On more than one occasion I have been asked “how do I get a job in IT?” This question could easily be shrugged off and relegated to the canned answers pile; phrases I have personally uttered in the past include “go get some certifications then send out resumes” or “play with computers for a few years and then apply.” These answers really are a cop-out on my part so I’d like to take a few minutes to apply some serious thought to the query and offer my thoughts.

What People Will Expect of You

While most people would say that having a large breadth and depth of knowledge in computers is the primary requirement for being employed in IT, I would disagree with this. There are a handful of very critical attributes that you will find in any IT Rockstar:

  • Good Problem Solving Skills
  • Critical Thinking
  • Strong work ethic
  • Ability to handle “Burst Stress”

Problem Solving is possibly the most important attribute any good IT team member will have. Problem solving is the core of our vocation, when you think about it. IT is tasked with solving problems that the other employees aren’t able to handle. You’ll also find that in many workplaces, the IT guys are the ones helping to solve other complex problems in the enterprise because of the problem solving skillset they demonstrate. Critical Thinking is another important skill to have when talking about technical jobs. Oftentimes the problem I’m trying to solve does not have an easy-to-see solution (sometimes, the cause itself is not immediately apparent.)

Do you like working long hours for little praise or thanks? That’s pretty much working IT in a nutshell. Performing server maintenance usually needs to wait until after hours, which generally means you’ll be putting in a full 8 hours for that workday, then many more hours that night to do the after-hours downtimes. Couple this with “burst stress” and you’ve got a recipe for gray hair. Burst Stress is common in jobs like police work or firefighting, where you have long periods of low stress followed by short bursts of extremely high stress situations.

What do you want to do?

There are a handful of disciplines in IT, each with their separate purposes. What follows is a breakdown of the individual disciplines and what that type of work entails. Regardless of what path you choose, you’ll likely start in an IT Generalist role, and many people stay in that role their entire career. I myself genuinely enjoy being a generalist; it means that any given day I might be working on any number of problems that aren’t the same old issues over and over again.

IT Generalist — This is often the least respected but most useful role in IT. As a generalist, you are a Jack of All Trades. You’re expected to understand not only Desktop and Server Support, but also have a useable knowledge set in Telephony, Networking, Backup and Disaster Recovery, and Security. When you start your new IT career, you’ll usually start as a quasi-apprentice in a generalist role. Once you’ve “earned your stripes” in a few disciplines, you’ll be more educated and ready to move to a specialization, if that’s your pleasure.

Desktop Support — The Desktop Support team will generally be tasked with maintaining the software and equipment that other people in the company utilize to get their jobs done. This job is very demanding from a customer service perspective, as the person doing this job will oftentimes be assisting users who are already annoyed that their machines aren’t working the way they’d like! Skillset wise, Desktop engineers need to be highly fluent in whichever desktop operating system your company uses, as well as any applications the company makes use of. Generally speaking, you’re going to need to know Windows and Office like the back of your hand if you want to get a job like this in the majority of businesses.

Server Support/Systems — The Systems or “Server Support” team has similar requirements as Desktop Support when it comes to strong knowledge sets of operating systems and software. The jobs diverge when you look at the “back-of-the-house” operations that a Systems team is often assigned. Knowledge of datacenter operations (power distribution, hot row/cold row, rack positioning) is essential in this role if your organization has more than just a “closet in the back with a few servers.” Server Support is also usually in charge of all backend/utility systems in the organization, including directory authentication, mail and groupware, and administrating backups.

Networking — This group focuses mostly on interconnecting sites and equipment together. To get into this group, you better be prepared to prove you know the OSI model like the back of your hand. This is a tough group to coast in; TCP/IP can be fickle under wavering hands. Usually, a particular company will standardize on one vendor for their equipment, and you’ll be expected to know the operating system for that particular vendor. If you’re looking to get into the networking team at a new company, you should likely know Cisco and Juniper OS’s (Cisco IOS/ASA-OS, JunOS, etc.) Even if the company does not use either of these major brands, having knowledge of how other platforms operate can assist you in doing the job. Networking also is susceptible to the above mentioned “Burst Stress”, since if a site-to-site link is down, it’s possible that hundreds of people are sitting waiting for you to fix the problem.

Security — To be a member of the security team is to be alternately loved and hated by differing groups in your organization, often different groups at different times. Security generally finds themselves tasked with doing audits of internal data security and setting standards to help achieve compliance with data security standards. Computer forensic applications are the toolbox of the IT Security team; to do the job it will help to be seasoned at data analysis/data mining and event correlation. Security is usually the team tasked with defending audits as well, so it helps if you have good verbal communication skills. Finally, Security is sometimes tasked with coming up with the Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity Plans for a business. In some cases, other departments handle this, but in my experience this has been a Security-type role.

Database Administration — DBA is a tough specialization to be hired in. Brent Ozar has a great blog post covering this, so I won’t go in to too much detail but instead refer you to Brent Ozar’s excellent blog post series linked here. Suffice to say, you need to be able to speak SQL and make it sound like Shakespeare before you can roll with the titans like Mr. Ozar.

Telephony — I’m hesitant to group Telephony into IT, but many times it falls under the moniker of IT, so we’ll cover it here. Telephony is the specialization that handles telephones and telephony technologies. You’re going to want to know the details of how signaling works in PSTN networks, things like TDM, FXO,FXS, E&M, CAS, and a whole lot of other crazy acronyms. Depending on the size of the organization, you might also need to have some cross-pollination with the Networking skillset.

In a future blog post, I will cover what I consider the “elephant in the corner” when it comes to hiring in IT. Remember, it’s not always what you know, but who you know that gets you hired. As always, your comments and criticisms are welcome/encouraged; I’d like to hear what the community feels on this topic.

  • https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawkTDaNz9nOXpbhF8upt6u-OTXO-siu3suQ Evan Anderson

    I’d throw “Good communication skills (verbal and written)” into your “IT Rockstar” list. If you can’t communicate with co-workers, end users, or third-party support then you’re going to have a fairly tough time of it (and likely won’t be a “Rockstar” or even a “groupie”… >smile<).

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_EGVMGBBABVFQFRALFZ52D3Y3GY Anonymous

    Just to comment on the telephony thing – while I’d agree that its debatable whether supporting a “old fashioned” telephony deployment is an IT function (though its often been stuck in IT anyway as it has to go somewhere…), its worth remembering that with VOIP, Unified Comms and systems such as asterix and Lync, telephony is merging with networking and messaging functions of IT slowly but surely.

  • Anonymous

    I think you might have left out ‘Storage’ as a specialty – SAN management, etc etc. Or is that a thing of the past?

  • http://openid-provider.appspot.com/jim.butts Jim_B

    I see less and less specialized jobs and more and more generalized jobs.  With the possible exceptions of telephony (rapidly dying anyway IMHO) and DBA (a speciality that has fought valiantly to stay seperate). 

  • http://twitter.com/hmallettuk Hywel Mallett

    “Security — To be a member of the security team is to be alternately loved and hated”… but mostly hated.I think that the defending audits part is the only time a security function is appreciated!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002036472534 Matt Frye

    One word you don’t hear from recruiters and those doling out advice is “patience.”  You really need a lot of patience in IT these days.  Specifically, those seeking to get into IT should prepare to have their time wasted by people who don’t understand what they do.  For this reason, customer service is a huge part of modern and future IT and new folks should go into the field with this in mind. 

  • Jeremy Lukowski

    I think it’s worth mentioning the spectrum of customer support skills vs technical skills.  Folks with less technical knowledge can start in the desktop support roles, making up for somewhat less knowledge with good people skills.  This customer service role often involves teaching people and modifying behaviors.  Back end folks often have more demanding technical tasks but have less customer service requirements.

  • Matt

    Hi Peter, the disciplines you listed are part of the IT infrastructure services category-only; there’s other areas in IT including governance, project management often in the form of a project management office (PMO), enterprise architecture, business intelligence and data warehousing, and a bunch of favors of application development sliced in different ways like ecommerce systems, HR systems, and more.

    I wanted to point this out because many prospective and new IT professionals view IT as just the technology functions but it’s much more.

  • guest

    Where do software engineers fit into the IT equation and why is programming not on this list as well..?

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  • arun

    may i do it after intermediate

  • rasoolii
  • Jane Doe

    It is funny how you say IT Generalist (IT Professional) is least respected, but then expand every single skill set of an IT Generalist below as a standalone and the only profession. LOL

  • Peter Grace

    You are very right!  Pure heresy that I neglected to mention the Storage team, which in large organizations does have a very significant role in information technology.  It’s my experience that storage management is generally under the banner of Systems/Server Support until you get to an organization size such that storage needs can take a dedicated team.  Thank you for pointing out this glaring omission.

  • Peter Grace

    This is a very astute point, but while I agree with it 100%, I have met a significant number of “great” IT guys who had the personality of a stump.  Having this prior experience and knowing the way the technical mind works, I would consider someone with good communication skills as “gravy” — it’s a nice to have if it’s there, but I wouldn’t toss a candidate out purely on his lack of “bedside manner.”

    You do have to be able to communicate with your teammates and other departments effectively, but that’s pretty much a requirement of any hire.

    Thanks for the input!

  • Peter Grace

    It’s also largely based on the environment in which you’re immersed.  Big business does still have the separation of roles, but it seems like IT Generalists are the larger population these days, for sure.