Why your love of computers isn't enough to make it in IT

Long-time IT professional and TechRepublic writer Jack Wallen offers advice for overcoming the many challenges IT workers face from long hours to frustrating end users.

Why your love of computers isn't enough to make it in IT Long-time IT professional and TechRepublic writer Jack Wallen offers advice for overcoming the many challenges IT workers face from long hours to frustrating end users.

There are many things to consider when it comes to a career in IT. I sat down with long-time IT professional and TechRepublic writer Jack Wallen to talk about getting in...or out of the IT industry. Below is an edited transcript of our interview.

Karen: So, starting with some of the things, the signs, what do you tell people when they're interested in getting into this? What are the things they really need to be honest with themselves about?

Jack: Well, truth be told, I think a lot of people get into IT because they have a passion for technology. And that's great. You have to have a passion for technology to actually want to do this. But the problem is, is that's not enough. And the reality sinks in fairly quickly, that you think you're going to go into this job and it's going to be awesome because all you're going to be dealing with all day are computers. And most people in IT, we really know how to deal with computers. It's almost like they're our best friends. And the truth of the matter is that you're going to have to deal with so much more than that. And the biggest problem comes in the fact that IT professionals have to deal with people, and people are the biggest hurdle to most IT pros, and that comes in multiple levels.

First and foremost, you're going to have to deal with upper management. You're going to have to deal with CEOs. You're going to have to deal with all of these people who think they know more than you do, when in fact you know they don't. You know they don't, they may or may not. Of course, they probably know more about certain things than you do. But a lot of IT pros, and I'm not knocking anybody, but a lot of IT pros tend to think, that when they hop into the cookie jar, they are the most special cookie in that jar, and they are the brightest cookie in that jar. And it sometimes can be challenging when you have someone telling you what to do.

I always revert back to The Big Bang Theory and Sheldon. It's like that character exemplifies what I'm talking about. He hates to be told that he doesn't know what he's talking about. And when IT pros get into a field, and they go in thinking I'm the big cheese, but then they realize there are a lot of mouses and rats. I said mouses, yes, I'm sorry. A lot of mice and rats in there that are going to nibble at them, it becomes problematic.

And then there are other kinds of people that they have to deal with. They have to deal with end users and end users to IT pros can be, a tsunami of frustration. And the thing about IT is that people have to understand that not everybody has the same level of understanding of technology that they do. That an IT pro can sit down at his desktop machine and via the command line completely reset the networking interface, or do any number of tasks. When they go to talk to the end user, the end user can't do that same task with a GUI. A lot of end users can only do what they are trained to do. And most of the times that is pointing and clicking inside of a web browser. And that is, brings no end of frustration to IT pros.

So you've got to learn how to deal with people on multiple levels, and you've got, and this is important, you've got to be able to do it with patience, and kindness, and care, and those are three things that a lot of IT pros don't have. And that could be a deal-breaker for a lot of people, because what happens is that you may know more than anybody in the company. You may walk in and say I am the king or the queen and everybody else are my subjects. And then you realize that you can't relate to the subjects. And then the subjects start complaining to the CEO of the company, or the manger, your manager, and then all of the sudden you're being dragged into the manager's office to say, "Look, you've got to learn how to deal with people. If you're not, you're not cut out for this." And a lot of, I've talked to so many different people about this same issue, and they tell me, "I know what I'm doing a long as there's a computer screen in front of me. But the second you put a person in front of me, I don't know what to say. I don't know what to do. I don't know what to think, and all I want to do is shove them out of the way and do the work for them," and you can't do that.

You can't do that, and it's frustrating for the people on the other end too. Because they're trying to learn from you. It happens to me at home. It's like my wife will say, "I can't ... this is not working." "Well, give it to me." "No, no, just show me how to do it." I was like, "Yeah, but it will take me two seconds to fix it, and it will take me ten minutes to show you." Then I have to go, okay, she wants me to show her, then okay. "Here's what you do. Tap on this, type this, and" ... And my dad, when he was alive it was the same way. He would call me on the phone, "Hi, my computer's not working." "Okay, let me help you. Okay, click on this and type this." "Now what did you want me to type?" "Type this, type X." "Did you say A?" "No, X." And eventually I would start getting frustrated and I would have to go, I would have to remind myself this is my dad. My dad types with one finger, so telling him to type this long string of commands is an impossibility.

So you have to approach every task with the idea that you're not dealing with a computer, that you're dealing with a human being that doesn't speak the same language as you do. It would be like if you walk, an IT person going into a doctor's office and saying, "Doctor, what's wrong with me?" And the doctor just using doctor speak to tell you what's wrong. You go, "Wait a minute, I don't know what you're talking about. Tell me in layman's terms." Yeah, okay, layman's terms. You have to know how to do that. And if you don't, can't relate to people, or at least talk with them, and help them, this could be very frustrating for you.

See:How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Karen: The hours too, Jack. Talk about that. This is, we're not talking about nine to five.

Jack: No, no, no, no, no. I remember, of course I'm not going to name any names, but I had one computer support job that originally I was hired as a nine to five job. And then, all of the sudden, it became a 8:30 to 6:00 job, and then they approached me to say, "We're going to put you on call for the weekends." I looked at them, I said, "No. Not going to do that." And eventually, I had to leave because I'm not, I'm not going to be, I'm not going to be defined by my phone calling me on the weekends. In fact, they said, "You have to have, you have to record a message on your phone to let them know." So the message I recorded, I was really upset about this, and I recorded a message that basically said, "If you need to leave me a message, do so now. If it's an emergency, scream as loud as you can and I might hear you." Because I'm just, I'm not that person.

I am, eventually, eventually, I had to step away from it completely and do all freelance and things like that, because I am a person that has to be my own boss. And I want to control when I work and how I work. And if you're one of those people, if you feel this compulsion to want to define your schedule, then walk away from IT, because your schedule will be defined by your clients, especially if you're a consultant. Your clients will be calling you day and night, during the week day, during the weekends. When they have a problem, their business has to function. And you are the thing that helps make their business function, and if you can't accept that, then walk away. It's the same thing if it's a corporate job. If you are a member of a IT staff in a corporation, if a server goes down over the weekend, that business still has to function, and it's your job to make sure that that server functions. So you may wind up on Saturday night being dragged away from your D&D game, and there's nothing you can do about it. Otherwise, risk being fired. And that's a big thing to keep in mind, certainly. Because that will come back to haunt you, you know, if ... And one of the things too, I was reading that some people, they get into technology or an IT job because they're in demand, you know obviously. And can make some really great money, but they may not actually love technology. You've got to really love it.

You do. You really do, because one of the issues is that the second you learn something, it's out of date. So you have to be, you have to have a mindset, a constant mindset of needing to always be learning about what's happening in the world of technology. I mean, just look at mobile phones. Each platform is constantly releasing, not constantly, but they're always releasing a new update and sometimes that changes things. And if you look at Android 9, and go wait a minute that's not how Android 8 worked, you have to know how it works. And it's the same thing with Windows, and Linux, and Mac OS. They're always evolving.

And on top of which, and this is where it gets kind of scary, the people that are always trying to break the technology and break into the technology and steal your data, they're never taking a pass on education, they're always ... I don't really mean education, but they're always working day and night to try to figure out new and better ways to break into your network. And if you're not trying to stay one step ahead of them, then you're two steps behind them. And that means you have to be incredibly passionate about this, otherwise that's going to drive you crazy. You're going to be, it'll be like every day waking up going, "I don't want to do this anymore. I can't do this. I don't want to touch another keyboard or look at another screen." And you don't have a choice, unless you change your career path. So if you're not, if you're not one with technology, back away.

Karen: Got to be on your toes with it too, most certainly. Do you find, have you talked to a lot of people that have gotten in, and then have found that they needed to get out for certain reasons like this?

Jack: Oh yeah. It was interesting, this, the article that kind of inspired you to chat with me about this, well after I wrote it, I got bombarded with emails from people saying thank you. They, and most, a lot of them were saying, "I questioned my decision until I read this article, and then I realized that you were right." That's not me, I'm not patting myself on the back, but there are a lot of people out there that get into this for the wrong reasons. They get into this because they see that it's a high demand job, and that there is job security, but they don't realize how demanding the job is on them. And it becomes very apparent, very quickly, how demanding this job is.

And so, six months in, they're questioning their decision. And they're questioning their ability to be able to remain. And the tragic, not tragic part, but the sad part is that in order to get to the point where they're actually getting the jobs, they've had to go through school. They've had to go through four, six, eight years of school to get there. And if you're in college, if you're studying computer science, or computer information systems, or whatever you're studying, if you're in the middle of that going, "Yeah, I don't think I like this", stop. Stop what you're doing, back away from the computer and find another major. Because if you're not liking it in college, where it's easy, you're going to absolutely despise it when you're out in the real world and it's impossibly hard at times.

Karen: Yeah, and to pivot would be difficult sometimes too, once you're out.

Jack: Oh yeah, oh yeah, because you've spent all that time and energy learning all of this technology and it's ... I have had some people come to me to say I can't do this anymore, and I say well, consider freelancing. Consider being a consultant, and pick and choose your clients, and make them know up front I don't do weekends, I don't do nights. You have a problem, you call me during the day and I will be there to fix your problem. But for those people that are, you have trouble with people telling you what to do, consider going on your own, and with the caveat that don't start chasing after corporate clients. If you want to be freelance, look at the mom and pop stores. Look at homes. Because the second you start doing freelance for corporate clients, you're back into the corporate culture, and you're going to be told what to do and you're not going to have a choice. They're going to say, "No, we hired you. You're going to be here on the weekends and fix our server."

Karen: A lot of things to consider, but I think the fact hat you put it out there. Like you said, that people just say, "Oh, he gets it. He's putting it out there." And it makes them really think about the position that they're in, and maybe realizing it's okay to say maybe it isn't going to work for me.

Jack: Right, and that's great. That is a great feeling to go, you know what, I was wrong. But just do it before you're five, six, seven years into it. Because I mean, if you don't ... Most people, you can see it. Most people, when you know they're going to work out in this industry, they come into it out of college and they're excited, they love it. They're working at their desk at six, seven o'clock. It's like go home, go home, go home. You've been here for hours, go home. And they don't want to leave. And you could tell that they love what they're doing and that's great. But if you see people going it's four o'clock, I should be going home now, no.

Karen: So definitely got to look at yourself.

Jack: You do...and where you're comfortable. You do, and I personally, I think everybody needs to do that regardless of what field they're in. You need to take an inventory of who you are, and I know that's hard because most people don't learn who they are until they're in their late 20s, 30s, and you're coming out of college and you don't know who you are. But if, the good thing about it is you do know at least, in college, you can tell if you deal with people well. If you spend all of your time in your dorm room, with a computer, and your only interaction with people is on social networking, then I highly recommend your last two years of college ... or actually your first last three years of college, go out there and start meeting people, and talking with people, and socializing with people and see if you can do that. Because if you can't socialize, if you can't interact with people comfortably, you're going to have a little bit of trouble in this industry.

Karen: Right, yeah. And that's tough once you've invested your time and your education and didn't think. Well I've got to go for it. Jack, its always good to talk with you, and your insight is much appreciated. For Jack's full article, of course, you can read that on TechRepublic.

Jack: Yes, you can.

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By Karen Roby

Karen Roby is a reporter for TechRepublic. Prior to joining CBS Interactive, Karen worked as an anchor and reporter for several CBS affiliate stations owned by Hearst Communications and Gray Television.