Choosing an IT career
Infrastructure engineering, software development, becoming a guru, consulting, sales, teaching
IT Career Paths
Operators, Software Developers, Gurus, Consultants, Sales Representatives, Academic Careers, and Web Developers
The question is: what can you actually do? It is far from authentic when someone takes a round trip along various roles, or it is only in very exceptional cases. Do you really know something? Can you really do something? That is why it is important to find the proper career path quickly. A rookie of 30 seems to be a bit suspicious, in other words, there is no one in the market nowadays who would appreciate multiple degrees.
There are about 5 different career paths within IT, namely those of developers, operators, consultants, sales representatives, and people in science & education. If there is an innovation, it must be made utilizable for the industry, it must be sold, deployed, and operated, observation must be made during operations, they must be analyzed, new requirements need to be defined to inspire new thoughts, arrive at new definitions, then figure all out all right, etc., etc., etc., and the circle (or helix) starts over and over again. The paths are attached to that, with their peaks of some leadership or knowledge transfer role, or, at a higher level, thinking in terms of complex systems and the management of such systems.
From the individual’s perspective, there is of course an additional option: set up your own business, which actually means a career path over various skills and trades. That may happen before all the other options, or any time in between. When setting up a business, the task is more like sales: you have to sell your business, your product, and yourself in the market. (So it is a good idea to practice it at someone else’s expense .) And another thing. Set up a business only if you are completely, absolutely and headily obsessed! It will succeed only if you can stand against even the highest tsunamis. The rumor that you need capital, that is, money, for it is more or less false. Mimox is a good example—it emerged from nothing. We had the first interviews in a rented room (at 5,000 HUF/hour), in an office building, and we rented the room for the duration of the interviews only. It was a bit risky indeed, but… you’d better have good nerves as well, it is much more important than money. And what is an absolute must is creativity and humor. Good luck!
And what you must not or should not do is this:
We mean the green line! Those who switch lanes back and forth might lose authenticity in the market sooner or later, and will have no place to go. There are exceptions, indeed, and there are people keen on development as well as operations. But they are extraordinary personnel, or the areas they cover may actually be connected in one way or another. If you started as a system administrator and now you want to do some programming, there is no problem—at the beginning. It would be much harder, on the other hand, to start writing programs after several years. There are only a few who succeeded in it without difficulties.
(Motto: “An MA user will fix spelling mistakes in config.sys. But please appreciate their intent for making it better!”)
Most IT people, no matter what they will become at a later stage, start their careers, even in their very early years, when they come across their neighbors or uncles, poor fellows, struggling their PC’s in a really funny way, loading them with viruses or wondering what the new configuration should look like. It is pretty hard to see such a struggle and do nothing, so one turns his or her hands to help them. Compiles a list, goes over with a screwdriver, installs, uninstalls or cleans something, hoping that the kith and kin won’t get into too big a trouble for at least a week. As time passes by, more and more such friends or relatives pop up, with an endless stream of problems. And that is the point when and average IT people throw a fit. “No more users anymore,” they shout and lock themselves in with their Google, or, with an “I’m-a-delicate-minded-scientist” look on their faces, they indicate gently that those friends or relatives had better get off. But there are enthusiastic exceptions, who realize the extraordinary business opportunity and become system administrators!
When you get into a business as a rookie, your first task is, indeed, user support on that line of business, and that activity is not really different than that with your uncle, there the colleagues and the customers are the ones to tend, and you get paid for it. There are hardly any more complex things to do, and there is no need for thinking. Progress here is to get into an IT environment deeper and deeper. The goal can be to get, as soon as possible, from the “a few PC’s + file server, mail server + firewall” environment to one that includes the support of some business application. So, as the arrows in the picture show, the first responsibility is PCs, then the servers, and then the people in the first two responsibilities, and finally the complete system, including all hardware as well as people. At the end, the CIO (Chief Information Officer) performs business strategy, or determines business strategy in some places! ( There have been a series of conferences organized to define the exact role of a CIO. We believe that it can’t be defined in general. It depends on the market, the business’s culture and the people what a business actually expects from its CIO, what the business can, wants and allows him or her to do. It seems to be sure, however, that an integrated and conscious utilization of IT tends to be necessary to gain competitive advantage in every industry. And it is hard for managers without an IT background because they do (or may) not know what can be achieved using IT tools.
It is important to point out here that the system administrator is usually the CIO at smaller businesses, though he or she may not have budgeting responsibilities, but has a decision preparation role. Thus, at smaller businesses, even the system administrator can influence the operation of the business with their good ideas; which means we need not suppress our initiative selves. Just because the business leaders struggle with something that can be solved by IT means in no time! An example: a candidate talked about himself during an interview and said they had used XY printer for printing bar codes. It was not interesting as far as the interview was concerned, and he would have gone on with his story, when the interviewer stopped him astonished because he though a bar code producing tool cost several hundred thousand Forints. Being a small business, they have not even thought of using bar codes for solving their identification problems (not for goods). And the solution was right in their office, but they didn’t know about it.
Who should choose an operator’s career? Mostly those who can and want to grow and develop themselves organically rather than dramatically, in big steps. Those who are patient and can build a strong castle using a lot of small pieces of stone. Those who appreciate that the users are not stupid, they are experts of something else instead. To tell you the truth, it is the IT operators who make the world go round—it would definitely stop without them. That area needs stable feet to stand on. It is possible, and a must, to innovate, but the essence is support and service delivered to others. IT is of utmost importance at most businesses, it may even have strategic role, but (But!) not a raison d’être…
(0 & 1. You have to create the whole world out of these two.)
There said to be kids who don’t fall in love with computer games – but we don’t know such kids. And there are kids, who, right after falling in love, get bored with the games and want to create better ones! When you realize that your real goal while playing the Prince of Persia is not to escape the princess but to figure out the combination using which the gate would not let the hero through heehaw… well, then you may sometime be a programmer! Seriously speaking, those who become programmers usually write codes in their early ages, when the kids next door are still busy at the “hell” level.
As you can see in the picture, responsibility goes from code to technology or the deeper knowledge of a particular area.
Programmers start as “coders,” with very well specified tasks, then they may become larger scale programmers, and then senior developers. Later they may reach the level of architects (designers), and, finally, some of them might be a CTO (Chief Technology Officer), who is responsible for technology and development strategy.
Coders write codes “from here to there,” and quite often they don’t even know what the complete software would do in the end. They got a well-defined task and the proper knowledge of the syntax of the programming language is sufficient for them. (Though it is good to have or try to have an overview of the big picture as well.) Software developers, on the other hand, are able to create a complete piece of software or a new module of it, from the beginning through the end, with design tasks included. In the case of more complex development, it is performed in a team, and support may also need to be provided for operators or end users.
As responsibility grows, it tends to involve the responsibility of leading others. Those who have ambitions and would like to lead others, may become senior developers. At this level, they are only the firsts amongst the equals, they assign tasks to junior colleagues, check what and how they perform, sometimes set their schedules, but senior developers are not the ones who can determine others’ compensations or who can fire or hire others. At team level, they have the final words regarding technological issues, and they need to share a lot of knowledge. The good side of it is that they are deeply involved in the design process as well.
The knowledge of software design and development methodologies may help careers from the beginning. Currently the agile techniques and Extreme Programming are also becoming popular, and a number of other methodologies are also being tried. (Although the chaos method is also widespread, disguised as “waterfall”.)
As one goes up in hierarchy, they get more and more administrative (reporting), human resource management, etc. tasks. At the top, the CTO is an HR manager, similar to the CIO in operations, but a CTO is usually much closer to technology. They don’t develop or write codes themselves, but could join the team if necessary. CTO is the one who selects the adequate technology for a system and makes make/Buy decisions. Therefore, they must be familiar with the technological possibilities as well as the business opportunities. CTOs are applied by software development businesses only or organizations of industries, such as banking or telecommunications, where the base products or services themselves require software development.
The question that is the hardest to answer in the course of the career of a software developer is choosing the proper technology, that is, determining which programming language is to be the flagship in the CV. Everything is changing and becoming obsolete, or coming back to life as Perl . The solution is the continuous watch for career opportunities. That is the simplest method for determining what is trendy and salable. If a technology seems to dominate the lists, it needs attention. It is also useful to check the technical journals periodically, not to find new thing is them, instead to see which company won which tender with which technology at which giant customer.
So, who will be “in demand” continuously in the human resource market and who will pull through the next possible downturn? Those who stand on the ground with both feet! That is, those who have a generally accepted or high level technological knowledge AND know a very new, very modern technology that is not YET widespread but is like to become widespread soon… Thus, a high level of Java or .NET knowledge delivers you a job and a number of offers. Besides, you need Brainfuck, F#, or Haskell to make the offers high… (Those are haphazard shots. Almost. Don’t take it for granted, anyway.)
We need to talk, oh yeah, about testing, too…
Software testing is not much on the curricula, hell. And is not taken seriously, damn it… And in most places the whole project collapses if it is not developed so that it should be tried sooner or later and checked how it works, for heaven’s sake… And sometimes the server might stop and customers try and escape or tear all their remaining hairs at least—we could see such a situation in January when we ourselves were one of such customers, X#V@*!!!
That is a niche market, which is more than important because there are only a few who really know it and most developers hate the topic. (Of course, it is not that motivating to be negative all the time etc.) Thus, the businesses that test for others and organize the process are in a very good position. They have few competitors, they are full of orders; and, in theory, they can make a fortune on it! Clever software developer teams develop methodologies that can be utilized at several customers and develop (!) a lot of automatic procedures!
The needs are growing bigger because the IT systems are simply too complex and, what is most important, are related to one another. The market is beginning to understand that a “tester” is not simply one who continuously pesters others like a machine, he or she is the best of developers instead, who can and is willing to document things, and who is rigorous and precise, who minds the details, who anticipates the consequences as well as the consequences of the consequences, but who is not necessarily keen on new ideas for every day. That means that they don’t need to be motivated by assigning them different jobs around the clock. That is, a tester is extremely valuable…
Those who are interested in this topic, should check out the International Software Testing Qualifications Board. And you can take courses, pass exams and get certified!
Gurus, consultants, and other sideward steps
(“You’re in a balloon!”)
Consultancy—the art of selling warm air
If you don’t want to step higher in the hierarchy because you are scared by the opportunity of managing people, you should step sideward! In other words, your knowledge can be deepened, not only widened! You may even be an oracle. The one, who is called in the end if no one knows the proper solution. There are areas in which you can even get qualifications, such as Microsoft MVP (Most Valued Professional). If you have an MVP qualification in MS SQL, then you will be asked in case no one else in the world can answer an MS SQL question.
The only problem with this category is the existence of junior consultants. How on earth that could be? How can somebody be an oracle once he or she is junior and can’t even have a deep understanding of anything? So that no way. That title means that its holder will, sometime in the future, know something, and until that time he or she does the don’t-like tasks of senior fellows, from dawn till dusk, and keeps on watching and watching and watching.
In a nutshell, you need to select a specialization that you know very, very much, and, by the nature of the thing, you’d better LOVE it as well. At the top of that path, you will be THE GURU. Who will be the one to descend from a helicopter and act when any and all other options fail. It is important to note that those who choose this type of career would feel by the age of 30 or so what would preoccupy them more than anything else…
You should select an area that can be defined widely enough to allow a change without losing your face should it seem to be wrong or should the original expertise become obsolete due to some technological development, but has some characteristics and clear boundaries. You should also make sure that progress be possible in that area even after decades, that is, the area should be sufficiently complex. To tell you the truth, it is for those who can stick to a particular theme and drill deeper and deeper into it. (We don’t want to send extroverts home, for sure.)
In the case of consultants, the typical assignment is for a project, that is, they are loyal not to a particular business, they are loyal to their expertise instead, and they wander from project to project, work with different people, need to learn different cultures, and must always obey different people, to be introduced right here:
Project management – the art of time helix; for those with heavy duty nerves only
A project manager should be able to handle various things in parallel, keep a lot of different things in mind, should be flexible, diplomatic, and should be able to evaluate how (negative) a particular decision affects various people, they should have technological knowledge that is enough to judge how long a particular task should take, in spite of the endless trials by the executers for lengthening it. Therefore, the best project managers spend years in a given area, acquire specialized knowledge as well, but they are not interested in any particular area so much that they choose to be lost in it. Instead, they love to draw conclusions regarding the organization of a work, the behaviors of their colleagues under the pressure of deadlines, and the typical organizational pitfalls in teamwork. And if you choose this career, you must be interested in business and profit, and you should not be horrified by the word “customer.”
In information technology, there are basically two types of projects: software development and infrastructural projects, rarely, mainly at higher levels, the combination of both. In another classification, there are internal projects, which aim at the improvement of the operation of a business itself or the development of a new product, and there are external projects, which aim at the improvement of the productivity of the customers. In the latter case, the trick is to manage people or multiple teams simultaneously that can’t be punished in any way for non-performance, who may actually be against the implementation of the project, or who have no prior agreements among themselves. Or who dump on one another. Or you.
From the career’s point of view, it is important which cell of the above matrix of 2×2 you have your primary experience in, which one you like, which is your strength. Since there is hardly any transit between the cells; one with experience in internal infrastructural projects, for instance, needs extraordinary luck to be employed in a position for developing software for a customer. It is worthwhile to try this and that in smaller scale so that you have something to build your CV on when the big opportunity is in sight. For anyone with no sound coding experience, it is virtually impossible to get a project manager position in complex software development where scores or hundreds of developers work on the same project.
Project managers manage small projects first, then they manage bigger projects, and finally they supervise project management methodology; the main feature is the amount of money in the project or the amount of money the project owner/executor gains/loses or how mission critical that particular area is, rather than the number of people involved in the project.
There are various project management methodologies, and one can find trainings and get certifications for them.
The best approach is to check the website of the international project management institute. For international certificates, please refer to http://www.pmi.org/CareerDevelopment/Pages/Default.aspx. Note that there are projects for which the project managers must have PMP (Project Management Professional) certifications, and that there are levels and specializations as well.
You may, for instance, be a Risk Management Super Guru, and, quite understandably, if you are involved in oil rig construction, even on the software side of it, it is different from you know, that usual invoicing system . There may be positions that accept candidates with PMP or MCP certificates issued by PRINCE2, ITIL or PMI only.
(“Larks’ tongues. Wrens’ livers. Chaffinch brains. Jaguars’ earlobes. Wolf nipple chips. Get ’em while they’re hot. They’re lovely. Dromedary pretzels, only half a denar. Tuscany fried bats.” – from Life of Biran)
A real sales representative can sell anything to anybody at any time – the opportunities, like the electrons in materials, are plenty. All you have to do is catch them. Oil to the Arabs or snow to the Eskimos – doesn’t matter. But, not quite so. There is an exception: IT.
Our task here is very easy. If you are reading this text indeed to get an overview of the various career options, you most probably will never become a successful sales representative. Such people start making business in the kindergarten by swapping things such as beads, then, in the primary school, earn their pocket money by carrying bags and serving as guards for those in the higher years, they sell their birthday presents for sweets packaging which then they resell for cool matchboxes—and make really good businesses. Moreover, they love people, and talk and talk and talk, watch everything, though not thoroughly, and store information, any information—any piece of information might be used for something, nothing is to be cleared from memory… Such people get university degrees, write their theses, then they don’t even think of working as engineers; the university is used only to establish a network of contacts, heehaw! If you can’t list the names of at least 30 university fellows on the fly, you’d better forget this career, indeed.
But what makes IT sales different from the others?
(Disclaimer: yes, we are biased from now on.) Because nowadays the competitive advantage of (almost) all businesses in services or industries substantially depend on their utilization of the opportunities offered to them by the evolution of IT. (As referred to above.) IT procurement, security levels, and investments have essential effects on the survival chances of any business in this volatile and open ended global economic environment. A sales representative must also be an expert. For it is where the competition is the toughest in the market, where the products and services offered have the widest range, where the comparison is the easiest, and where, due to the internet, globalization, and the almost complete language independence, the suppliers even from Zimbabwe are the most easily accessible. On the other hand, the extension of IT must provide new business opportunities (even if they lead, directly, to “only” a single saving); thus, the sales representatives must be familiar with the market of the customer as well!
That is the career when you enter a university and stay there for long or forever. At the end you will have various awards and a list of publications several pages long. It is very hard to move to the world of business from there. The other way round is also difficult, and not frequently tried. It is not a secret that that career can’t offer quick steps to make yourself a wealthy man/woman, at least in Hungary. And that is the career where the young full of ambitions face the options of either leaving the country or starving or dying of bureaucracy and fights for power.
Those who can speak a foreign language (primarily English!) and understand a technology and its teaching methods down to their depths, may have opportunities outside the academic sphere, as more and more enterprises and banks have been looking for specialized teachers and pay them decent salaries. They can also write study books or reference books!
Mostly senior, experienced IT personnel may take an excursion into that area to have some rest or because they feel inspired to share their accumulated experiences with others. Although teaching might not be the most relaxing activity one can imagine…
Some thoughts on Web Developers
A technology affects labor market if it is required in large quantities by major customers in the market. (Such as the banks.) Because they expect to strengthen their positions with that technology, or because they obtain competitive advantage due to a change in one of their business processes or due to opening a new market. Like in the case of Java vis-à-vis Php. (That is why Java developers earn much more than Php developers.)
The technology you choose should be sufficiently “complex” and “sophisticated.” Nobody should be able to learn it easily. “Nobody” here means end users or those working in other areas.
There was a change in paradigm about 15 years ago, followed by more silent revolution, “the users’ wake.” As a result, a lot of tasks that used to be reserved for IT people can now be performed by ordinary users. They can even create compete websites. And developers must know much more than the users are able accomplish.
As for salaries, the market has got into a helix, now the second time since the revolution of the Internet. The end of the first, global salary helix was the .com crisis. The reason for it was the sudden increase in the demand for IT people, which generated shortage as it hadn’t been an attractive career before. Shortage + demand made IT resources expensive. It created a good position for IT employees temporarily, but, after the boom, there soon came a downturn in 2002–2003. After some time customers didn’t believe that they really needed to invest into newer and newer IT resources to obtain competitive advantages. There has been an upswing since 2004.
Even the constantly high IT salaries have not been enough to attract large volumes of young graduates to choose IT careers; more typical is the training and career switch among those who have started with other jobs originally. Especially web developers have other (non-IT) prior positions. Things one needs for web development can be learned at home, while almost no one can start programming in C++ . Therefore, those who want to be web developers will face a huge number of competitors.