Is a Career Change the Right Move?

Radio, TV, and newspaper ads make it sound as if anyone who can walk and chew gum at the same time can get a job in the IT field. At the informational meetings for the MCSE program my company runs, people always ask, "How much money can I make when I get my MCSE?" The ads seem to give these people the impression that training is just a nuisance chore you have to get out of the way so you can get a job that will pay you double what you're making now.

This way of thinking has some serious problems, however. First, IT jobs require logical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Although you can learn these skills, some people have more innate aptitude than others. Usually, training isn't designed to help students improve those skills; instead, training is designed to provide students with the information they need to use these skills. People learn how to think logically and solve problems in high school, college, and lifeā€”not in a training center that offers courses geared toward certification.

Second, IT jobs require knowing a lot about many different technologies. Complex OSs running complex applications manage complex hardware, and the interaction of complex processes increases the total system's overall complexity. Logical people designed computers and computer programs, which means that finding a problem's resolution is a matter of logically applying the laws of cause and effect (I call it "thinking like a computer"), but you have to know which effects come from which causes. People who assimilate and catalog new information more quickly than others are good candidates for IT jobs, while those who don't might find themselves constantly struggling to stay up to date in an environment that radically changes every 6 to 12 months.

Third, people mistakenly think that skill-based training can substitute for a more traditional form of education, such as college. Although my Medieval Literature class hasn't really enhanced my performance in network troubleshooting or application development, I do know that the math, physics, chemistry, and computer science classes have. They taught me not only how computers work but also why they're designed the way they are. A multiweek technical training program simply can't give you the same broad-based education that a good college degree program can.

So how do you decide whether you really should pursue an IT job? First, eliminate money from the decision-making process. Contrary to what the ads say, no one is going to pay you huge sums of money just because you can pass some tests. Second, if you have an aptitude for understanding how mechanical devices work, you probably can learn to manage computer networks. Aptitude in math, chemistry, physics, or biology are also good indications of potential aptitude for computer-related jobs. Interestingly, however, several trainers who I know have degrees in history or philosophy; therefore, the more general requirement is that you can work through problems in a logical, orderly manner.

Finally, and most important, you need to enjoy learning. IT professionals must learn something new constantly, partly because technology is so complex, and partly because everything changes so often. I tell my students that I read about 2000 pages a month just to stay up to date, and although the breadth of my job requirements might mean I need to read more than many professionals, between 500 and 1000 pages a month is still common for most IT professionals. The real truth about careers and salaries in the IT industry is that those who can learn and adapt quickly get paid well for the effort.

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