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Building Your I.T. Career: Beware of Bad Career Advice

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Whether online, from well-meaning peers, or from the college career counselor, there is a lot of bad advice out there. This article discusses some of the most-often repeated and worst advice. It presents alternative advice to help you keep your career on the fast track for stability and growth.
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There is some bad career advice out there. It can range from someone telling you that you shouldn’t work too hard, it makes others look bad, and your employer will come to expect it, to someone suggesting you not take on a task because it is NOT in your job description.

As a career coach and author, I’ve read and heard a LOT of it. In fact, it seems for every new batch of graduates and even seasoned I.T. pros, some of the same bad advice continues to be offered by well-meaning, or perhaps cynical and not so well-meaning individuals.

My goal is to help you recognize the bad advice and offer a contrary idea and ultimately, better advice. I’m not claiming that this is the only bad advice you may ever hear, but some of these are so damaging and yet oft-repeated, that I need to address them.

Start at the Help Desk

This entire article was prompted by this specific piece of advice. I hear it a lot and it might be the worst advice ever offered to I.T. professionals. Unless your goal is to work in the help desk and perhaps manage a help desk, there is almost NEVER a reason to seek a help desk job. An exception might be if you are offered a help desk job and you are using it to pay bills while you find a better job.

I was exchanging messages with a young I.T. professional who specialized in school in database administration. She has interned doing some database and reporting work. It is what she likes to do. She asked her college career advisor how to break into database administration.

“Get a help desk job,” was the advice she received.

Working the help desk will NOT move you closer to a database administration position. In fact, it moves you closer to having more outdated skills than when you left college and virtually NO experience working with databases. Well, except entering data into a trouble ticket and doing Google searches. But don’t confuse data entry and Google searches as database administration or anything leading to it.

I mention database administration but the same is true for system administrator, network engineer, software developer, and so on. Again, unless your desired job is on the helpdesk or managing it, you don’t need to work it.

If Not the Help Desk, What?

Glad you asked. You are better off working at a smaller company or in a department where you work with those people doing that job. A smaller organization has less highly specialized jobs and allows for a LOT of movement between those jobs.

It might be in the form of interning (but only for an organization doing database work) or for a small business. Your title is NOT the critical piece of this puzzle. The work you do and what you learn is.

If that means you start and then leave a couple of these positions, that is fine. This is about gathering knowledge and gaining talent at places where you can add value to what they do.

You Need Another Certification or Degree to Get Ahead or Get That Job

I think school is awesome! It’s great, really! You meet great friends, you have a structured approach to learning something, and the experience can be fun.

However, every time you want a new job or want to learn a new skill, YOU DO NOT NEED A NEW DEGREE OR CERT. Did I say that loudly enough?

In fact, in case you didn’t notice this after your first degree or cert, even if you got a job in the area of said degree or cert, you were NOT prepared. Unless you worked at an actual job working on those skills you were learning in school, you didn’t enter the job prepared to do it.

No one did. Everyone learns their job while on the job. They learn by doing it.

You learn more in 10 weeks on a job than you do in three or four semesters at school. This is particularly true with I.T. jobs.

But What About Requirements on Job Postings

If you are going back to school because you see a job description you like with a specific degree or cert, bad news, that job will be gone by the time you graduate.

I know what you are thinking; you’ll get the next job with that degree or cert listed.

This might be true, but I believe that you would get that job as quickly or more quickly by getting experience at that technology and more effectively building your professional network. You see, the job description and the never-ending list of requirements is a way for them to reduce resumes. But if you know people who know people who know what you do, you’ll get your resume to the people who want and need your talent.

More important, they’ll see you as someone who adopts new technologies as needed…as they come up…. This is what happens in business and on the job all the time.

Don’t Take on Projects or Work Not in Your Job Description

This piece of advice might be one of the biggest career suicide moves you can make.

There are people, I’ll suggest either cynical or they don’t want the competition, who will tell people NOT to take on a tasks that are NOT in their job description.

When I worked for a large insurance company, I am pretty certain there was a job description for my title. I may have even seen it at some point. I definitely never read it.

My job was made clear by my boss; make things run more smoothly using software and hardware and those computer things on their desk. That is what she wanted; that is what I did.

I wasn’t hired to write software, but I started writing batch routines, then a database, then a document assembly system, then a tracking and reporting system, and so on.

I ended up writing a training manual, delivering the training, managing and interfacing with vendors, and more. Heck; I learned some basic first aid, safety training, and search and rescue, too.

I knew that by doing so, I was increasing my value to the company and to the market. This is important. I didn’t need my company to pay me the day I started doing another tasks because I knew either a) it would pay me when I asked for more pay or b) I would find a place that would.

Beware defining what you do by a job description. It is crippling and even suicidal from a career standpoint.

You Need to Stay at That Job to Show Stability

Never stay at a job to show stability for some future job. Period.

Okay, I’ll explain. Your role at a job is to add value to the company you serve. As you do so, you should also be adding value to yourself in the form of skills and relationships.

If at some point, there is an opportunity for a better job or role elsewhere, one where your talents will be stretched and grown, take it. Or at least consider it. And, if the sole or primary reason for staying at your current job is to demonstrate stability, take the new job.

I’ll make this caveat: If you find that you switch several jobs and none of them seem to work out, you need to consider why. Either you are assessing opportunities poorly or you are failing to develop the opportunity when you are there.

Don’t Intern for Free or Low Pay

You should maintain a trade-pay-for-opportunity mentality over the life of your career. This is particularly true early in your career but there are always time when this concept is helpful.

I am certain I will rub some people the wrong way with this piece of advice, but you should be ready to work for free (let’s call it pro bono) for the right opportunity. Unfortunately, recent legal changes and some notable examples of companies abusing interns have made unpaid internships impossible to find.

On your own, however, you can create relationships with nonprofits, your local church, a local cause, or a local small business to help them with technology. The nature of the relationship allows you a little more freedom to learn new technologies and develop some much needed project experience.

I also want to note here that if the internship or lower paid role is simply administrative and clerical tasks, DO NOT take it. You need to utilize this time effectively, and that should include substantial time working on projects where you can develop your technology skills.

The last piece of advice I want to offer you encapsulates all the previous advice. When seeking advice for your career, speak to the MOST successful and proactive professionals you can find. Your peers may be nice, but you will find the advice you receive from a strong leader, a CIO, the owner of a consulting company, a senior manager, and such carries greater weight and authority.

As you continue to grow your career, consider carefully the source of your advice. In the end, you are in charge of your career and how you navigate finding and keeping work. Surround yourself with positive and proactive mentors and coaches, and ask yourself constantly what you are doing that adds value to the organization you serve.

Do this and you are sure to have a dynamic, rewarding, and profitable career.

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