We can't go back in time of course. I started my IT career in 2000 after 12 years as a police officer.
The IT bubble was bursting and the high paying jobs were vanishing before my eyes. By the time I'd done some time on a helpdesk to get experience, salaries had dropped to half their previous levels. Oh well, everything turned out okay in the end.
I'm often asked to give career advice to students or people looking for a career change into IT. So here is my advice.
- Work out what you enjoy first. Money is important of course but if you choose to learn Unix because you heard it pays well, you will be very miserable (and bored). Do you prefer hands on fixing equipment (not much of that left). Do you like to use menus and graphical tools or do you prefer typing at a command line? Does network design appeal to you or would you prefer to install the equipment instead? Think about it.
- Build a solid foundation before you specialize. I know many vendors will let you study for their voice or security certifications, but without a solid grasp of TPC/IP and internetworking principles, you will quickly get stuck. Trust me. I advise you start with the CompTIA A+, Network+, and then Security+ first. This will give you a fantastic start. From there, you can go down the security route, virtualization or whatever.
- If you really want a strong foundation, then look at the junior network engineer exams from Cisco and Juniper, the Cisco CCNA and the Juniper JUNOS. These cover subnetting, IP networking, and routing protocols. With this information you can have intelligent conversations with technical staff and also know when they are trying to mislead you, which often happens.
- There are so many routes to choose from but below are the main routes. I miss a few so forgive me, but I'm trying to focus on the common streams.
Common IT Careers
- Desktop support / helpdesk – usually covering applications such as Word and Excel as well as in-house apps and basic network support. Issues escalated to specialist teams.
- Server support – installing the OS, configuring backups, and adding services such as e-mail, firewalls etc. Usually MCSA or Linux qualified.
- Core router/switch support – almost always command line driven. Installing routers and switches, and configuring routing protocols, VLANs and firewalls. CCNA/CCNP/JNCIS qualified.
- Voice engineer – we've moved away from PBX and into Voice over IP networking. Using network equipment to carry voice traffic. Usually CCNA Voice certified or beyond.
- Security engineer – hands on configuration of firewalls, VPN and IPS. Not usually deciding on policy. CCNA Security qualified or beyond.
- Security policy – advises on company security best practices and policies. Not usually hands on. CISSP qualified.
- Problem management – attached to helpdesk but looks at cause of problems and avoidance. Not technical. Usually ITIL qualified.
- Virtualization – server engineer, but with a focus on the software used for virtualization, such as Microsft, VMware, NetApp.
- Project management – manages changes to the network and holds teams accountable to deliver milestones on time. Not technical but can be. Usually PMP or Prince qualified.
- IT manager/CTO – responsible for entire network infrastructure from a business perspective. Often an MBA or MSc.
- Network design/architect – configures the diagrams and allocates IP address blocks for hand off to the installation engineers. Usually CCDA, CCDP certified.
So going back to my original point, I'd work out what I enjoy most. I'd lay a foundation with CompTIA exams and then look to build on that with some core networking exams such as the CCNA and or JUNOS. After that I'd look to specialize. If it was a hands on role I'd certainly consider more advanced certs such as the Cisco CCNP RS and Juniper JNCIS exams.