Switching IT gears: It's easier than you think

Don't like what you're doing? In this Tech Watch, columnist Bob Weinstein writes about two IT pros who changed jobs and jump-started their careers. What can you learn from their experiences? A lot.

Twenty-five years ago, Richard Donofrio never would have guessed he would swerve from programming into technical sales. And Allyn Barnett couldn’t have imagined abandoning programming to manage—of all things—a help desk.

But both men say the changes have reinvigorated their careers.

Donofrio, 53, is a sales representative at Internet consulting company dcVAST in Downers Grove, IL, and Barnett, 49, is dcVAST’s one-person customer support department. (Donofrio holds a degree in industrial engineering and Barnett has a degree in electrical engineering and computer science.)

What made them change career direction?

Sometimes a change will do you good
From a programming job at McDonnell Douglas, Donofrio slowly gravitated toward technical sales with stops at a company selling time-shares, working as a salesperson for a graphic package software maker, and a short stay at Sun Microsystems selling workstations. Finally, he took his present job where he made a total commitment to being a salesman.

Like most techies, he bought the stereotype that all salespeople were hustlers. But by going out on calls with salespeople, Donofrio found that hustler image to be far from the truth. He also discovered his technical background gave him an edge because he understood how things worked.

Barnett, on the other hand, left his job managing device drivers after the position lost its allure. What once fired up his adrenaline became humdrum.

“I learned a lot about systems administration so I could set up my test environment, but the job was also frustrating,” Barnett said. Most disheartening was having to spend countless hours on a project only to have it abandoned months later by management.

It was time for a change.

By process of elimination, Barnett found a new career direction. Sales didn’t appeal to him, and he didn’t want to spend a good chunk of his time on the road.

After working as a developer for many years, the thought of another programming job turned him off. When an acquaintance told him about a job opening in dcVAST staffing the support desk, he was intrigued.

“Everyone I knew thought it was a step down,” Barnett says. “The perception of working the help desk is that it’s little more than an entry level job.”

That wasn’t the case at dcVAST. It was a newly created position, which meant Barnett would be the help desk. The job carried a lot of responsibility because it meant solving all customer problems. And the problems were anything but simple.

Barnett’s help desk job demanded someone with several years of IT experience, plus a working knowledge of programming and Internet technology. Barnett was perfectly qualified.

“I love the job because of the variety of problems I get to solve,” he said. “Some calls can be answered in five minutes; others require hours of research.”

The best part is that when Barnett goes home at the end of the day, he feels like he’s accomplished something.

Ready, set, change
Few people start out thinking they’re going to one day make a radical career change, observes Ben Slick, president and CEO of the San Jose, CA-based Internet search firm PeopleScape. But inertia, apathy, boredom, money, and simply the need to do something different drives them toward a career change.

Thanks to an incredible job market combined with the hottest tech job market ever, career-changing is a lot easier than it was in the 1980s. Still, both Donofrio and Barnett say a career change requires careful planning.

Donofrio advises “test-driving a career change so you can see if you like it.”

Slick strongly advises finding mentors who can guide you through the change. Don’t expect instant results. Depending upon the type of change, it could take several years.

“If you go too afield of your expertise, you will in all likelihood need to start over,” Slick said. “This is a bitter pill for some to swallow.”

Barnett’s advice? Along with finding work you enjoy, he suggests finding an organization in which you feel comfortable: “The people you work with and the culture of an organization are as important as your job.”
Have you made a radical career change in the past few years? Why did you leave your past job? Was it worth it? Share your experiences with TechRepublic by sending us an e-mail or by posting a comment below.

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