have to have a degree to be effective in IT, it is also true that 99% of your competition does have that extra piece of paper. If faced with 2 candidates of equal technical qualifications, I will almost always hire the one with the degree. There are other things you learn in college or as part of a similar degree program -- intangibles associated with personal interaction, deadline-driven time management, and a view into alternate paths, at the very least-- that you just won't get if you go straight into the workforce.

With the continuing influx of recent grads from this and other countries, it is very difficult to set yourself apart from your competition. People who have proven their willingness & determination to see something like that through will always have an advantage in a (traditional corporate) hiring situation over their peers who have not, particularly in a market where there is more available talent than there are properly-fitting slots, which is definitely the case in many places (including Nashville).

That said, I know plenty of folks in several states who have worked in IT with no degree, but they generally do not hire in at the same pay rate, nor do they go as far up the corporate ladder (which was one of your stated goals).
posted by dontrockwobble at 12:30 PM on July 9, 2008

"Sorry, but you're in field that requires a degree. Plain and simple." - wfrgms

I dont know that i would agree with that. I'm 35yrs old, just picked up a 2nd full time job (that pays $5 more per hour than my primary full time job). So effectively I've just doubled my salary and I never set foot in a college.

Granted, having a degree might get you further-faster, but IMHO having a degree is no replacement for real-world experience. I've seen plenty of graduates or techs with certifications that couldnt troubleshoot there way out of a paper bag. (of course the converse is also true, I've seen plenty of experienced people without degrees who couldnt either)

The thing that you want to show on your resume is "results". Whether that means dedication through enough schooling to get a degree, or impressive hobby projects/coding that became popular or solved some companies problem. Degree or not, what employers want to see is that you have ninja-like troubleshooting skills, can come up with resourceful creative solutions and have a passion for what you do.
posted by jmnugent at 12:41 PM on July 9, 2008

Best answer: It will help you immensely to learn networking. And by networking I mean TCP/IP, routing, switching, etc. If you can get your company to send you to training, I highly recommend Global Knowledge's Understanding Networking Fundamentals course (link).
posted by pmbuko at 1:19 PM on July 9, 2008

A technical or related degree certainly isn't required to work in IT. A degree of some kind will be necessary if you want to work at most large companies/government, but sufficient work experience will often compensate for this (to a point). There is a tradeoff to working in those environments of course, more bureaucracy, more red tape, more politics and more bosses. In exchange you get more money, often a lot more money.

Disclaimer: I'm a Linux sysadmin and I Don't Do Windows so my advice is massively biased. I've found classes to be mostly a waste of time and certifications are only generally useful for getting you past HR's checklist. Note that HR 1) existing and 2) having a checklist tells you quite a bit about the company. Especially in IT the interview process is rife with opportunities to determine if you hate the place before you've wasted six months there.

The single most important route to mastery in any sphere of IT is hands-on experience, and the best way to get that is to break things. Find some old computers, pick a Unix distro that looks promising (roughly in order of professional applicability: RHEL/CentOS, Solaris, FreeBSD, Debian/Ubuntu, slackware, AIX/HPUX/other hard-to-find ones) and set it up to do something. Serve files (samba), serve web pages (apache), serve databases (mysql/postgresql), whatever. It's best if you can find a task that you can actually use (and properly evaluate success) like serving MP3s or something so you're motivated to fix it when it breaks. Get comfortable with everything you can experiment with for free, software RAID, LVM, selinux/apparmor, NFS, ZFS if you're brave, iSCSI if you're really brave, LDAP, postfix, etc. Learning the basics of C and Bash are key even if you have to hit google for syntax reminders. You have to learn Vi. Fortunately this is all free to play with if you've got time.

Knowing networks is very handy too. Unfortunately the equipment gets expensive fast. You can emulate basically every product that Cisco makes with GNS3 provided you can find the IOS images it needs which are illegal unless you're a customer of Cisco. Ahem. Do at least know the basics of CIDR, roughly how TCP/IP works, roughly how DNS works and if you're really unlucky, roughly how SMTP doesn't work.

Taking a job where your on-paper duties are below your skill level and attaching yourself to your smartest superior works for a while, but if you're like me it gets old fast. Finding blogs about things you're interested in is helpful too, places like reddit and slashdot can help point you in that direction. Anyway I'm happy to elaborate on any of this if asked.
posted by Skorgu at 1:24 PM on July 9, 2008

If you're only 21, I've got to repeat the advice of work on a degree - at least part time. You can start the first two years at an inexpensive community college. The degree does not have to necessarily be related to computer science or even IT (hell, if you go the community college route, pick up some welding skills while you're there). While you can still get in and do well without one, in some cases you are totally screwed without it - especially at big companies. My employer was purchased by a larger company, which then put in place its HR policies, which basically says, no degree, no hire. Old employees were grandfathered in, but here's the catch - they cannot be promoted to a title that requires a degree. One guy I work with got totally screwed by this - his salary has been stuck in place since the acquisition because he has no degree.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 1:43 PM on July 9, 2008

Last week I had a drink with a former employee who was back in town. A little over a decade ago I hired him out of a lame call center job to help me out in IT at a small company. He was a lot like you then. Young, headstrong, did feel like he was a fit for college. He worked for me for a year and a half, did a great job, and then went off to take a job in the Bay Area.

These days, he's still in IT, a manager at Motorola. Works from home, except for when he travels, but one of the things he made a point of telling me is that he ended up finishing up his degree. He needed it to get promoted past a certain point, plus the company paid for it. He ended up going on to get a masters.

I'd guess you'll hit the same point in a few years, so seriously consider getting a head-start and putting your training money towards something that counts to a degree. These days a lot of 4 year public universities have classes that are very focused on practical skills.

Until then, ask these great guys you work with what they think is important, and then ask them how they learned it. Talk to your supervisor about the possibility that some of your work time gets carved out to help with projects.

In particular I'd suggest learning something about networking. Coming to an understanding of the OSI reference model isn't a bad bet. To make it easy, look at it from the point of view of a few activities you like on the web. Understanding abstractly how the process of looking at a web page works will cover a lot of territory. Another good one might be considering how a convo over VoIP works is also good. Throw a Firewall + NAT in for good measure.

A basic understanding of SQL and relational databases is also a good thing to have, at least as far as doing joins between a couple of properly partitioned tables.

Some practical understanding of project management basics is good.
posted by Good Brain at 9:50 PM on July 9, 2008

My advice is, specialise in something that is hot, learn it inside out, but also be a generalist. Keep an eye on the industry and upcoming technologies and trends.

I have been in IT infrastructure for 18 years. I have worked for several of the big vendors. I am now a technical architect for a large multi-national financial organisation, making key decsions regarding the infrastructure for the Asia Pacific region.

I don't have any kind of degree or even any industry certification. I was very lucky to get in before having a degree or certification became important. Now I get by on my experience and reputation.

When I started, it was all mainframe. But I was very interested in computers and networking in general. I kept abreast of what was happening with *nix and PCs and networking, despite the fact that at work, the company only had mainframes.

When I was given the chance to move out of "mainframe operations" (which was basically like being a 24 hour system watchdog), and specialise, I chose "storage management". Yep, disk and tape - all mainframe.

It was seen by many as the more boring choice, but I could see potential. I knew that "open systems" (ie - UNIX, Linux, Windows) were about to start hitting corporate data centres.

They sure did. Suddenly SANs (Storage Area Networks) burst onto the scene, and we were dealing with hundreds of Solaris and HPUX servers, rather than 2 or 3 mainframes.

My advantage over my mainframe colleagues at that time was that I knew the difference between a switch and a hub. I understood "client/server". I knew what a driver was. I knew what an IP address is, and what DNS does.

My colleagues were very knowledgeable storage specialists, but only in the mainframe world. They were completely lost when it came to "open systems".

I have tried to maintain that edge all these years by keeping abreast of what is going on in the IT world OTHER than my specialty. And it has worked. I am the go-to man when it comes to any new storage-related technology, because it usually involves something my colleagues have only very vague ideas about (at the moment, 10GbE, iSCSI, FCoE, SAAS, virtualisation, global clustering, etc).

I know the specific things I have mentioned here will make many people go "pffft... that is simple". But it wasn't at the time. It was all new and cutting-edge. It is just my example. I'm not saying specialise in storage. Sure, there is a need for skilled people, but realistically, as soon as the vendors manage to get their act together, the "storage specialist" role will become redundant. Try to look at the current situation. Security is certainly hot, and will be for quite some time. There's also virtualisation, clustering, provisioning, ... hell, even data centre/rack space management.

So in summary, specialise in something, but keep on top of the other stuff that is coming up, because the IT industry is very fluid. Everything is constantly changing.

Try to maintain an interest in all things IT. And when you're at the lower "entry level", let people know that you are interested in other stuff, and that you aspire to move up the technical food chain.

Saying to someone "Do you mind if I look over your shoulder while you do that?" can work wonders. Some will tell you to sod off, but others will be more than happy to show you what they are doing, and they will take note that you are showing an interest outside your normal duties. I do.... I've been there.
posted by Diag at 3:23 AM on July 10, 2008

At the time I posted it, I was 19, stubborn, cocky, and a know-it-all. Today I am 21 and still stubborn, but I realize now that I was not the computer genius I thought I was then.

From a long term career perspective, 21 is still very young and you've got all the time in the world. Go back to get your degree and be the computer genius that you've always wanted to be.

I'm not American but I know that the cost of tertiary education is quite expensive there. However I believe that if you really really want to continue studying, you will find a way (part time is the obvious answer).

Or you could always study in other countries. I would say that even a degree from one of the decent universities in India is still better than no degree at all.
posted by joewandy at 3:38 AM on July 10, 2008

Education, Education, Education!!!

First off, the most valuable thing you can work on in todays job market is a college degree. Look at these statistics comparing Salary and Education. (The data may be a little old, but the principal is the same.) The more education you have, the more your earning potential. Honestly, I feel sorry for young people today who do not get at least get a four year degree. Globalization is putting huge downward pressure on wages in the US, (unless its something that can't be outsourced).

Beyond that, the main thing you can do is simply follow your interests. There is some great advice in this post that I wish I had when I began my career in IT.

Good luck!
posted by purenitrous at 12:30 PM on July 10, 2008

Lots of good answers here.

You don't always need a degree, but I will tell you that nothing feels as good as the day that you walk across that stage for a University graduation. You are 21, you may think college is bullshit, or you don't have the time, but I am telling you, it is worth every sacrifice - drugs, girlfriends, parties, whatever - you can do every bit of it after you graduate. It took me a long time, and I wake up every day and think I have a fucking degree and it feels great.

More to the point, if you really want to stay in the game, you have to love the command line. GUIs are wonderful, fast, but you have to be master of the shell. Learn UNIX. It takes a really long time, but one day, hopefully, it will just click. Get a Mac or some UNIX variant, and do as much as you can with the command line. Shit will break, it will be super-frustrating, and you'll want so badly to just open up the Network wizard and fix your settings but don't do it. 'man ifconfig' and read it. Read the Wikipedia article on the TCP/IP stack - you may not get all of it all at once, but the main thing is persistence and a desire to learn more.

Here's a good online beginner guide.

Think UNIX by Jon Lasser helped me alot.

You also should stay on top of current technologies (Ruby, AJAX, fibre channel, cloud computing, whatever interests you.) Go to MacWorld or the Red Hat Summit and meet smart, fun people like yourself. Sometimes it helps to know that you aren't alone, but that there are thousands of cool people just like you, doing what you do, every day.

Maybe most importantly, leave Microsoft the first opportunity you get. Don't waste your time, money, or reputation with Microsoft certifications. If you walk into a linux shop with MCSE on your resume you'll never hear from them again.

But, follow what you love, and the rest will follow. But I can attest that UNIX will take you further. At least until 2038.
posted by plexi at 7:47 PM on July 22, 2008

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