Ask LH: How Can I Break Into An IT Pro Role?

Ask LH: How Can I Break Into An IT Pro Role?

Dear Lifehacker, I am currently working in a field completely unrelated to IT, but would love a primer on where to start when it comes to breaking into the IT sector. Extra points for having a pathway that isn’t “Go to Uni, loser!”, as I am well past the age where it is acceptable to eat ramen noodles at every meal. Thanks, Career Reboot

Career picture from Shutterstock

Dear CR,

We were asked a somewhat similar question earlier this year, and we didn’t advocate going to university, so you’re in safe hands. You can check out that original post and we won’t repeat it here, but the advice boiled down to three areas: get involved with open source, start a blog on IT topics, and explore IT options at your current

Being older might make university unappealing, but it means you should have a broader understanding of how business operates than someone fresh out of tertiary education. Your key requirement is to demonstrate skill, and the best way to acquire IT skills is by actually doing things. Yes, you might need to start at the bottom and yes, you’re likely to face a salary cut. But if you develop your abilities, it’s possible to progress quite rapidly in IT.

Readers have extra or specific advice for CR? Share it in the comments.


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  • Step 1: Don’t call it an “IT Pro” role.
    Step 2: Stop reading blogs about how to get a job you want and actually do something.. You know.. Productive.


    Lol but no, my number 1 tip would be don’t be afraid to start at the bottom. All a uni degree will get you is one or two steps up the chain, the same thing can be done if you’re right for the job in many cases in under 6 months with some dedication.

  • Hey there,

    This is TOTALLY achievable.
    3 years ago I decided that I really wanted to work in the technology sector. Up until then my only real life experience was a a Call Centre worker. I have never been the uni type and like you considered myself too old to start a three year degree. (I was 27 then).

    Step 1) Find ways to take ownership of technology related tasks at your current job. There is always something you can do. You would be surprised. Even if you are not in an office there will be some digital footprint for your business. You could offer to help with spreadsheets, responding to emails even offering to look after a social media account for your workplace can help

    Step 2)
    Look at the related jobs to yours. What jobs is it possible for you to move into that take advantage of your current skills but have some inbuilt computer time? It is very unlikely that you’ll hop from a totally non IT job to being a Sys admin but that there will be several small logical jumps along the way.

    Step 3)
    When you are in a job that does involve full time at a PC look at ways to improve processes for your current job – That’s what IT is all about. Can you do things better with a small database (Even the dread MS Access is a start). Can you push for collaboration tools and critically can you find a internal or external course to learn some skills? Often small teams in big companies don’t have a corporate intranet presence – offering to build and maintain a simple web presence for your team is a great place to get started and experiment “on the clock”.

    Step 4)
    There is a world of great free resources to teach you many different IT disciplines – from databases, web development to VOIP. It can be daunting at first but you must be prepared to read a bit every day.


    You must take responsibility for your own developmental needs. You can’t rely on a boss, mentor or employer. You have to drive this. Your motivation, your passion. Believe in yourself. Set goals.

    If I can do it then so can you. Good luck!

  • I’ve been a security professional for 8 years and have never been to university. My tips for getting a well paid IT job;

    1.Pick a field you are very interested in. Interested enough that you are happy to spend your own time reading and studying. Get every book on the subject and read them. Make sure some of those books are older or out of date. Big customer have lots of old stuff and you need to understand it to implement newer technologies. IT is built up of layers of older technologies.

    2. Ensure that field is specialised enough that you can specialize. If its not pick something else. Think security, databases, load balancing, data center, forensics, compliance, IPTel or storage technologies.

    3. Dont listen to people who tell you about not being vendor centric and learn generalist skills (i.e. University). Pick vendors or successfully companies and get certified in their products or proccesses. Oracle, Check Point, Cisco, Mcafee, Vmware, Microsoft. These guys sell billions of dollars worth of equipment so why would you not want to associate yourselves with them. Yes Cisco engineers are dime a dozen but good ones are still worth their weight in gold and are still paid appropriately.

    4. Setup a lab at home and and learn stuff by doing it. If you find another area of interest from doing this then move into that area and learn it too.

    5. Be prepared to start at the bottom. Get a support job supporting the technology to start learning it from the users perspective.

    6. Once you know the products through testing and labbing dont be afraid to talk your way into a job by showing you understand how things work. You will usually be interviewed by techies who like people that a) know about things in depth and b) have relatable stories about working in the trenches.

    7. Work you ass off to figure stuff out and prove to the people ythat you know your shit or can figure things out out. If it means working all night to figure something out do so.

    8. Most importantly, early on in your career move around frequently. About 1-3 years in the job is the most you should do. As soon as you start feeling comfortable and aren’t learning anything from the job or from your workmates, move on. Take low paying jobs if they are interesting or move overseas and work for a large organisation. If you job involves creating reports, managing other people or not getting your hands dirty then you are losing your technical skills which make you valuable.

    • Certifications are absolutely worthless. Waste of time and money. They’re usually largely irrelevant at most a year after completion, and sometimes obsolete before even completing. I have several (CCNA, CCNP, MCSE, MCTS, LPIC-2, etc), none of which have EVER played an active role in landing me a job or even a promotion.

      My experience on the other hand…

  • I’m not sure this method is valid any more, but:
    1. Join the military, get to know large electronic systems & get a security clearance too.
    2. Transfer the security clearance to a new job, with IT skills.

    A good security clearance / vetting takes time and costs a lot. Technically, you can’t start classified work until it comes through. Transferring is easier, faster and cheaper – so some companies [or Government employers] will overlook a lack of “formal” qualifications if you have this tick in the box.

    • I second this. The number of roles i see or offered to me that require clearance. Agencies dont care even care to find out about experience. A security cleared contractor is worth a lot.

      i would focus more on getting certified as part of learning or adding to your skill set. Quick search of available jobs clearly show how little an MCSE or CCNA commands. Reminds me of a role i saw just the other day….required a handful of certs, and a few years experience. max they could offer for the role was $25.

  • I’d look for roles that often have a lot of connection with IT roles in a corporate environment, or mention a specific IT component in their description (“manage our new XYZ system rollout” or “support clients using our ABC product”). I’ve been shanghaied by IT teams in 3 different companies (and multiple times for long periods in the same companies).

    While Uni may not be an option, there are some shorter TAFE courses and quals you can look at doing.

    Also, seriously, SERIOUSLY don’t underestimate any client relationship/management or project management (including non-IT PM) skills you may have. Good code monkeys are relatively abundant (OK, adequate code monkeys are abundant) – good management, analysis and client relationship people are rare.

  • Why would anyone possibly want to work in IT any more. The monkey work / entry level jobs are fast disappearing overseas, the senior roles are all grandfathered junk looking after crufty and ancient programs on obsolete platforms so you spend your entire day doing triage on some abandoned code. The organisations that still employ IT staff are quite happy for management to take credit for all the successes but sheet home every failure to whoever was unlucky enough to man the keyboard that particular day. It’s like being a plumber in a prison without the benefits.

    • Because of the money. I earn more than I would as a doctor or lawyer. Still, I agree – most nights you come home feeling dirty then cry yourself to sleep 😉

  • IT is quickly becoming a contract-driven industry. Career roles are out there, but they’re becoming increasingly harder to find, both because the market is saturated with candidates, and because companies are pushing more and more IT work to contracts that can be easily mixed and matched. A ‘career’ in IT is certainly possible, but entering the industry now, expect to have to fight for it much harder than in other industries.

  • It depends what is meant by “breaking into the IT sector”. If you’re happy with a role as a “web developer” or similar (think low-paid roles in simple technologies for small companies), then you certainly don’t need a uni degree. Google for what languages are popular where you live (or ask around), then start with some online tutorials and books on the topic. At the point at which you know the terminology but still suck, you will have no problems getting one of those jobs and learning the rest.

    If you’re looking for a higher-paid job that people will actually respect you for you will either need a degree (related to your field) or 10+ years of having worked in a professional industry. At this point you can become a business analyst or tester, so long as you work for an IT department that is in the field you’ve been working in. Again, it would be worth reading some books before applying for these roles (so you can fool the interviewers). Same goes for IT management if you’re already a manager.

    Finally, if you want to become a developer (in a real language) or architect, you will need a degree. Without that you will be unhirable.

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