You Better Love Working in Information Technology (IT) – or Else!
In my career as a manager and professor, I have unfortunately seen people choose Information Technology (IT) as a career for the wrong reasons. The primary reason why they choose IT is money. Yes, it’s true that IT is a relatively high paying job and requires less schooling than other high paying professions like doctors, scientists and lawyers, but there are reasons why it’s a relatively high paying job, and if a person doesn’t know this, that person is in for a rude awakening.
First, expect to work long hours. IT is a project-driven job, and during crunch time, you will be expected to work long hours, including weekends and holidays. Because of this, many IT workers burn out quickly, and they end up changing careers. If you don’t really like this line of work, do something else before it’s too late. When I was teaching in post-secondary institutions, I would openly advise students to change their direction before investing too much money in education for a profession that they wouldn’t like, much to the chagrin of those institutions who wanted to keep those “butts in the seats” because of the money.
Second, expect to be on-call, but don’t expect to be paid for being on-call. While there are some companies that understand work-life balance and offer additional pay for being on-call, most companies expect you to do it as part of the job. If you are starting out in IT, you will probably be starting in a support role, so being on-call will be the norm. Get used to getting called at 3:00 in the morning, or worse yet, get used to getting called on a weekend. Although there are laws in place in the United States regarding overtime (the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) at the federal level, and additional overtime laws at the state level), companies skate around the law by classifying you as either an exempt salaried employee or title you as a “manager” (even though you have no direct reports or true managerial responsibilities) so you don’t qualify for overtime. What I advise future IT people to do is negotiate some form of compensation for being on-call, whether it’s additional money or additional time off. If the company won’t offer you that, then find another company that will. If you’re in dire straits and you have to take the job, go ahead and take the job, but continue to be active in your job search.
Third, if you think that you’ll be done with school, think again. You’ll never stop with coursework. Technology is a fast-paced field, and in order to remain relevant, you’ll still need to keep learning to stay relevant. I witnessed how being irrelevant negatively affects you. In 2002, I was teaching computer programming courses at the local community college. About 6 of my students were CoBOL programmers who were laid off during the dot com bubble in 2000, and they couldn’t find work because they didn’t know the current “hot” programming languages at the time, which were .NET and Java. I was able to keep in touch with one of the students, and after taking the class, she was able to get a job programming Java, but she ended up taking a large pay cut because she was considered a “junior level” developer in Java, although she was working in software development for over 20 years and had a degree in software engineering from one of the most prestigious schools in the country (Carnegie-Mellon University). If you’re learning the skill while you’re working, and you have an opportunity to apply this new skill, whether at your current job or in freelance, you’ll be able to maintain you salary growth. I had a student start programming apps for the iPhone when the iPhone first came out during his free time, and not only did he get recognition in the local paper, he was able to pick and choose his job and perks.
Fourth, working in IT is like working as a law enforcement officer – when all is well, they don’t know you exist. If something is wrong, they scream bloody murder. If you have an even temper and the ability to let things roll like water off a duck’s back, you won’t last long. I worked with a lady who was fired from the job after 6 months because she took the frustrated end-users rants too personally, and she lost her temper with one of the end-users by insulting the end-user and included a few “colorful metaphors” for good measure.
Finally, if you’re interested in career growth, working in IT is not the career to choose, unless you’re working for a smaller startup that specializes in technology or if you’re working on your own as a freelance contractor or as a business owner. Larger corporations view IT as a “necessary evil”, and unless you are working for an organization that values the CIO as a business contributor, you’re not going anywhere. If your company decides to outsource and offshore the work, you will be working in a lower capacity that won’t help your career growth. In order to build your career, you’ll probably end up doing a lot of job-hopping. Let me share my experience. I was working for a major corporation. The pay was great, and the benefits were stellar (free health care, 4 weeks vacation, unlimited sick days), and it was within walking distance from where I lived. However, the company didn’t really value their IT workers. This wasn’t their main industry, and they viewed IT as the “necessary expense”. To help cut costs, they began outsourcing the software development work to other companies and purchasing off-the-shelf software, so instead of doing software development, I was an overpaid tech support person whose main job was to take the calls from people in the organization and report their issues to the 3rd party group responsible for the software development. This is not what I wanted in my career. I spent too much money to get my Master’s degree and had way too much experience to be an overpaid tech support person. If I wanted to stay with the company and move up in my career, I would have had to start all over again in something completely different. Since I wasn’t ready to leave IT yet, I spent time making myself an expert in SharePoint (See? There’s that constant learning again…), wrote tutorials on enhancing SharePoint that ended up getting published, and did freelance consulting on SharePoint. I was able to leave the company for a much better opportunity. If I would have stayed, I would have lost my value in the marketplace, and I could have potentially ended up like those 6 students in my class in 2002 who became irrelevant once they lost their jobs.
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