How to get the best start with an IT career

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

When you are in College / University it is hard to have the far-sightedness to know how your career is going to progress and where you will be in the future. If you are currently studying to work in the IT industry it is a good idea to start thinking about what you are going to do once you graduate and what direction you would like to take. In this post I would like to give you some suggestions on how to make those first few steps into the IT industry. If you have some good suggestions yourself please add them in the comments.

What to do before you graduate
Whatever you do, don't wait until you graduate before you start thinking about what you will do with your qualification. Many of you will be doing a generic IT degree that will prepare you for a range of careers within the industry. Now is the time to find out exactly what area you want to work in. If you don't decide early you may find that you are in a job you don't enjoy and in that case your second job will need to be a move sideways to something you do enjoy.

Once you have found the area you are interested in start learning and I don't just mean your text books. If your area of choice is design start reading about colour, start looking through books about interior decorating or design theory. If it is e-business, research some of the success stories in the industry or some of the more abstract titles on marketing. Read, read, read! Knowledge is king in the IT industry, the more you learn the more valuable you are; not just in terms of financial gain, but in the quality of the work you will deliver.

Apply your knowledge. Find an open source project on the internet and get to work. Even if you can only work on small sections you will improve. Reach out and connect to others in your industry via social networking and find out how you can help by asking. While I was attending university I asked anyone I knew if they could offer some work experience and after a couple of weeks I was able to help collate and prepare single HTML pages for a company intranet, eventually progessing on to whole sections of their site. You need to reach out, the goal is to get something on your resume other than working at Wendys or generic call centre experience.

Do as much studying, casual work, volunteer work, work experience and open source project work as you can before you graduate and you will be in a prime position come the time you graduate.

What to do once you graduate
Once you graduate you should have a clear idea of which part of the IT industry you want to work in and hopefully you have put the hard yards in to read and learn some of the skills you will require.

If you start having a look at employment advertisements you may be dissapointed, most of the jobs you would love to be doing usually require a lot more experience than you have. I would suggest that this is a fact for most people starting out, if you are damn lucky you will be able to find a fantastic first job that not only pays well, but is exactly what you were looking for. The key here is to focus on where you want to be rather than what is available to you now. It is best to think of your first job as a stepping stone to your ideal job. My first job as a programmer was paying much less than I was getting paid at the supermarket I worked at during my studies. The trick is to find a job that will actually get you to where you want to be next.

The other point I would like to make about your first job; if it is only a stepping stone and there is no progression, do not stay there longer than a year. Work as hard as you possibly can in the first year to add many different skills to your resume and then move to where you want to be. If you are still being paid like a paperboy after a year, you are either not learning enough or your work is not appreciated. Remember, you want to get to the next step and start doing some real work.

Once you land that all important second job you should be on your way to a positive and rewarding career in the IT industry.

Just to sumarise:
- Decide early what you want to do, don't wait till you graduate
- Learn as much as you can while you are still studying
- Look for work opportunities either in open source projects or work experience through social connections
- Be content with your first job as long as it steers you in the right direction
- Work hard in your first year so you can be in the job you want in a years time
- Knowledge is king, learn and keep learning
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