Ask LH: What's The Best Way To Get Into IT?

Should I Let a Certification Expire If I Don't Work With It Anymore?

Hey Lifehacker, I am currently in year 11 and so I'm thinking about jobs for later life. I really love computers and have a passion for the technology that makes it work. To get into IT support or an IT role in a company, what skill sets do I need and how can I get a head start? Thanks, Aspiring Supergeek

Dear AS,

The information technology sector has a dizzying array of degrees and certifications to choose from and there are numerous professional pathways to the top. Naturally, the first step is to take computer science and maths subjects as your electives — the sooner you start learning the basics of programming, the better.

Here's some advice we shared in a previous Ask LH post that should serve you well:

If you're looking to go beyond one specific project or specialty, or you want to learn a bunch of languages, it's best to start with learning the basic concepts of programming and how to "think like a coder". That way, no matter what your first programming language, you can apply those skills towards learning a new one (maybe in as little as 21 minutes). Even kids' coding apps can be useful to start with.   For example, the first formal programming course I took (well, other than BASIC back in fourth grade) was Harvard's CS50, which you can take for free. Professor Malan starts the course off with Scratch, a drag-and-drop programming environment built for kids that teaches coding basics and logic — while helping you create something cool — and then he proceeds to teach you C.

C is one of the most widely used programming languages — it's essentially the programming equivalent of learning basic anatomy in the medical profession. C will teach you how a program interacts with hardware along with the fundamentals of programming at the lowest hardware level; stuff like debugging programs, memory management and how computers actually work. At the same time, you'll be learning how to code efficiently for many other languages.

It also helps to have a visible online presence via either a personal blog or high levels of output on popular technology forums. You can also build your reputation by contributing to crowdsourced coding projects on sites like GitHub.

If you're capable of balancing work with high school, seek out a part-time job in an electronics store. A retailer like JB HiFi, Dick Smith or Apple might not teach you very much about IT, but you will gain valuable customer service skills in a field that's tangentially relevant.

We're also going to throw this one over to our readers: how did you get started in IT and did you learn from any mistakes along the way? Share your stories with AS in the comments section below.

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    Getting some sort of Level 1 IT Help Desk experience on your resume is a good start. Generally, you can work your way into various departments of IT within a business by starting at the help desk, escalating issues you cannot fix to various other teams, server teams, web teams, exchange support teams etc. Once you have some exposure and interaction with those teams, put your hand up for secondments or other roles that become available. Then once you're in, work hard. I only completed a Cert II in IT, Cert IV in Networking & Programming and an Advanced Diploma in Network Security and an online SQL course. I haven't gone on to gain any Microsoft qualifications etc. I started in a help desk.

    He's asking about "IT support or an IT role in a company", and the response is geared primarily towards becoming a programmer.

    If you're not aiming for a coding role, the compsci and maths is still handy but probably a little less applicable. The post above me covers a whole bunch of good information on the right certs and possible career progression

    The most important thing is being interested in what you're doing and problem solving. In sysadmin and support, a huge amount of your knowledge starts with one of these two phrases:
    -"That's weird, it shouldn't be doing that"
    -"Hey, is there a way we can do x?"
    If you don't already know the answer, you go off and research and look into it and come up with a solution. And the next time something similar comes up, you already know how most printers talk to the mail server or all the edge cases for the VPN not working or why the hell DNS replication isn't replicating like it should.

    I find knowledge gained through problem solving sticks with me a lot better than knowledge from a course.

    Don't bother with uni. Those extra years of study would be putting to waste some of the best learning years of your life where you could be actually DOING something that you want to do.

    Find a job in a IT field that interests you, even if it's entry level, and build your skills and experience. If you genuinely love all things computers, put in the hard work and the rest will follow.

    Edit: Oh, and of course, teach yourself as much as you can in your spare time :) Get involved with online communities, forums, wherever your passion lies.

    Last edited 27/08/14 3:00 pm

      I disagree. While what you learn at uni may very well be of little use, having the piece of paper goes a long way to getting past the automated shredder stage

    If you're going full programming then definitely consider university.
    University degrees offer you a lot more ease relocating to another country if you're considering taking the skillset you'll develop global and potentially give you access to a graduate program right out the gate.

    Be mindful that larger companies are opting to outsource IT support, admin and engineering roles; you should consider taking your talents to one of these companies for exposure to larger environments.
    If you want to start out small there's numerous small companies out there aiming to provide support to the home user market all the way up to medium businesses.

    Be wary of specializing too soon into technologies that are currently being provided by larger organizations; for instance a messaging admin/engineer has been a perfectly valid profession for a long time, allot of organizations small to large are moving to managed solutions hosted by big providers.
    The exception to above is database administration and networking.

    For admin work pick a camp, windows or *nix; however keep one foot in the other camp as this will broaden your scope of experience and remember neither technology focus here is better than the other, each have their own strengths and weaknesses.
    Don't voice this opinion though, people will troll you.

    Developing some coding skills is a great idea if you're doing infrastructure admin too, teaches you to work on IT things programmatically and will help you develop insight into the mindset of the people who develop the services you may end up supporting.

    Lastly if you have a passion for computers and computing work you should excel at your first position, getting that position is the challenge, don't be afraid to ask people that you may know who are in similar roles if they know of any positions in organizations around them.

    This is just my opinion, so please take it with a grain of salt:

    Uni/TAFE?
    Not worth your time if you're already proficient enough to prove yourself to an employer. I have a Cert. 1, 2, 3 and half of 4. None of those are on my Resume and I landed a job in one of the biggest industries in Australia. In saying that, you absolute must be able to talk the talk and know your shit. If you're interested in computers/technology but don't have the know-how, then TAFE is my preferred option. It's a heck of a lot more hands-on from what I've experienced/heard from friends. I've been in my job for 3 years now, and most of my friends who took the Uni path are only just going into their final year. Study isn't everything if you know your stuff and can prove it to an employer. Offering to work x weeks/months for free is a good way to learn their systems and prove yourself.

    IT Support?
    You'll enjoy the first year, maybe even two, but from there you'll just get fed up with people asking stupid questions and having to do the same boring tasks day in, day out. Support is definitely a good way to break into the industry, but make sure you have a goal in mind, and be sure to always be working towards that goal. Study while you work, and follow the specialist industry you're aiming for (i.e. programming, security, etc..)

    Specialist?
    There's so many options out there that sometimes it's hard to know what you're looking for. If you know what you want to do already, then you're set! Get working towards it. If you're not, then deciding can be tough. Don't be afraid to set up virtual machines, hack your virtual machines/own computers, build viruses in sandboxes, build/rebuild computers, create yourself programs at home to assist your homework/whatever you think would be useful. Don't be afraid to get your hands dirty whilst you're in a safe environment. The best way to learn is to do. Once you've had a bit of a taste of everything, you can step back and really see where you enjoy your time most, and where you keep ending up. That's probably where you want to aim for.

    A job is a job.
    Please, please, please... whatever you do, keep in mind that a job is rarely anything more than just a job. You will enjoy a small portion of it, and it'll eventually become merely "work". This is part of life - just be sure you don't let your job ruin your passion.

    Whilst it is just my opinion, and not at all fact, hopefully that's helped you in some way!
    Best of luck!

    EDIT: I can not stress enough how important people skills are - especially in furthering your career. Being friendly with your boss can be a god-send down the track, and when people in your organisation get along with you and actually enjoy your assistance, they're likely to report back to your boss with thanks. Something that will get you a long, long way.

    Last edited 27/08/14 6:23 pm

    I'd have to recommend other resources like podcasts. There are tons of great teachers out there and a bunch of amazing podcasts.

    If you're into Java, check out the How to Program with Java podcast

    First of all, as mentioned previously, find the field that you're most likely to find appealing. Is it networking, programming, security, collaboration (Voice/Video), it any of the multitude of options available to you.

    Once you've decided, do your research on the pathways open to you. A degree in CompSci is solid option to get you in the door for an interview, but you will need to have additional certifications to help you really progress beyond entry level roles.

    I've personally done a CompSci degree, with a couple of Certs. That being said, I've working in sales for the last few years to gain the other most important skill needed - communication skills. Too often I see guys with a wealth of knowledge but no way to communicate.

    So, have a clear vision as to which field of study within IT you want to go into (I know this can be hard to do being in Yr.11). Once that's done, explore the pathways to get you there, and then go for it!

    University is definitely worth it, even if it's just for that piece of paper at the end.
    Not to mention the work placement opportunities that may come during a degree (which basically guarantees you a job afterwards).

    Volunteer at a community technology centre or similar. You will get experience managing a network, managing security on public access computers, and dealing with members of the public with tech support problems you can't dream of. And they'll love you and give you a reference.

    If you're going to learn programming then do not learn C - it is not an object oriented language. Virtually all new application development is object-oriented these days, and has been for a while. C is an old language, and while still used, it has been superceded by others much better. Instead, try Java, C# or C++ all C-based languages, but more importantly all object-oriented languages, and in wide use / demand.

    If you were a bit older I would say go the learning by doing route and go helpdesk and move up. With the movement to SaaS and IT support outsourcing, getting into junior sysadmin/netadmin roles is getting harder and harder as the larger IT service providers lap it all up. (Was just talking to a IT service provider GM today about their gov't contracts and the culling of IT professionals within the government sector.
    IMO codeacademy,com learn HTML/CSS,PHP Python and Ruby some way down the road learn Swift, get yourself a portfolio of work from doing stuff for family/friends or some contract jobs and start looking for dev positions or get official and get a computer science degree at uni and go from there.
    Computer programming is the long term workable career path that will just keep on growing and there is MASSIVE demands for it. I would seriously consider it if I were you.

    I've been in the IT industry for nearly 8 years now myself. I made my entry by going through a certificate 3 at TAFE and getting an extremely low paying job for a Managed Services Provider when I was 17.

    While working there I completed my certificate 4 and diploma by taking a paycut and attending TAFE 2 days a week. The company would not invest in improving skillsets of employees. This has been the case of nearly every IT company I've ever worked for and most companies that provide "training" mean they will pay the $150 for the test after you've spent the 100 hours of your own time going over CBT nuggets videos or paid $5000 for a boot camp on the content AND they will only pay the $150 IF YOU PASS.

    Stay away from school IT unless you want an average paying no stress job with no prospect of career progression.

    If you're truly passionate about IT I strongly suggest you stay away from Desktop engineer or service desk like roles and look into either the programming or networking side of things. Be prepared no matter what discipline of IT you take on to fork out your own money and free time for training and keeping up to date with the ever accelerating technology market.

    Don't let my bitterness for the industry turn you off. I unfortunately can't say anything good about it and am actively pursuing a Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical) at University to get the hell away from it

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