How To Prepare For A Professional IT Career

There is no shortage of paths, places, schools, and modalities as to where to study information technology and prepare for a professional career. Many choices may not make it easy for you to decide. The good news is that there are some useful guiding principles to help you get started. The critical point is not to be on the sidelines, but to get involved and keep in mind that you can change your starting path and still reach your goal.

You may be asking yourself, “What is my goal?” – and that’s ok. Many struggle with this question. So, let’s assume that it is primarily to land a paying job in exchange for some skills and enjoy the process of getting there. There is something for everyone, regardless of your financial or employment situation – those in high school, adult learners, career changers, and even IT pros.

The public library. A humble beginning

You may be thinking, “Are you kidding me!?“. Well, the answer will depend on many factors, including your financial and employment circumstances. For example, the point at which you are in your life, motivation, willingness to start learning for free, and what you think you know versus what you think is available to you in a library. The emphasis is on “start,” “free,” and “available.” It’s just the beginning of the journey!

To get started, you will need a library card. Many libraries have computers, so you don’t have to buy one right away. Pick any topic in information technology that interests you, and get started to learn how to search for information. Ask the librarian about available resources and to show you how to search. Take your time with this. It’s critical. You will quickly discover information available in print and digital formats, as well as various databases where the digital information is stored. Sign something out, take it home, and read or watch. This first trip to the library will give you a transferrable skill (systematic information search) for all further academic pursuits and professional work. Often overlooked, but true!

Home base. Get ready to rock!

As your confidence grows, consider doing some research and investing in a laptop computer. Think of it as your essential tool of the trade, the core of your basement or room tech centre, and a portal to multiple dimensions. The second trip to the library, or your first search from home on your new laptop, could look something like this (assuming, for example, that you are interested in learning computer programming): find a beginner’s book on any programming language of your choice (C, C#, Java, Python, etc.), download a free code development environment (IDE), read, and practice the exercises in the book. You may even consider writing your own code about some problem that you are trying to solve, or a mobile app or computer game that you are trying to build.

This learning process may not be very glamorous, and it does require motivation and discipline. Luckily, there are many free online courses, and you just need to do a simple search for them – something that you are already skilled at! Oh, by the way, don’t forget to keep coding.

High school. Set the stage

If you are fortunate to have an opportunity to attend high school, and I do say fortunate as millions of people are not, there is no shortage of learning resources to prepare you for your IT career: teachers (what and how to), guidance counsellors (pathways to get there), specific courses (technical details and how to), friends and classmates (tech support, team building, and learning support), guest speakers (professional networking and what’s going in IT), student clubs (have fun and make something new happen), competitions (stand out and show your best), and let’s not forget the library (content, learning support, and a far reach into IT topics not covered in class).

While there is much to choose from in terms of available courses, do enroll in electives dealing with computer programming, business, mathematics, design, and information technology. With everything available to you, no excuse should prevent you from taking full ownership for creating your high school experience and setting the stage for a successful transition to college or university. And, by the way, if you are focused on learning programming, keep an eye on those language classes!

Colleges and universities. Make it happen!

In IT, employers often require proof of formal education with credentials like a certificate, diploma, degree, graduate certificate, or even a micro-credential. Depending on the certification, school and program, those can be obtained in four months or three to four years.

Practical skills are also critical for landing a job in the IT industry. A great place to acquire such skills is at public colleges, particularly those that offer IT industry-relevant programs, paid co-op termscapstone project courses, as well as opportunities to get involved in applied research, entrepreneurship, and possibly apprenticeships. A parallel but more expensive route, with a relatively shorter average timeline to the job market, includes private vocational colleges, which offer less academic breadth. Many public colleges also offer degree programs and pathways, enabling graduates to pursue higher academic credentials later at a university.

Furthermore, the rise in popularity in shorter programs, such as fast-track, graduate certificate, and micro-credentials, enables graduates and IT professionals to quickly refocus and sharpen their skills to align with the job market.

With the privilege of being at a public college, engage in all aspects of your academic and extra-curricular experience to become your very best. Remember that you will be competing for jobs with graduates from other colleges and universities.

Universities have historically attracted top high school students, often supported by traditional parental guidance, which may be based on historical experience, but not necessarily the most current information about IT. It is noteworthy to reiterate that one cannot underestimate the overarching power of practical skills when pursuing IT employment. If you choose a university path, research the programs to find out if they develop practical skills and have a professional experience year.

As morphing between colleges and universities continues to evolve in both teaching and research, keep in mind that universities’ primary focus is research and adding to the existing body of knowledge. If you intend to pursue a university path for a career in IT, consider programs such as computer science, mathematics, and electrical or computer engineering. Do not overlook the university path if you are planning to contribute to the advancement of IT, create the next tech giant, or get a job.

Ultimately, when deciding on a college or university, take time to do your research, attend Open House events and lectures, visit lab and lecture facilities, and meet students and graduates. Find out about the school’s industry connections and graduate placement rates. Most importantly, meet the professors who will be teaching you and the administrators who will be supporting you during your academic journey.

Finally, regardless of your school choice, consider if online or in-person learning is best for you, and choose programs accordingly. Hardware intensive IT programs are best experienced in a physical lab, but can also be enjoyable, rigorous, and completed online. Software programs can be great either way, depending on your preferred modality. Along with traditional online programs offered at colleges and universities, the rise of massive online open courses (MOOCs) and programs has created even more opportunities for earning an IT credential.

In conclusion

Make a decision and start to pursue your IT education to join a multi-trillion dollar industry. There are many options, pathways, and resources available to become your very best IT professional. Remember that focus, interest, motivation, and discipline are essential ingredients for success, regardless of the chosen school. You own your journey and have the power to create a learning experience that enables you to reach your goal. So, give it a go, as there are no restrictions on who can or will start the next tech giant!

About the Author

Dr. Predrag Pešikan an electrical engineer and business professional with management and leadership experience in both public and private higher education sector. He has served in executive roles as CIO, VP-IT, and Dean, and recently led the development of industry relevant programs including AI, Cybersecurity, and IoT. His research interest is in IT, leadership, and profitability of tech startups.

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