I’ve gotten a lot of questions from TechRepublic members about the best ways to direct their careers. There is the inevitable certification vs. degree debate as well as questions about experience vs. education.

Since each situation is unique, there is no clear answer across the board. What I’ve decided to do in the coming weeks, however, is feature personal stories from top IT pros as to how they got into IT and succeeded at it. I hope you’ll find these stories useful in making your own career moves.

This week, our featured guest is Adam Bertram, McKendree Village, MIS Director. Adam’s career began in the ranks of fast food front line workers and managers:

Toni:  Did you have any college credit when you started on your certification?
Adam: Yes. When I graduated High School in 1990 I left home for Daytona Beach, FL for college. I attended Embry Riddle Aeronautical University as I had decided to become a pilot. Six months and $10,000 later I ran out of money, so I dropped out. I attended two other schools and tried out Architecture and Photography but ended up dropping out of those too. I had big plans over the years but by 1995 they had all gone south. So I started in fast food. All in all, I’d say I have around 40 college credits.
Toni: What certification(s) did you pursue?
Adam: I really didn’t know what to pursue in the beginning, but I ended up getting my MCSE, MCP+I, and CCNA. By 1999 I’d hit a dead end. I gave up various General Manager positions as I wanted to do something with my life, only find myself back at the bottom of a different fast food joint. That’s when I joined McDonald’s. I figured if I put in five or six years of hard work I may eventually get my own store to manage. It was a low point for me, working at the McDonald’s two miles from where I grew up. All my friends would come in and say, “Wow, I haven’t seen you in a long time! I’m a lawyer (doctor, architect, accountant, pilot, fill in the blank) now. What are you doing?” And the only reply that would come to my head was “Making your French Fries.”

After several months at McDonald’s, my brother found an ad in the paper that read, “Do you like to surf the internet? Are you good with computers? Maybe a career is right for you! Come to our free seminar this Thursday at Vanderbilt University.” I figured what the hell, may as well take a free look. When I got to the seminar, they were talking about Microsoft, computers, IT–and the only point I really paid attention to–last year’s average salary. When they said the average salary of IT professionals last year was $62,000, I started to pay closer attention as that was over double my McDonald’s salary.

So, I took a leap and signed up for the course. I got a much larger student loan than tuition required as I had only used Mac’s up until then.

I used part of the loan to buy a Windows 98 computer. I figured if I was going to school to learn how to support them, I’d better go ahead and buy one so I could start learning Windows before class started. I can still remember the day I went to the office to pay for class. They had a strict NO REFUND policy and I was very apprehensive about that. I spoke with the teacher and he said “There’s no one thing that’s difficult about getting your MCSE. It’s just that there’s thousands of things you have to learn.” When I told him I’d never really used Windows computers,he said, “As long as you know how to get to the control panel, how to get to Properties, etc… you’ll be fine.” So after six months of class, and another six months of hard study, I got my MCSE!

Toni: How long did it take you to get from fast food to the position you’re in now?
Adam: I started school in January of 2000. Four months later, April and tax time hit. I had purposefully taken time off to devote myself to study and my career change, but when tax time hit, and we had no money to pay for our taxes, I had to find a job. One of the students came to class the very next day and said, “There’s this place out in Hermitage, TN, McKendree Village. They’re hiring for an IT guy, but they don’t pay enough for me to work there. If any of you want a job you can feel free to go out there.” Didn’t pay enough?!?!?!? I had already completed a few non-paying projects just to get experience, so the idea of any size paycheck was fine with me.

I woke up at the crack of dawn the next day and drove on out to McKendree. I had a stellar interview and ended up getting the job! I still can’t fathom why they hired me. At the time I only had four months of school and a few projects under my belt. Yet I replaced the IT Director, even though my title was MIS Specialist, and three of his outside consultants. I was the sole IT employee at McKendree for two years.

After I had proven myself, my CFO decided to give me the Telecommunications department. He also decided to let me begin the search for employees to expand the MIS department. My first title change was to MIS Coordinator. It then took me a few years before they changed my title to MIS/Network Administrator, and a couple more before that title changed to MIS Director. So the answer is twofold I suppose. It took me four months from leaving fast food and starting school to landing an IT position, but it took about seven years to achieve my current title, even though my role here has not changed.

Toni: How, specifically, have the management skills you learned in fast food helped you in the IT world?
Adam: Being a General Manager at a fast food joint means that you have to take on certain responsibilities, even more so if the restaurant is not a franchise. You have to be your own HR, Payroll, Financial Services, Staffing, Maintenance, Environmental Services, Central Supply, and other departments. You learn very quickly how to manage all of those operations, albeit on a smaller scale, because otherwise you’ll go under. So I learned in the real world how to budget, how to staff, how to hire and fire employees, how to manage stock, how to relate to customers — all of the skills you need to be successful in the business world and an office environment. Then, as I moved on to different and larger fast food chains, the responsibilities changed.

While I did everything at a locally owned fast food joint, when I started at McDonald’s for example, I had to learn how to manage the staff effectively while dealing with supervisors and executives above me. For the first time the buck didn’t stop with me. So over time I learned how to meet executive expectations while still managing local operations.

It’s also more than just the management skills learned. I started at the bottom of the ladder, as a bus boy at Bonanza Steak House. Moving around to different jobs, I worked my way up. But it’s always important to never forget where you came from. I learned to never look down on those in a lower position. Fast food has taught me that the most important jobs are those at the bottom of the pay scale. Don’t think for one second that you can get away without having janitors, bus boys, line staff, cashiers, etc…  While those at the top are responsible for steering the ship, there would be no ship to steer if it wasn’t for those at the bottom.

All of this helped me when I started at McKendree. McKendree Village has been a series of firsts for me. My first office job, my first set schedule, my first IT job. But I grant a lot of my success at this company to the training I received over 15 years of fast food and restaurant experience. It’s true that I don’t have a college degree, but it would be unwise to say that I’m uneducated. Given what I’ve experienced over the years, I would much rather choose an individual that was certified and could do the job over an individual with just a college degree.

Real world experience, and the ability to change yourself, is what’s important. Unfortunately, too many doors are closed to those without a college education. I can only say that I got lucky in finding my first, and current, IT job. Then again, they say that “there’s no where you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.”