On the Cisco Learning Network, we see a lot of questions about careers in information technology. One constant is the struggle found by those just getting started in the industry. We often see good advice and even some success stories of those who have pushed on and found their first job in the field of desire. This article is a look at the bigger picture of an IT career, the importance of continued motivation and the benefits of being wired in a way that makes IT a good fit for an individual.
Key #1--A career in technology is not for everyone (and it's not about money)
For those who are only thinking about or have recently started in a field related to technology, there are some things that need to be understood. The first thing is that while this can be a rewarding field, no one should get into it just to make money. If money is the primary motivator, another career path should be sought. This field is somewhat about using gadgets to create, use, move, manipulate and store bits of data. More specifically, it is about taking our love of those gadgets and understanding how all of those components benefit someone's business processes. We are paid by creating efficiencies that provide a competitive edge for those that we are working with. For those that find that boring, technology is probably not a good fit. Sure they can proceed on, but they'll likely have mediocre success (at best). Technology is simply not a field for everyone.
Key #2--Patience is a virtue
For those who truly enjoy messing with gadgets, fixing things, and understanding how things work (sometimes only for the sake of understanding how they work), a technology career may be a good fit. While I think it is important to continue learning and growing, it sometimes takes time. It may take an individual several years to elevate him or herself to a comfortable place in their career. This is true from a more tactical stance as well. While learning the deep dark corners of technologies takes a lot of time, it can also seem like other minute tasks take longer than they should. I often feel that way too. That's just how it is, so it is important to remain patient and to be encouraged.
Key #3--Read, read, read
Reading and technology careers go hand in hand. Those who can't set down and enjoy reading a book that stretches their technical abilities to some degree will find themselves struggling in this field. When I was young, I actually hated reading. What I found was that it was what everyone wanted me to read that I hated. Reading was fine, I just had to find stuff I enjoyed reading about. Even as a child, I preferred to pick up a book about wiring a home over reading "Tom Sawyer". I'm not saying that a technologist cannot enjoy fiction, but I am saying that he or she better enjoy non-fiction technical books. Technology is continually changing and anyone desiring growth in IT must continue to change as well. One of the best ways to do this is by reading. For those who find reading to be a chore, information technology may be a poor career choice.
Key #4--Strive to be an effective communicator
Technology is not just about technology. What I mean is that technology exists to support the business processes and other areas of society. As such, those with careers in information technology often find the need to interact with other areas of organizations. In some cases, there is a need to converse with those who could care less about technology. That's all fine and necessary. However, the shiny new routers, switches and servers in the datacenter are all but useless by themselves. They must do something to help someone. Therefore, we usually have to work with that "someone" to effectively understand what that "something" is. It is so important for those in information technology to listen closely and work toward effective conversations with those in their surroundings. This also includes being respectful.
Key #5--Be curious (but not on production equipment)
One trait that most who are really successful possess is curiosity. This part of how a person is "wired" facilitates learning. While it is important to try to understand status quo, it is also important to challenge it. This can lead to new ideas or designs. While there is a good chance that someone else has tried something similar, it is important experiment with it. Labbing something up just to see what happens often leads to a deeper understanding. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I'm sure it made some geeks in silicon valley very rich. The only warning I have is not to experiment on a production network; that'd be called a "career limiting move".
Key #6--Participate and Share
One great way to learn is by helping others. This can be in the form of mentoring others in your own company, writing a blog, participating in forums, or reaching out to the community. This accomplishes a couple of things. First, it forces the one helping to push his or her knowledge further than they would otherwise. Albert Einstein is believed to have said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough". I cannot reiterate this enough. Teaching others is simply a great way to learn. In addition to this, relationships are formed that will can be beneficial for the years to come. One internal struggle that many seem to create for themselves is that of isolation. Maybe it is a result of the natural predisposition to be introverted that many tech people have. Another explanation is that maybe they are protecting their position by not sharing their knowledge. I would prefer NOT to get phone calls about Sally Jane's printer while I'm in line at Disney World. Additionally, I know I cannot move on to bigger and better things while I'm stuck doing something that I could train someone else on. Therefore, I'm perfectly willing to share anything that I know well enough for it to be useful to others. There's no need to worry, there's plenty of work to go around.
Key #7--You never "arrive"
The last point that I would make is that no one ever really "arrives". Technology is ever changing and so must we be ever changing. I used to think that once I reached a certain level that I would have conquered my field. No one knows everything (especially me). Honestly what I have found is that the more I learned, the more I realized I needed to learn. This is actually a good thing if you enjoy the process of learning. However if you are in technology for a paycheck, this seems like a burdensome requirement. If you ever reach the point in which you "arrive", you probably need to figure out how to get out of that situation. If you don't remove yourself from that, you will eventually find yourself irrelevant (and unemployed). The biggest struggle for me is balancing work with the more important things--like family.
Sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? That is because it IS a lot of work. Nothing in this world is easy, and a career in technology is no different. To be really good at something, it really helps when you love what you do. I'm sure The Beatles spent a lot of time practicing before they made their performances seem easy and natural. I'm guessing they put the time into the practice because they loved music and wanted to do it really well. I doubt that their primary concern was making a lot of money. For those few readers who relate or are even excited to the points I've made; you're a different breed. Those who connect and can relate with these seven points may be part of the next generation of technology rockstars (and rockstars do make money :-).