I had the honor of speaking to some students alongside some of my colleagues in 2019. On two occasions we spoke at IT Works (Tech Impact) to a great group of students that are beginning their career journey into IT. It was a great sharing our experiences with them and I believe they got to see how much our paths were both similar yet very different. My plan in 2020 is to begin mentoring some of these students on a weekly basis. I am very much looking forward to that.
With the New Year here, I’m sure some people out there have their resolutions ready or maybe undecided on them. If you are new to IT…you could be a new student, new in the field or embarking on a career change…my hope is this article resonates with you and gives you the guidance you might be looking for. I’m going to share some of my experiences as well as provide you some advice that’ll hopefully help you on what will be a long and successful career.
Starting the Journey
For those of you out there starting your journey into IT, get ready because it was quite a ride for me. Whether you’re coming fresh out of high school, changing majors at college or making a career change after being in another industry, you all have something in common and that’s a fresh clean slate. Go into it with an open mind and understanding that you won’t fully grasp everything immediately. It will take time for things to begin to click and make sense. Do not set the bar too high for yourself. In fact I don’t recommend setting an immediate high expectation at all because in the beginning stages you need to lay a foundation. Use that time to establish a groundwork to build your career. Establish a routine-like mindset early to prepare yourself then later on you can set some expectations.
I’ll never forget how overwhelmed I was when I first started. First learning the terminology and the number of acronyms being used, it blew my mind. Some students had a basic understanding from either another foundations class or experience playing with a home lab. Some did not which is the ballpark I was in. The best way I can compare my first 4 weeks of school was very similar to sitting in a foreign language class. Feeling inundated and/or intimidated is totally normal and it’ll come and go at times. Find a way to remain calm, refocus and plan to use baby steps when learning. Most importantly, know when to take a break from it.
An early on step I recommend is figure out what type of learner you are? What do I mean by that? For me I would read material initially but after that I had to quickly follow it up by seeing what I was reading. I’m a visual and tactile learner (30% visual, 70% tactile is how I could best describe myself). If I cannot visualize or touch something then it takes a little more time for me to learn. Some people are the exact opposite. The important thing is figure out which type of learner you are and go from there because it’ll help you get through material and solidify your understanding.
The thing that worked for me the most was reading the course material, immediately jump into a lab or other type of hands (something to visualize) and then I would go back and read the material again several more times. That routine helped me “connect the dots” and essentially increase my understanding. In some cases you may do several iterations of this and that is okay too because I have found repetition to be very useful. Doing something over and over will literally tattoo it to the back of your mind.
There is no prescribed method or approach when it comes to learning. Not just early in your career but something you will carry with you day in and day out the rest of your work life. Remind yourself you are starting with a clean slate. Again, my recommendation would be to start your journey off by identifying your learning style. Aim to keep things simple and less complex. Trust me, the complexity will come later.
A few years ago I attended a workshop for architects and someone there shared a statement that had a major impact on my career and that was…
“We are born with two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we talk.”
I can honestly say I wish I had that advice earlier in my career. Makes complete and total sense to me. I notice have absorbed information much more efficiently with that mindset.
In most cases, whatever class (or classes) you are taking right now have you on some trajectory that ends with taking one or possibly multiple certification exams. That is the nature of the beast when getting into this field. Achieving certification by passing an exam is nothing more than validation that you understand the material on a particular level. Some certifications are very basic, some are middle ground and others are expert level.
In the early stages you are likely enrolled in some type of course that focuses on fundamentals. Once upon a time I was a technical instructor and students always began with CompTIA certification track that focused on core foundations. These basics will provide you a foundation to build upon and in my opinion everyone looking to embark on a career in IT should enroll in these courses. Even if your end goal is something in cyber security, public cloud, networking or some sort of programming…having a thorough understanding at a basic level will make you successful in both the short-term and long-term.
Once you have a basic understanding and pass some of these CompTIA exams, your next goal is to decide if you want to attend another course that ends in a different certification or start applying for jobs. When I first started and completed my CompTIA courses (A+ and Network+) I immediately transitioned into Microsoft MCSE courses because that was in very high-demand when I was in school. Looking for something in high-demand is a good approach because you have a high probability of finding a job in a fair amount of time.
Going immediately into the industry after achieving your fundamentals is good for two reasons. One, you immediately start building your resume and doing what I call “paying your dues” by doing some dirty work. Two, in most cases employers pay for any future courses/certifications that you want to achieve. Certainly this is something to look for when choosing where to work after leaving your schooling. Career development is a great benefit to have!
Specializing in Something
My recommendation is to pick something you are going to enjoy working with on a daily basis. A lot of this will be trial and error so don’t get frustrated. As I mentioned above I went into learning Microsoft Windows, desktop and server operating systems early in my career. After that I started to get more heavily involved in Cisco networking; specifically routing and switching technology. My long-term goal after my foundations was to develop a well-round understanding of just about every element in the data center. I touched some and went “further down the rabbit hole” with a couple others.
Another thing I did was spend time with people who were in the trenches doing various tasks such as database administration or developers/programmers. I knew I was never going venture down those paths very far and eventually become one but I wanted to better understand what their daily job was like because, as a systems administrator, I knew I had to support their applications on the physical systems I was supporting.
Did I need to become a programmer to fully understand programming languages such as C#, C++ or Java? Not at all. Same thing applies with the database engineers. I did not have to become a fully certified Microsoft SQL or Oracle expert in order to understand the database engineers. My goal was to develop a thorough understanding of what they do on a daily basis. I needed to be able to converse with them on a daily basis which would ensure their success and mine.
Here are a few links to certifications from various vendors in the industry that will help you decide what might be part of your journey. Make a path, set some goals and work your way towards it. Will your goals sometimes change or alter course? Sure can. It’s all part of the journey!
- VMware Certification
- Amazon Web Service (AWS) Certification
- Microsoft Certification
- Linux Certification
- Cisco Certification
- Oracle Certification
Good 3rd party sites for some online courses…
You might get into something and part of the way through you decide it isn’t for you. It wasn’t what you expected. That is okay and perfectly normal and good to find out NOW versus investing the next few years on it. Don’t get down on yourself or lose confidence in what you are doing. For example, let’s say you were taking a class for Cisco networking and you no longer visioned yourself doing networking full time. Don’t sweat it. Pivot your approach and complete the class because at some point or another you will come across networking. Utilize that time to strengthen your network understanding and then move onto another path.
The most important thing is if there is something you are interested in or maybe just don’t know enough about…go learn it! Technology has provided us the ability to have information quickly available at the tip of our fingers. Ask people who are already in the trenches doing this stuff daily and get their perspective. Of course take it with a grain of salt but listen to them and pick their brain.
Information is everywhere so learn how to quickly find what you are looking for on your own before relying on someone else to give you the answer. If you are spinning your wheels after a little while then that is when you reach out to someone for help. Every IT vendor has some sort of Knowledge Base (aka KB) available online. Get in the habit of knowing how to quickly locate information. Could be for learning something new, could be used for troubleshooting or a combination of things. Aside from being expected to work in a team environment, you will also be expected to execute tasks independently. Make sure you can do both.
Note Taking and Studying
Let’s be honest, the amount of material you are going to cover in any IT class is a load for anyone to read and try to understand. Do not feel like you need to memorize all of this content verbatim. Read it several times and then take notes in a separate notebook and leave a reference footnote. Keep moving the ball forward.
Anytime I take notes I try to do so using an outline format. This method works well for me because it helps me stay organized and allows me to quickly reference something anytime I need to go back and review. I do this both the old school “pen to paper” or using one of my favorite apps Microsoft OneNote which indexes my notes and makes them entirely searchable. I can go back and locate notes very quickly.
When it comes to studying and exam preparation by all means avoid cramming before an exam. In my opinion cramming sets you back and can quickly fog up your memory. That is coming from a personal experience. The good thing about certification exams is you can schedule them (and reschedule them) according to your own time. It’s not like a teacher giving you a specific exam date and you need to be prepared by then. As your certification exam day approaches and you feel you just not quite ready, simply reschedule it. Most exams require at least 24 hour notice to reschedule so do not procrastinate. You’ll know if you’re ready or not and taking an extra week or two to prep will only help increase your chances of passing whereas cramming will likely increase your chances of failing.
Establish Good Habits
When I was an instructor one of the things I would always tell my students was to begin establishing good habits while you are in school. Better to do it when you are in training mode than on the job. In my opinion, don’t limit your time in the classroom to just learning a specific technology. Use that time wisely to ready yourself for being on the job.
Good habits start with establishing a mindset. I would ask my students to treat the classroom as if they were already on the job. I didn’t mandate it but I encouraged them to come to class dressed as if they were going to work. Come to class on time and if you have to miss class make sure you call out just as you would on the job. Ready yourself for that now. Imagine if you didn’t come to work on time or were sick and didn’t come in but didn’t notify your supervisor prior. What do you think would happen? Written up and/or most likely lose your job right? My recommendation is to use that classroom time wisely, treat it like a work environment and not just another school to take a class.
Now for some good habits in the classroom. Working in teams is a great way to work on your communication. I would even suggest it to your instructor for some lab exercises if you find early on that most labs are performed on an individual basis. As for labs that are done individually and not teams, create that opportunity for yourself and always try to lend a hand to other classmates who might be struggling with a particular topic or lab exercise. Remember I mentioned how repetition will help you? Here is the chance to get some extra reps by helping your classmates just as you would be expected to help a fellow coworker in the field. Start doing it now so when you have that job and working in the field it becomes 2nd nature.
So start developing that team first mentality!
There is going to come a time where you are going to feel exhausted and stressed out over the amount of material you are covering in a short period of time. Trust me when I say this, it is completely normal and happens to all of us. It won’t be the last time either, it just happens. The important thing is how you deal with it and respond to it.
The amount of material that you need to cover looks mountain sized so get it out of your mind now thinking you need to tackle all of this as fast as possible and understand it immediately. You are better off breaking thing down into chunks and taking your time and understanding things slowly. Tackling everything with a fast approach and quick as possible mentality will only create massive confusion. So try and avoid it.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you are in the middle of learning how DNS works. Do not feel like you need to understand it at an expert level as soon as that chapter is finished. It won’t be the first and last time you will come across DNS in your career. Focus on the fundamentals of it and over time it will suddenly CLICK in your mind one day. Believe me, things will eventually start making sense and tying things together.
I compare the IT journey to learning a foreign language. The more you are exposed to it and hear it repetitively the better off you will be. I can’t say it enough, things will eventually come together. Just remain focused and keep your eyes on the goal.
If you are feeling overwhelmed or burned out, take a break and walk away. I cannot tell you how many times early in my career where I’ve read a simple paragraph or sentence and my mind what constantly going “wait, what?” When you have moments like this, it is time to put the book down, iPad down or close the laptop and take a break. Know when to walk away and come back to it. If you are feeling burned out, check out my other blog article on how to Recover from Burnout.
So just a quick summary of what I recommend for you during the classroom and certification phases of your career.
In no particular order:
- Establish good habits; treat the classroom as if you are at work. This includes knowing how to work individually and as a team. Learning how to communicate is one of the keys to success.
- Identify the type of learner you are. Find that perfect balance between reading and doing. Find an efficient method to take notes so you can quickly reference them.
- Listen twice as much as you speak.
- Work on your mindset to help you better prepare for what is ahead.
- Know when to walk away and avoid burnout.
- Choose something for work that you know you will be happy doing. Don’t pick something just because have bills to pay and mouths to feed. You could very well end up being miserable. Make sure you are happy doing what you are doing!
Good luck and if you have any questions please feel free to reach out!