Practically every day, I receive e-mail messages from four or five people who are considering a career in the information systems field. These letters usually address such issues as educational requirements and working experience. Because of the large volume of letters I receive on the subject, I decided to take the opportunity to explain a little bit about my background and about how I got to where I am today.

Like many of my colleagues, I got my start by teaching myself programming at home on a very cheap TRS-80 color computer from Radio Shack. As my programming skills became more sophisticated, I decided that even though I was only 15 years old, I needed to get more practical experience if I were to make a career of it someday.

To help build experience, I wrote several database programs for various charitable organizations. Even though I didn’t get paid for writing those programs, they did help to pad my resume, which was basically empty. To additionally pad my resume, I volunteered to do some of the hardware repair work for my father’s company. Just to help things along a little more, I enrolled in a prestigious high school that specialized in computer science and math.

After high school, I had just enough programming experience and education to get a job as a programmer trainee for a large health care company. Of course, it also helped having a friend on the inside to get me in the door.

Unfortunately, that job didn’t last very long because of downsizing. With my uncle’s help, I got into networking at another company. I spent the next four and a half years learning networking, entirely from a hands-on perspective. Although I was working full time, I was also attending college full time at night. As most of you know, being a network support person can demand a lot of hours. Many nights, after class, I would have to go back to the office and work some more. When it comes to being a network professional, there’s no substitute for hard work. All of the late nights and weekends eventually paid off.

During my time working for my uncle, I also pursued my NetWare certification. In my case, the NetWare classes never actually got me a job, but the knowledge that I obtained from those classes has helped me many times over the years.

I eventually left my uncle’s company and went to work for another company as a technical writer. About a year after taking that job, I decided to pursue my MCSE. At that time (about three years ago), very few people had an MCSE. The MSCE ended up being a gold mine. Before I even finished completing it, I was contracted by the Department of Defense to support a large-scale military network.

After taking this job, there was a lot of pressure to complete my MCSE quickly. Because of my hectic schedule, it was impossible to take classes. I finished my MCSE by going to the bookstore and buying study guides. At the time, I used Sybex books, because they were cheap. If money hadn’t been a factor, though, I would have used the Microsoft books. I have always found the Microsoft books to be clear and thorough. I also found the Transcender exam preparation software to be very helpful, although I used it only for the last test. You can also get a lot of insight about what type of questions will be asked on various sites on the Internet.

To sum it all up, there’s no substitute for hands-on experience and hard work. If you’re looking to become an information systems professional, the best thing that I can tell you is to get experience any way that you can, even if it means working for free at first. You should also do anything that you can to validate your credentials. This may include things like getting professional certifications, publishing white papers, or belonging to various user groups.

Brien M. Posey is an MCSE and works as a freelance technical writer and as a network engineer for the Department of Defense. If you’d like to contact Brien, send him an e-mail. (Because of the large volume of e-mail he receives, it’s impossible for him to respond to every message. However, he does read them all.)

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