Leadership

What kind of background does it take to succeed in IT?

There are all kinds of arguments in favor of degrees in IT and all kinds in favor of learning from the school of hard knocks. Where do you fall in the continuum?

There are all kinds of arguments in favor of degrees in IT and all kinds in favor of learning from the school of hard knocks. Where do you fall in the continuum?

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Every now and then, we like to take a "snapshot" of the TechRepublic audience. Sometimes we use the information we gather to better guide our content -- e.g., whether you work in a large shop or a small one, what operating systems your organization uses, etc.

Sometimes we just ask things to get to know you better (over and above the fact that you have a powerful desire for coffee mugs).

Today, I'd like to gather information in order to better guide some of the folks who e-mail me who are just getting started in IT and ask for direction about what education path to pursue. There's really no set answer to that question. Our audience includes people with computer science degrees, and people who were just thrown into the IT department because of a propensity for technology and the way it works. There are distinct advantages to each kind of background.

So let's get a look at exactly who's out there. Please take a second to complete our education poll below. Also, in the discussion following this blog, feel free to add your opinions about the role of education in IT.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

33 comments
frnw
frnw

having interest in IT

gardoglee
gardoglee

Asking what background it takes to succeed in IT is like asking what background it takes to succeed in having a job. The implication of the question is that IT is some sort of homogenous morass in which everyone needs the same level of background because everyone is doing the smae thing. How dumb is that?

mike.baker.mj
mike.baker.mj

I think it really takes experience to be successful in IT. We are spending just about as much if not more in certifications courses, books and media, than college degrees.

camesc
camesc

I just love it when they say a line like 'let me just check xyz' which should in reality require at least one or two mouse clicks, and yet they type furiously away on the keyboard (do they really know that many shorcuts, honestly)? Secondly, they don't even have a mouse on the desk!!!! ARRRGGHHH!!! Will they ever understand???

jd4001
jd4001

Well, my "education" in IT is pretty limmited. I did a TAFE course several years ago and was lucky enough to land a job with a local health service where I've been the lone system admin for the past few years. Now I don't plan on spending the rest of my life here, but the school of hard knocks didn't give me a diploma to show off so apparently I'll be here for a while. Whether education really matters or not; it actually does.

JandNL
JandNL

"Traditionalists" would insist on a CS or other engineering degree. However, I know very well that although it takes a math/science orientation to really "get into" programming, many of us "liberal arts" people are also computer geeks to some degree, including me. In today's global marketplace, flexibility is crucial!

karen.mattox
karen.mattox

I have a four year degree in electrical engineering, from before there were computer engineering degrees.... Surprised not to see any engineering degrees listed in your poll!

DesD
DesD

Note how many are aware of the necessity for both academic AND hands-on training. I did some of an Accounting degree, lucked into what was supposed to be a part time job in DP (data processing, now called IT) at the very bottom, and never looked back. I learned more accounting while writing accounting software than I ever did at university (but I'm glad I had the basics too) I used self-teach books to acquire RPG, Fortran, PL/I, COBOL and Assembler skills,while operating a mainframe on shift. Nice to have a system to yourself to practice on, even if it was at 2am! Of course, things have gotten more formal since the 60's, but it's my impression that individual attitude and willingness to learn and change is much more important than qualifications per se. Qualifications may get you an interview, but attitude will make you a career. Mine has served me and my family well for over 40 years. Right now my position is about to be "disestablished" in consequence of an outsourcing deal. Having told people for years that there's more work in IT than any of us will ever get thru in 3 lifetimes, it's my turn to prove it once again. The biggest decision facing me now is which of about 5 good options I follow up on when it happens. I'm looking forward to being my own boss again.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

None of it hurts, but of itself , it says very little about whether you will be successful. I would n't recommend no certs and no degree as way to get on the industry now. Has it held me back?. From what, would be my question. I would n't call being near self taught, a trip to academia, or a mass of certs as background in IT. Personally I'd say background was a desire to know the what , how and why of IT. Without that, no conceiveable amount of any education will make you an IT success, though of course you could still be successful in IT. Which is another problem entirely.

jdclyde
jdclyde

Years of experience in different areas, Certs in a few areas, and a BA in network science. It doesn't matter WHAT the employer is looking for, I have it! B-) Well, I won't show some leg, but as for IT skills, covered! :p

NotSoChiGuy
NotSoChiGuy

As others have noted, you really need a good blend of education and experience. Education; to learn what you don't know. Experience; to know what you know. Education can also be derived from experience, and doesn't necessarily have to come from a formal institution (though, it helps get past the HR types). To that last point, I think this is why you routinely see people with loads of experience outperform "young pups" fresh from school/cert mills. They know IT, the fresh faces think they know IT. Huge difference. I also think the greatest skill that one can acquire for IT (be it from formal education or from hard knocks) is critical thinking/reasoning. If you have the ability to analyze a problem from multiple angles, and really consider the 5 W's, you have a leg up on most.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I have a 2-year degree in IT and a 4-year in business management. No certs. While working on the 2-year I had a part-time job in the college's computer lab.

tom.harney
tom.harney

I found that my work experience, I worked full-time while attending college full-time, gave me an edge over my peers. I would have to agree with the first comment, it's the right mix of education AND experience.

Doug Vitale
Doug Vitale

More so than in other fields, information technology proficiency places a heavy emphasis on real word experience (street smarts) versus classroom education and certifications (book smarts). As a result, newcomers to the industry who may have a degree and/or certifications are handicapped against the veterans when replying to job opening advertisements. To counter this trend, it is very important for IT students to do technical work (whether real jobs or internships) while they are undergoing their formal education. Then when they have graduated and are writing their resumes, they will have something relevant to put under the "Experience" heading. I learned this lesson the hard way when I graduated with a degree in computer networking but no relevant work experience. It took me over six months to get an interview, and I was luck enough to get the job. I have heard of others like me who needed a year or more to find a suitable position. One benefit of this long jobless period was that it left me plenty of time to embark on my self-education which led me to acquire certifications from CompTIA, Cisco, and Microsoft. As a matter of fact, in my first and subsequent IT jobs, the knowledge I utilized came almost exclusively from my own training for certifications as opposed to my formal schooling. Some IT professionals like to bash certifications as being almost insignificant compared to real world experience (I would wager that these individuals have no certifications themselves and are uneasy about certified techies outshining them in the eyes of IT management and hirting personnel, but that is a different story). On the contrary, I feel that studying for certifications is an EXCELLENT way to lay a rock solid foundation for real world knowledge that you will acquire as you face the day-to-day challenges of making intricate networks with multiple applications work to suit the business requirements of your employer/client.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Formal education and certs is no longer considered an optional extra. They are a pre-requisite. Don't worry about moving on by the way. I did it. There are those who value experience more than bits of paper, generally they are much more rewarding, bother personally and professionally than the academic nazis. Thay are a bit harder to find. Course if you could get that bit of paper part time, correspondance etc, it's not going to hurt.

Tink!
Tink!

Being that I was artistic and creative most of my life, I came to the conclusion that having an artistic brain can help immensely when applying it to technical stuff. Hardware especially. I had no idea I was even interested in tech stuff until I started working in the office environment. Then I sort of stumbled on the fact that I had a knack for fixing printers, copiers and etc. The software and other computer stuff I learned on the job. As well as the technical phone stuff. Mathematics helps in the programming area.

ITCompGuy
ITCompGuy

I started off in IT with an Associates Degree in IT from a technical college. This degree was enough to get me into my first lower level IT position without any certifications. I have since aquired lots of experience working for corporate IT and local government IT. In the meantime, I also picked up my Bachelor Degree in IT. I still do not have any cerifications, but have found that quality experience + education = many job opportunities.

mvpatrick
mvpatrick

I have a 4-yr degree in Mathematics and Statistics. However, both included a heavy concentration of computers and technology as well. Once I had obtained 5 - 7 years of experience I began to obtain various certifications to help with furthering my education. I feel that a good education together with real-world experience is the best method. IMHO.

GSG
GSG

Someone finally said it... Critical thinking. I know some really intelligent people, who can't think their way out of a paper bag with a map. They are intelligent, and they know their subject, but they don't have the skill to work through a problem logically, step-by-step. Those are the people who don't succeed. They are what we call "monkeys". They do the steps without really understanding why and how it all ties together.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Applying what you've learnt even better. Worried about being outshone, nah. No degree and no certs (as in the exams). Not a route I'd recommend nowadays, for any budding professionals. The right mix is the one that works. Your's mine, whoever's. Course most of my work is programming, which is a bit more isoltated from tools and environments, than what you do. Don't get too tied up in the right way, there are those that worked, and those that don't.

schreck.ryan
schreck.ryan

I would say get a formal eduction then use the certifications to specialize in something like .NET or Oracle, that combination gives you the ability to market yourself.

Tink!
Tink!

Definitely need the right mix of education and experience. Of course what the RIGHT MIX is depends on what kind of job you're going into. For the more in depth jobs where you're handling lots of technical issues with larger or more complicated networks or systems, then you'll need more education/certification. Plus some experience. For the small-timers where you're just handling basic networks and systems for smaller companies, than experience probably outweighs education big-time. In those jobs you can learn alot of what you need to as you go. Plus much of what you need to know will come up as a problem not already taught in the classroom.

kilbey1
kilbey1

If I knew then what I know now, having gone through much of the same things you express, I would say IT certifications are NOT that valuable. Having been in the technical industry 14 years now, I still have no certification to my name. I would instead suggest volunteer work...meaning, volunteer to pick up a minor project, or work on something off-hours to show that a. you are willing to take on other tasks, b. build up your experience and salability, and c. improve your flexibility. Look for opportunities if none exist; is the admin assistant frustrated by having to remember all her passwords? How about developing a simple database system that would allow folks to store all her passwords and pull them up on 1 page after logging in? Just tossing out an idea there, but I think you get what I mean. I do not disagree that a person can use downtime to improve oneself. If you can do that, go for it. But having 100 certifications doesn't necessarily mean you can apply what you know. I used to be frustrated with the fact that I had no experience with such and such, so nobody would hire me, but how could I get experience if nobody hired me? The idea is to learn other skills while doing what you're doing so you can sell yourself and show employers you have transferable skills. You can gain those transferable skills by volunteering for something you know you would like to do in the future.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

or admin. Otheriwse you just run into HR. So you don't know any php and Mysql? What's the point of sayng get a formal education nowadays?. Without it, excpet for trying your own business you won't get to base 1. You might as well say, first you should learn to read and write! Which versions of Oracle and .NET by the way?

jdclyde
jdclyde

is to be working in the general field first, even if it is not in the position you wish to end up at. I went through the Cisco Academy, but was the only one working in the field at the time. There were some really smart people in the class that got GREAT grades, but still didn't "get it" for the actual hands-on design because they had never actually worked through the problems to understand it. I got a lot more real knowledge out of my degree because I could relate what I was learning to what I was doing. It was explaining WHY I was doing what I was doing, and filling in a lot of the blanks that self-taught people miss. I personally got my 2year, then got some certs, then got the BA. Going back and fourth kept me from getting TO burnt out on one set of educational formats.

squirrelonfire
squirrelonfire

The company hired me as a Help Desk simply because I was fresh out of college and have some certifications along with high GPA. My co-worker also told me that he picked me because he knew I won't be quitting this job anytime soon. So yes, you just need to find the right company that appreciates who you are, no matter who you are. Some company might need a very experienced IT employee, my company needed an inexperienced IT instead, how interesting.

ITCompGuy
ITCompGuy

I agree with Tink. Real world experience will outweigh most cerifications (except for the higher level Cisco/Microsoft ones). How many people have seen an MS Exchange server go down and have to recover from it? This is something that can be taught in theory but there is no replacement for the real thing!

yalmonte
yalmonte

OMG!!! The journey to become part of IT has been a frustrating one for me. I have done everything to become an IT professional and it was not until the last 2 years that I got hire in the IT dept. where I work now. I have met many people that had no education in computers nor were looking to work in IT and they got the job without even asking for it. I have paid so much money to get certified, but nobody wants to give the admin job because of my little experienced. IT SUCKS!!!

sidekick
sidekick

I started out with an A.S. and a Unix certificate. Later on I got my MCSA through a boot camp. Now, I am working on my B.S. after 8 years of being in IT. What it comes down to is what you know. If you learn better by figuring it out as you go, great. If you are better off in a formal class, fine. Personally, I found school to be a great starting point, but I have learned a lot since then. I also found studying for a cert to be a great way to learn. I also found a class setting to be more beneficial after getting some experience as it is easier to see how your new knowledge can be applied, making it more meaningful. I think using both approaches together allows one to reinforce the other.

LColville
LColville

You need to take some English grammar and writing classes. If you cannot write an entire paragraph correctly with the verbs in the correct case, you will never get past the Human Resources (HR) department. The HR department screens out candidates before the hiring manager ever sees them.

schreck.ryan
schreck.ryan

I would definitely agree with you saigman, your people skills will take you farther than any technical skills. Especially if you know how to persuade your upper management.

NotSoChiGuy
NotSoChiGuy

....will almost always trump what you know. You're in IT now, at least. Get some experience under your belt, and prepare for the next position you want. If your current position doesn't afford you the opportunity to hone the skills, volunteer. You'd be surprised at how much experience you can gain by doing some side work for charity. On the whole, though, the value in certs is only realized if your employer/potential employer/desired employer is looking for them; or you gained some sense of achievement .

tsheehan
tsheehan

Being in management when I look at a resume it is nice to see a certification or two. When reviewing a resume to fill a position I look at certifications, education, then experience, in that order. I do so because certifications tell me the person has a foundation that can be built on; education tells me the person values knowledge and is looking to be successful; and experience helps me understand what they enjoy doing and how long they've been doing it. Not having all three typically puts a person in the no pile; of course there are always exceptions. I believe that those of you who do not have any one of these three will disagree with me but after you get them I?m fairly confident that you will change your mind, just as I did. Thanks, Tony