I’m aware I’m going to open a big can of worms here. Just like if I asked ‘what’s the best diet to follow?’ There are no easy answers, but I’ll have a go. All of my advice is generic because each person’s circumstances and experience differ of course.
There are a few factors we need to consider here, and these can be put into two groups, market factors and personal.
Market factors include:
- Current salary rates
- Lifetime value of knowledge (legacy vs cutting edge)
- Demand (urgent or future project)
- Geography – i.e. certain cities or countries pushing a specific technology
- Compliance/Legal burden – are there penalties for not implementing e.g. secure storage or personal information?
Personal factors can include:
- How much study/time is involved
- Stress involved e.g. working in finance in the city
- Costs of taking exam and recertifying
- Requirement to prove previous experience
- Market salary rates
- Exam difficulty
A few examples to illustrate the above include the CISSP security certification which requires a minimum of five years of experience in at least two relevant fields. The GIAC Security Essentials exam costs $1,249, and you have to pass several ongoing exams. The Cisco CCIE will set you back around $7000 in study materials and exam fees, take around three years to complete, and there is only around a 10% pass rate for the first exam attempt. Each attempt costs around $1600, and you will have to fly to the exam testing center because there are only a few available worldwide.
If you plan to start at the bottom then you might aim for an exam such as the CompTIA A+ or Network+ but can you survive on a helpdesk salary for a year or so while you get some experience and maybe pass a few other exams?
I took a gamble when I left the police that I could far surpass my police salary but I struggled financially while I spent several months working on a helpdesk and studied for Cisco exams. By the time I’d passed more exams the market conditions had changed dramatically and salary levels had plunged.
I’ll outline a few different scenarios and then give you my recommendation. As always, make your own choices based on your circumstances and goals. This is just my two cents.
Best to Get into IT
I’ve written a ton of articles about getting your first IT job and even created an entire course called ‘Land Your First IT Job’ based upon all the tips and tricks I learned and used to get my first job.
Can we first agree that nobody starts IT with experience? Everybody must at some point start out their IT career with their first job. I say this because there is always somebody chiming in saying ‘ah, but you need the experience to get a job in IT.’ No, shut up.
No matter what role in IT you want to end up (security, cloud, voice, etc.) you will always need to understand what goes on under the hood. How does data get from A to Z? What are common industry standards and practices? What are the fundamentals of LANs, WANs, Cloud computing, Security, Wireless, etc.?
CompTIA certifications will probably form the base of your study triangle. The A+ covers end devices such as servers, PCs, and printers. Network+ covers networking components, protocols, and standards. From there you can move into the foundations of project management with the Project+ or security with the Security+, but other fields of study are available.
Best to Get into Desktop Support
The term ‘desktop support’ covers a multitude of sins from bespoke software to all the usual applications run by a particular company from email to spreadsheets and word processors such as Word.
I’d personally avoid taking a job supporting bespoke software because it really won’t prepare you for moving into another (more advanced) role. Desktop support roles tend to be high churn which means you will often see such roles advertised. It often involves working unsociable shifts and having to deal with rude or irate customers. Inept managers and bullying bosses are the norms at this level I’ve found from my personal experience so don’t expect this to be a dream job scenario.
I used a desktop support role to get my first break into IT. Luckily it involved some low-level network support but was mostly supporting the company email system and some bespoke software. I worked hard at my desktop support role, passed several exams and was promoted off the desk after six months.
Be careful which jobs you apply for. Some are very high pressure, involve little or no training, and managers may expect you to work extra hours for no pay. They simply aren’t worth it. I experienced this even at Cisco where you were shot a dirty look if you got up to leave work at the end of your shift.
Desktop support certifications worth passing include CompTIA A+, Network+, Cloud Essentials, Project+, Microsoft MTA Desktop, Microsoft MTA Server as well as specialist certifications covering Microsoft Word, Excel, SharePoint, and Project.
Best to Get into Networking
One of the most enjoyable aspects of working in networking is the fact you don’t usually have to deal with end-users who are trying to work out how to add an attachment to an email. Often, you will deal with cases logged by the helpdesk and forwarded to your team. One of the disadvantages is that because most other teams don’t understand TCP/IP, if anything breaks they will usually blame the network.
Networking usually involves supporting all the cables, switches and routers which connect users to the network and the network out to the internet or other offices. Depending on the size of your company, you may only support certain devices or network segments.
There are so many vendors such as HP, Cisco, Juniper out there that it can be a challenge to learn them all but the chances are that your company will favor one vendor in particular. I’ve also found that if you are certified in one vendor's equipment, you will still be looked on favorably in job interviews for a company using a different vendors equipment.
For networking roles, you need a strong understanding of TCP/IP, IPv6, routing protocols, cloud computing, virtualization, security, and project management. You don’t need to be an expert in all of these, but at least a basic understanding would be a big advantage.
Best to Get into Cloud Computing
I’ve written a few articles about this in the past. Cloud computing is growing exponentially, and the need for engineers to support it outstrips availability meaning that salaries are very high. There are so many benefits to moving part or all of your systems to the cloud that latest surveys show around 70% of companies already using this technology.
The gaps in cloud technology leaders are narrowing, but Amazon is still the market leader. Ensure you have a strong foundation in TCP/IP and networking before you try to jump into cloud computing but for a career in this field consider certifications in Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, CompTIA Cloud Essentials and Linux LPIC1 exams.
Best to Get into Security
Security is one of the IT careers where you can practically guarantee employment. The nature of threats is ever changing and regulations to protect customer data and transactions are becoming increasingly stringent. Most organizations are petrified of a security breach due to loss of data, business continuity, financial penalties and of course public embarrassment.
Early certifications for IT security covered only the technical aspects, but now you can certify in penetration testing and compliance. There are too many vendor specific and vendor neutral certifications to mention here so I can only give you a guide to get you started.
Consider CompTIA Security+ and Cisco CCNA Security. Remember that it’s very important you have a strong foundation in networking so don’t neglect the networking certifications and troubleshooting such as the Wireshark WCNA.
Best to Get into Project Management
Project management is one of the most rewarding and challenging IT roles available. Often, you don’t have to be technical to carry out this role. However, I’ve found it helps to understand networking and TCP/IP so you can communicate with the technical teams.
Project management involves you working with senior management, technical team leaders, and multiple vendors. You will usually be working to a deadline and be expected to meet budget limits so it could be a stressful role involving long hours or on call work. Best to avoid this if you can’t cope with stress because I’ve seen a few people suffer nervous breakdowns in this role.
Best to Get into Server Support
Back in the day, your server would be a stand-alone machine running either Microsoft or Linux operating systems. Now, your server will probably be running virtualization software and could be running virtual switches, firewalls, and multiple operating systems.
The main choices are Microsoft and Linux for the server operating system, and choices for virtualization software include NetApp and VMware.
In most of the networking roles I’ve worked in, I’ve noticed that the server teams tend to be weak when it comes to understanding TCP/IP and often can’t even work out the correct subnet mask. This leads to them forwarding issues to the network when it was a fault in the server routing table or default gateway. So, make sure your general networking knowledge is good.
Best to Get into Network Design
Network Design is one of those secret roles few people realize exists. I’ve also blogged about this career path in the past. I said that it’s one of the best-kept secrets in IT.
There are very few design certifications available, but Cisco has an entire track for design. Start with the Cisco CCDA which has no prerequisites.
I know I’ve missed off a few paths such as Big Data, Computer Forensics, Governance, etc. This is just my best attempt to cover the most common choices and paths. Make sure you do your own research and make the choices which are right for you. Consider the lifetime value of your certifications, salary levels and how much you enjoy that particular technology or role.
If you have any suggestions, then drop a comment.
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