Do you love being in IT? Don’t you like being challenged to keep up with ever-changing hardware and software options and being the hero that IT people get to be when end user systems work?

If you answered yes, then do your profession a favor: Adopt a protégé. On a regular basis, invite a newcomer to the IT biz to lunch, to a meeting, or to a call with a client. The results will amaze you.
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IT: Not exactly one big happy family
IT people love to bicker about the worth and qualifications of newcomers to IT who have earned “paper” certifications, and you’ll find plenty of compelling opinions in the content and discussion threads here on TechRepublic. Recently, I was struck by a thread on the value of certifications.

In one post, TechRepublic member Brian Lusk suggested that we [in IT] should take a cue from the construction trades. We should establish IT skill levels “similar to Apprentice, Journeyman, Technician, and Master.” (Jump into the thread here.)

Frankly, I’d love to see something like that happen, but I doubt it ever will. The folks who paper-certify their way into IT don’t want to follow IT old-timers around for two or three years before they start making the big bucks the way skilled tradespeople do. Besides, IT people are too busy to get that organized.

The next best thing to apprenticeships
The best IT apprenticeships come from experienced IT people who become mentors for fellow IT professionals with less experience. In addition to sharing your experience, you’ll make professional contacts and friends that you’ll enjoy for the rest of your life. If you’ve never mentored a protégé, here are some tips for getting started:

  • Talk about IT careers. Contact the high schools, vocational schools, and colleges in your area. Volunteer to speak at career day events.
  • Establish a work cooperative program. If you establish a good relationship with the schools, you can get some free or nearly free IT help. All you have to do is convince your company to approve a “co-op” program. You get an extra hand in your shop, and the students get valuable “hands-on” experience.
  • Help a paper MCSE do volunteer work. Recently, I coordinated troubleshooting efforts for a not-for-profit agency that needed some IT help. I recruited an experienced NT guru, and I invited along a newly minted “paper” MCSE who was eager to get his hands dirty on a “real” system. It worked out great. The new MCSE got to visit a client site, talk to the users, and pitch in on tasks, such as installing a network printer and replacing a broken 3.5-inch drive.
  • Adopt an apprentice. I have a thirty-something friend who is pursuing a Java certification as his springboard into an IT career. He has accompanied me on several visits to a consulting client’s office. I’m not paying him, but he has watched and listened during the fact-finding meeting, the meeting where I demoed the software, a follow-up meeting where I addressed client concerns and bug fixes, and the last meeting where I presented my invoice. They don’t teach those kinds of lessons in vocational school.

Mentoring a less experienced IT person takes time, but the results are good for you, the protégé, and for the IT profession in general. To share your experiences with a mentor (or as a mentor), please post a comment below or drop me a note.