Saturday, September 24, 2011

College Degree vs. Cert vs. Experience

At this point in 2011, the Information Technology field is doing very well. For whatever reason, the number of jobs in nearly all IT fields are more plentiful than they've been in almost four years.  Many businesses have finally come to the realization that cost-cutting is great, but not so much when applied to their own IT operations.  It's like tossing out dead weight from a moving train, and then starting to unbolt and discard the engine.  Someone finally says "Wait! This is not a good idea!", and they start working making sure the engine keeps working.  This is the phase we're in now.  Businesses are investing in IT to help leverage existing resources more thoroughly and find hidden nuggets to put to use.  We've all heard it for so long that it's become background noise, but it's actually happening, and not a minute too soon.

For this reason, there are now more jobs in the IT field than we've seen in quite a few years.  This is especially true in the U.S.  Not as many as there were heading up to the Recession, but better than any year since, for sure.  Way better.  As a result, a lot of kids are starting to take another look at the IT field as a career choice.

Ironically, part of what quelled interest in IT careers for most high schoolers between 2004 and 2008 was a media frenzy focusing on "outsourcing" to other countries.  U.S. kids would often tell their counselors and college recruiters that they didn't think the IT field was viable in the U.S. They would typically say it was because future jobs would be going to India, China and elsewhere.  That belief actually constrained future labor prospects for a few years to the point where many large corporations began ramping up their outsourcing to other countries to hedge their bets.  Belief often leads to perception, and perception guides action, as they say.

But that effort hasn't panned out so well for many companies, for a variety of reasons and unforeseen market changes.  Some aspects of IT have proven to work very well in a global labor market, while others work best when kept in house.  So far, anyway.  This is true for any company, in any country, not just in the U.S.  This has led to a recent increase in internal IT hiring within the U.S. and indeed in many other countries.  I'm speaking here mostly about the U.S. market, since that's what I'm most familiar with (if anything).

What to Do?

This is a topic (the headline of this post) that comes up quite often, especially coming from kids just about to leave High School.  I hear it from veterans about to part ways with the military after their term of service is about to end.  I hear it from people that work in other fields and want to try another option in life.  Those that are interested in pursuing a computer-related career of some sort, tend to ask the same batch of questions:

"Does a college degree help?"

"Should I get certifications first or after school? Instead of school?"

"Do certifications or school even help in the IT field?"

"Microsoft?  Apple?  Open Source?"

"What part of IT is the best to work in?"

Answering these questions is tough, because there are many variables.  The best answer is "it depends".  My colleagues will chuckle over that since they say it's the quintessential consultant response to every question...

"Dave, if I swallow a live hand grenade and jump into a raging arc furnace, will I survive?"

"It depends."

...and so on.

Anyhow, the significance of having a degree, a cert or years of experience, upon your career opportunities is somewhat like asking what attracts one person to another.  Some are looking for certain qualities or traits, while others have completely opposite preferences.  Cars, clothes, money, looks, height, race, religion, speaking accent, social life, hobbies, or sense of humor, honesty, confidence, vulnerability, and so on.  Then there's affluence and demographics.  Oh shit, this could go very deep and into an area I'm not qualified to speak about. (as if I'm qualified to speak about anything)

Basically, there is no ONE answer.  Here's why...

Environment Scale.

If you intend to work for a large corporate employer, things like college degree and certification might matter a lot.  In fact, they usually do.  Some will place more value on those two aspects of a potential hire than on past experience.  Others place more value on experience than on anything else.  And yet others place more value on "gut feeling" and "personality".  It depends on what that employer has in mind for what they're going to have you do (job role or job description).

Smaller employers (mom and pop up to medium sized businesses, even some non-profits) may focus more on experience alone.  Some may focus more on a degree and experience.  It varies.

Case 1: A large defense contractor wants to hire someone to work on a particular software-oriented weapons system for a large military customer. They interview two candidates:
Candidate A - has a Masters Degree in CS from a reputable university, and 5 years experience at a competing firm working on large software projects.  This candidate has little or no specific knowledge or experience with this particular weapons system, nor with the customer it relates to.
Candidate B - has no degree at all, but has 5 years of hands-on direct experience working on that very same weapons system for the same military customer.  This candidate demonstrates an articulate knowledge of the system and how to operate it, as well as as its shortcomings.
Guess which one will get hired?  Obviously, this is a ceterus parabus situation (where I'm leaving out that all other aspects/traits of the two candidates are otherwise equal).

And for another...

Case 2:  A small business needs to hire full-time "IT Manager" to oversee an existing team of four, handling everything IT-related internally, from hardware to software.  They interview two candidates:
Candidate A - has 5 years experience running a small help desk at another small business, mostly supporting desktops, laptops and printers.
Candidate B - has 5 years experience running a small help desk at another small business, mostly supporting desktops, laptops and printers, and has a BS degree in computer science from a respectable school.
Guess which one gets hired?

These are obviously just two possible situations out of an infinitely possible world.  Either of these two could include additional conditions that would flip the choices either way.

There are equal balances of pro and con aspects to working in either a large or small environment.  Where one side gains from Flexibility, the other gains in greater Resource Capacity.  Where one side suffers from Repetitiveness, the other suffers from (lack of) Budget.

Stability is a Myth.

Never assume that the size or history of a company is a solid indication of job stability.  I've seen dozens (yes, DOZENS) of examples where large, historied firms were merged or aquired, or suffered a major defeat (internally or from competitors) and crashed.  I've seen small shops be aquired by huge companies and I've seen big companies decide to eliminate entire functions from their business. 

Workers of any kind (IT or otherwise), tend to be viewed as "units of labor" at certain levels of business management.  The weapons against that are necessity and utility.  You have to make yourself necessary and of great benefit to the business.  Note those italicized words.

Being a fifth wheel offers little benefit and can easily be eliminated to cut costs.  Being the only wheel, or one of very few wheels, makes you more valuable, BUT: only if you accel at what you do.

For example, I worked for a company for about seven years, that had continuously grown at a stellar pace for almost thirty years.  I had a ton of stock options waiting to fully vest and received regular raises and bonuses every year based on my performance.  Everything about that company was maturing steadily and the quality of hires was improving every day.  It seemed like the place where I would advance into a management role and retire from some day.

Then the CEO decided that he was going to retire, but instead of handing the reigns to the EVP, he was selling it to two companies and splitting it in half.  In a few weeks my stock options were nullified and my job was reduced to almost menial labor with almost no management direction at all. (even worse, I was being directed by two managers that hated each other and given conflicting orders, with HR doing nothing to resolve the matter).  My potential retirement investment portfolio dropped roughly $40 in a single day as my stock options turned to dust.  The fine print legal terms did not help us at all either, we were sitting ducks as a result of one man pulling the plug and ejecting with the only parachute.

In short: what seemed like a great future, suddenly turned into a cesspool.  The staff abandoned their posts day by day until I was the LAST person in my group left.  It was depressing.  Enough of that - let's move along...

Colleagues of mine at other major corporations have been laid off due to cost cutting efforts.  Others were laid off when their small business employers went under.  There are no garantees.  Nothing is for certain.  Even a lengthy history of strong results is no guarantee.  Ask anyone at RIM, Nokia, Cisco, Nortel, Motorola or Sun Microsystems.  Ask anyone at Microsoft from back in 2009. 

Here's the basic run-down:  small employers tend to have small lay-offs.  Big employers tend to have big lay-offs.

As I already said: The best defense against instability is to make yourself more valuable to the business.  Be careful:  Being valuable to the IT operation is NOT the same as being valuable to the business.  Remember that.

IT Roles Matter.

It also matters what particular aspect of "IT" you want to work in.  Tier-1/Help Desk? Server Administrator?  Software Engineer? Systems Architect?  Database Administrator?  CTO?  CIO?  Maybe you really want to work in content creation, such as multimedia production, or video services.  Each of these has its own unique needs, and its own unique focus on skills, credentials and experience.

As for the question "What part of IT is best to work in?", that is a very tricky question.  What is "best"?  Does "best" mean:

  • Higher paying?
  • More job opportunities in more places?
  • More flexibility?
  • More fun?
  • More opportunities to grow and advance?
  • Greater stability and security of employment?

You might find a field that pays more than another field, but ends up being boring or frustrating for you.  You may find a field that's fun and exciting but doesn't pay enough to live on.  You may find a position that is exciting and pays well, but ends up going nowhere and becomes a repetitive drag.

Some questions career counselors (specializing in IT) might ask:

  • Do you prefer creativity and flexibility or the challenge of solving complex problems more?
  • Do you prefer isolation and privacy or socializing and team environments?
  • Do you prefer an office or traveling, or working from home?
  • Do you REALLY want this or are you looking for a bigger pay check?
  • Do you prefer math problems or drawing pictures and diagrams more?
  • Do you prefer taking things apart and tinkering or using a mouse and keyboard?
  • Do you find massive scale complexity to be fascinating or dull?

How you tend to answer these questions might help guide you towards one aspect of IT or another.  Assembling servers and server racks, SAN installations, network routers and switches, running fiber, setting up wireless networks, encryption and authentication, firewalls and filtering, intrusion detection and prevention, designing software user interfaces, animation production, video content and production services, 3D engineering and design (CAD/CAM), software engineering, systems architecture, process automation, protocols APIs and ASICs, database administration, database engineering, business information modeling, process simulation and modeling, the list goes on and on and on. 

Each of these tends to favor certain personality traits over others.  I would provide some generalizations but I'm sure that would piss off quite a few people (haw haw), so I'll let you explore that aspect yourself.  Let's just say that IT functions that involve more isolated time tend to attract more isolate personality types, and the ones that involve more social interaction tend to attract the more socially interactable types.  Let's just say.

Most IT jobs are in an office with little travel, at least not enough to involve airports.  But there are plenty that involve some or even extensive travel.  For some that is exciting stuff.  For others that's a major drag.  You need to decide which avenue suits you best and be ready to answer that question during an interview.

Interviewer: "This job may involve extensive travel.  Roughly 75 percent of your time will be on the road or in the air, and you'll be going between the (U.S.) coasts and occassionally to Europe.  Do you have a problem with that?"

You: _____

Investigate.

Once you figure out what general field of IT you want to get involved with, find people that work in that particular field.  Don't ask your friend, who happens to be a DBA, what he/she thinks would be best for you to pursue a job as a Software Engineer or Technical Manager.  At least, not unless he/she has plenty of experience doing exactly that.  One thing you will find is that each vertical segment of the IT world has different views, opinions and perspectives on themselves than they have on other vertical segments.  If you want to be a Systems Engineer ask a Systems Engineer what it involves.  Better yet: ask three or more.

Figure out where you want to work, or what field of work, and then investigate what that environment wants in their employees. If that field or employer tends to prefer a particular college degree, or set of certifications, that should give you a clear target to aim for. Experience is a little tougher since you can't just sign up to get that. It comes from doing hands-on work and building a trail of accomplishments you can refer back to.

It's a big, complicated field of work.  It's a complicated thing to figure out too.

Confused?  Welcome to the party.

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