If you’ve worked in IT for any length of time, say longer than a week, you’ve probably been quizzed by someone on what it takes to begin an IT career.  I’ve been quizzed by lots of “someones” over the years, and while the faces have changed my answers have largely remained the same.

I can remember working in a dark corner of a university computer lab in ’95 when a fellow student worker arrived one day with a certification study guide.  He was bragging about passing the test, earning his certification and landing a posh job making big bucks.  The book was impressive, making a loud thud on the desk when he dropped it.  It must have been about 1,600 pages.  What was the certification, you ask?  It was the CNA, or Certified Novell Administrator of all things.  It meant a lot more to me then than it does now – very little.

None of us had any IT certifications at the time, and to be honest I hadn’t even thought about it before then.  We were far too busy helping fellow students with WordPerfect formatting issues and their Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets (it was the mid ‘90s).  We could have written a tutorial on how to find and download games and software from university ftp sites.  But we were graduating soon and had to begin thinking about how to land real IT jobs, however unappealing that sounded.  What would differentiate us from the rest of the competition and help get our feet in the door somewhere, anywhere?

The reason I begin with certification is not because I place much value on it.  I really don’t.  It’s because the topic is always one of the first to be mentioned by people trying to get into IT.  The reason is obvious – they usually have no direct IT experience.  The tactic for most becomes certification in lieu of experience. 

“I heard this commercial that said I can get my MCSE in 6 months, and then I can get a job starting at $60k,” they might say. 

“Yeah, you go do that,” would be my reply as I roll my eyes.

True, certification or a college degree is all any of us had before someone took a chance and gave us our first opportunity.  But when I’m interviewing someone for an entry or low level IT job, certification means something different to me than what the candidate usually realizes.  It signifies to me that they were able to set a goal (certification) and achieve the goal (commitment); jumping into IT wasn’t just an idea conceived over a frothy beverage (okay, maybe it was for some of us).  Attaining the certification then signifies that a person is vested both by their time and monetarily. 

The other thing certification tells me about someone is that they probably have the aptitude to learn on the job.  What it doesn’t tell me is whether they will arrive on the job knowing how to do all the tasks their certification indicates they should be able to perform.

So when I hear that a person is using certification to begin an IT career, the only useful thing I learn about the person is that they are committed and have the aptitude to learn.  Too many of the certifications have been cheapened by on-line practice tests and cheat guides to mean anything more.

Okay, enough about certifications. The other advice I give to people attempting the move into IT is to take whatever job they can land to get their feet wet with real experience.  Get over the proverbial hump of getting that first IT job and use it to progress later. 

Most of us had to start out in a less than glamorous role to begin with, whether it was at a university computer lab, help desk or PC repair shop.  It’s just a starting point and usually proves to be the most difficult and discouraging chapter of an IT career move.  It’s much easier to move up the IT food chain once a person is working in the field.  Then, career progression moves more based on performance and people skills than anything else. 

My other advice also usually includes leveraging existing relationships with people to get a lead or personal recommendation, which never can be overestimated, and to put some level of thought into which area of IT they want to enter.  Staying current on industry news and trends is worth mentioning as well.

Other than “step away from the ledge” and “run!” what advice do you give to those that ask how to begin an IT career?