IT Career Paths.

I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who say they work in IT yet have very little to do with anything in the field (apart from doing their work on a computer). Admittedly most of these people are in management so saying that they’re “in IT” is about as applicable as them being “in field X” where X can be any industry where you need to organise a group of people with another group of people for a common goal. Still there’s quite a variety of career paths in IT and as far as the everyman goes most of them get lumped into the same area “guy who knows computers”. I thought it might be interesting to take you down the road of a couple career paths that I have been down and where I’ve seen them lead people over the past half a decade or so.

IT Support:

This is probably the career path that everyone is most familiar with, those guys who fix computers for a living. Landing a job in this area doesn’t require anything more than any other entry level job you might find around the place but you’ll usually end up in one of those dreaded call centers. Good news is that for anyone looking to break into IT there’s always going to be positions like these going as the turnover rate is quite high for entry level work, somewhere in the order of 30~50% for most places. Still if you can stick this out for a good year or two (depending on how skilled you are) there’s light at the end of the help desk tunnel.

Funnily enough the next “level” of IT support is just that, Level 2 Support. In essence you’ll be one of the behind the scenes guys who has more access and more knowledge about the systems the front line people are taking calls for and will be the one they come to for help. At this level you’ll probably be expected to start doing some outside learning about products that you (or your company) haven’t had any experience with yet, usually in the hopes to move you up into the next level. Second level guys are usually not responsible for adding new things to the environment and are best suited to being support to the first level and being the conduit to the next level guys.

The final incarnation of the IT support person is usually referred to as Level 3 Support or Technology Specialist. After spending a couple years at the second level most people will have gained a significant amount of skills in troubleshooting various software and hardware issues and hopefully acquired some certifications in various technologies. At this point there are a couple options open to such people: continue down the support line (generalist) or focus on a specific technology (specialist). Both of these have their advantages as the generalist won’t have trouble finding a job in almost any organisation and the specialists will attract quite high salaries for their specified skill set. Generally most people become a generalist first for a year or so while they work out what they want to build their career on.

This is the level I’m currently at and I initially tried to specialize in virtualization and Storage Array Networks (SANs) however my current position uses neither of these skills. It’s a good and bad thing as whilst I’m learning about a whole lot of new technologies (like Hyper-V) my specialist skills go unused. In all honesty though my most valuable skills as an engineer have gone for the most part un-used since I got my degree back at the end of 2006 so it’s really not that suprising and traditionally I’ve found that the ability to quickly adapt to the requirements of your employer seems to land me more jobs than my skills in one area.

They did help me get my foot in the door though πŸ˜‰

Developer:

Behind those who support the things you’re viewing this web page on are those who actually built the software that it runs on. In a general sense these guys are referred to as developers and there’s quite a few different types ranging from your more traditional desktop application programmers to the current rock stars of the programming world the web programmers.

Starting off a career in programming isn’t as easy as IT support. For the most part you’ll have to have some level of academic experience in the field before most places will give you a second look. Most programmers will have done a bachelor degree in either Computer Science or Software Engineering (or Engineering in Software Engineering for those true engineers) with a few starlets from the generic IT degrees making their way into the entry level programmer ranks. Junior programming jobs are a bit harder to come across but there’s usually good opportunities to be had in smaller firms who will help nuture you past this first hurdle.

Senior developers are someone who’s had a demonstratable amount of experience in either building systems of a certain type or in a certain language. They’re much like the second level of IT support as they’re usually responsible for helping the juniors out whilst working on the harder problems that their underlings would be unable to do. Again at this level there’s some expectation of training to be done in order to sharpen your skills up to match that of what your employer requires and this is the time when they should look to specializing.

Developers don’t technically have a third level like IT support however once they’re past the junior level specializing in one kind of development (say SAP customizations) becomes far too lucrative to pass up. There’s varying levels of specialisation available and this is when many people will make the jump into a field they’re interested in, say games or web, that demands a certain level of experience before taking them on.

I never got past the junior developer level mostly because I jumped into a System Administrator position before I had the chance to develop my programming career any further. I’ve kept my skills sharp though through creating automation scripts and various programs that served specific purposes but none so much as my current pet project Geon. I don’t think I’ll ever develop for anyone though as the last large project I worked on was more clerical admin work than actual programming.

Communications:

Whilst not terribly distinct from the IT support career path those in the business of providing networks and communications links for the varying computer systems they deserve their own mention as their technology predates the first real computer by over 70 years. Ostensibly they will spend most of their career using computers but only to administer the communication technology they’re responsible for.

At the heart of the career path is the same 3 levels with the first level being an almost identical help desk hell. However instead of working on the computer systems that you know and love they work on the cables and interconnects that keep the information flowing around the world. The number of jobs available is heavily dependant on which brand of network devices you choose to base your career around with the largest one currently being CISCO. Specialisations tend even further down the telecommunications path with most of them either being things like CISCO Certified Internetwork Expert (with a test that has an 80% fail rate on the first try) or something like a PABX/VoIP (basically telephones) expert.

I have a minimum amount of knowledge in this area as I skipped out on my college’s computer networking course and found my career in IT support much easier πŸ™‚

System Design:

I’ve struggled to find people who understand the term Business Analyst but don’t work in IT. In essence these people are the interface between the real world who want some kind of computer based system and those of us who have the skills to provide them. This is yet another position which usually requires some form of academic accreditation before anyone will take you seriously, and even then some people might feel like you’re still getting in their way.

People employed as business analysts are probably the most removed from actual IT whilst still being counted as part of it. There’s very little technical experience required to become one but you do have to have a keen eye for identifying what people want, managing their expectations as well as acting as a glorified telephone between the everyman and the IT nerds. Interestingly enough this is one of the areas of IT where a healthy percentage of the employees are women, something that is quite rare in the world of IT.

The next step for business analyists is usually that of what is wrongly referred to as an Architect. These are the people who are responsible for setting out a strategic direction for whole systems and whose work is usually of a fairly high level. Traditionally these kinds of people work side by side with project managers to organise various resources in order to deliver their vision but that’s where the tenuous relationship to real architects ends. In fact its more common to find third level IT support people graduate to the architect position thanks to their grass roots level experience in delivering systems that were set out by architects for them.

I’ve worked with a few architects and for the most part they’re worth the top dollars they’re paid. The ones that weren’t just simply didn’t communicate with their experts and promised things that just weren’t possible.

Sales/Consulting:

Once you’ve reached a certain point in any of the previous career paths I’ve mentioned there’s always an option to switch over to the sales side of IT. Whilst this position isn’t highly suited to many who join the ranks of IT (high levels of social interaction? Say it ain’t so!) I’ve known more than a few who made the jump mostly because of the money and travel opportunities it provides.

For those who come directly from IT they’re usually placed into what’s called a Pre-Sales role. Rather than actually selling anything directly they’re responsible for getting into the client’s environment and working out what they need, much like a business analyst. They’ll then draw up a bill of materials for the system and then hand it off to their sales team to close the deal. The reason pure IT people are attracted to these kinds of positions is that you’re still required to have a high level of knowledge about certain systems but don’t have to be involved in their support, which can be quite refreshing after many years of fixing someone else’s problems.

For the softer IT career choices there’s the option of becoming a consultant or basically a gun for hire. Once you’ve achieved a high level of specialization it becomes profitable to work either freelance or part of a larger consulting group who will hire you to clients who have very specific requirements. Usually consultants are used in order to get an outside opinion on something or to analyse a certain system or process. It’s quite lucrative as there’s little overheads past what your basic entry level employee has, but the going rates for their time are almost an order of magnitude higher.

There are of course many more ancillary positions in IT but with this post dragging on a bit I thought I would leave it there. In essence I wanted to convey the breadth of careers that IT offers to people and how far away from computers you can be yet still be “in IT”. Maybe next time you’ll think twice before asking your friend in IT to fix your computer πŸ˜‰

4 Comments

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  1. Thanks for such a nice and well written article. I am just shifting from developer job to process development (somewhat business analyst, am i right?) job and I was wondering about my future path. Your article helps a lot.

  2. Ah thanks mate, always nice to know when you’re appreciated πŸ˜‰

    Interesting switch, and you’re right about process development being close to business analysis. It’s the softer side of IT in that it requires a lot less of the core technical skills and much more of the higher level analytical and problem solving skills. I’m hoping to make a similar switch myself soon, albeit into a slightly different position (startup founder…hopefully!).

  3. Startup founder – that’s the shift which everyone has a dream of but only some strong persons like you try to make it real. Best wishes for your journey into the world of Entrepreneurship .
    In between, I wonder why there is no comment on your article apart from me? This is among the best articles I have read of.

  4. Heh, flattery will get you everywhere πŸ˜‰ Thanks for the vote of confidence and I agree it’s one of the most daunting challenges I’ve ever set myself towards.

    I like to think that people are just shy when it comes to commenting here. The reality is probably closer to me just being another voice shouting into the vast darkness of the Internet and you’ve just managed to find me out of the thousands of others out there. Still if I reach one person as I’ve reached you with my various musings I consider it a success πŸ™‚

    Β 

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