Data Management

Continuing education is the key to continued employment

When an IT manager with a limited education asks for help in planning her next career move, career expert Molly Joss offers advice on why more schooling is key to whatever niche this manager chooses.

I am a 44-year-old female IT director at a small company, and I’m worried that I am losing my skills and falling behind in technology. My background is mostly in programming and database administration. I have an Associates degree in computer science and several credits toward an MIS Bachelor of Science degree. I stopped working toward my B.S. when I began a family more than 10 years ago.

I have worked my way up from the bottom of IT for the past 25 years, and I am not sure I want to continue in the management field as I miss programming and database work. Yet, all of my experience is in Progress, a 4GL language that is not commonly used. I don’t know if I should finish my Bachelor's degree or focus on certifications.

First of all, congratulations for recognizing your need to get more education to further your career. That can be a difficult realization for someone in your situation—past 40 and in a good job—particularly if you have never finished a Bachelor's degree. However, you are correct in your hunch that it’s something you’re going to have to find the time and energy to do.

Deciding what to study is going to take some more time. And once you decide, you are going to have to develop a plan so you can get the most done in the shortest amount of time.

You’ve got some choices to make, and, as you mentioned, you don’t have a lot of time to devote to furthering your education.

If you lost your job today, you would find it difficult to find the same kind of job without at least a four-year degree in computer science. While you have a lot of experience, it is mainly focused on two areas and, as you pointed out, your department is small. Those realities, coupled with the lack of a four-year degree, could work against you because your competition would have better credentials than you.

As long as you can keep your job, you’re fine, but should you decide you want to keep moving up the management ladder, you’d still need at least a bachelor’s degree in computer science. To become the IT director at a larger company, you would also need some courses and more experience in management.

If you decide that you would like to move away from management, you should know that you don’t have to do database work again. A lot has changed in the IT world, including databases. Take the time to investigate many other parts of the IT world before you decide on a specialty or two.

Find your niche, then go for it
Since you like project management, you might be interested in networking, telecommunications, and other types of IT work that usually involve large projects. You might also be interested in developing training programs for new or revised products and programs, something that would tap into your project management skills and your management experience.

I suggest you read through some trade journals over the next few months and make a list of IT topic areas that grab your attention. Then, using the journals and the Web, locate some experts and approach them for informational interviews. You could do the interviews via e-mail or the telephone. Your objective is to get an insider’s perspective on that particular niche.

After you have discovered two or three areas of interest, use the Web again to find low-cost, low-time commitment courses on these topics. You will use these courses to learn more and to help you narrow your list down to one or two top choices. Good places to start finding these courses include Brainbench and Computer Education, Training, & Tutorial Resources.

Once you have discovered a subject area that really gets your pulse going, and you have taken a beginning class or two, it’s time to find out what kinds of certifications exist for the topic. You will need training and certifications for the topic you decide to pursue. Here are two Web sites to check: Computer Training Schools and CertCities. Remember, too, that hardware and software companies often list certified training vendors on their Web sites.

Make sure that when you talk to a training vendor, whether it is a college or a technical school, you ask about options for fulltime professionals. Some schools have special programs already in place that offer credit for work experience or accelerated class schedules. Even if the school doesn’t offer a program already, they might be able to make special arrangements for you.

Notice that nowhere in this column have I said that you should first find out what the job outlook for the different topics is and let that influence your decision. That’s because I have come to the conclusion that the IT world changes so quickly that even if you can find such projections, the data they are based on is so sketchy or outdated as to make the projections useless.

So, my advice to you is to find work that gets you excited and makes you want to keep learning and to pursue that.

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