My advice on starting a career in IT

I’ve had several people reach out to me over the last few months asking for advice on how to land their first job in IT. Several of these individuals do not have any formal IT education, training or experience. I decided to consolidate some of the advice that I’ve given on securing an IT job over the last few months into a blog post.

I was very fortunate to have had a 3rd grade teacher (Mr. Fouts) that exposed me to personal computers before they were personal. Mr. Fouts and another teacher set up a Wildcat! BBS server at our Elementary School. From the moment I first remotely connected the BBS system, I was hooked. I was also very lucky to have had an older Brother and two Grandfathers that encouraged my passion for technology. I don’t know when I decided on a career in IT but I also don’t recall ever considering anything else.

I graduated college in June 0f 2008. This was just a few months after the collapse of Bear Stearns. Even with a degree in Information and Telecommunication Systems, I really struggled to find a job. At one point, I had applied to over 100 positions and only been granted a handful of interviews. Finally, I accepted an internship at a local hospital where my primary focus was loading pre-configured images onto desktops/laptops.

The experience of struggling to find an entry-level position in IT helped shape my career in a positive way. I learned that obtaining an education isn’t enough and that I needed to obtain some relevant experience and marketable skills. I quickly found out you often have to make sacrifices to obtain the aforementioned skills and experience. This could mean taking a position with less pay in an effort to learn more about a piece of technology. I also learned the importance of discovering your passion within IT. In my case, I realized that I enjoyed IT Infrastructure and Information Security while serving as an Intern.

When my friends and family members ask me about obtaining positions in IT, I always ask them to be a little more specific. I eventually ask them what area of IT they want to focus on. If they actually have an answer, I try to validate what drove them to that conclusion. If they can’t answer that question, I instruct them to find an answer before going through the steps to seek an entry-level position. If not, they run the risk of committing to a field that they hate. I really recommend performing this task before committing to obtaining a degree (or at least in parallel while obtaining a degree).

How can you find out what area of IT you’re interested in without committing? I’d recommend attempting to find a job shadowing/internship opportunity. If you don’t know anyone who can help secure the internship or shadowing opportunity, start reaching out to individuals on LinkedIn. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to help. Plus, I can’t stress enough how important it is to build out your personal network at the early stages of your career. As my Father always told me…”It’s not just what you know but who you know.”

If you’re still convinced a specific part of IT is for you after completing Internships and/or Job Shadowing, then it’s time to focus on gaining additional experience/knowledge. This is the point in your career transition where you may want to consider obtaining a vendor certificate and/or formal education. You may be fortunate enough that your internship and/or job shadowing leads to a full-time position. If not, don’t get discouraged. Keep reaching out to your connections and applying to as many entry-level roles as you can find. As I mentioned earlier, I applied to almost 100 entry-level positions early in my career before finally being hired.

When it comes time to selecting your first entry-level position, I highly recommend starting at a small or medium sized business. This will allow you to gain a wider range of skills. For example, my first real role in IT was working on the Help Desk at a smaller organization. The small size of the team/company allowed me to begin working on the organization’s servers and networks within a few months. I can definitively state that I wouldn’t be where I am in my career without this first position.

Unfortunately, obtaining industry experience in a new field or area of expertise often requires taking a step back financially. This can be a tough pill to swallow but the experienced gained in an entry-level position is invaluable. I tend to tell people to imagine as if they’re being paid to go to school and learn about the specific area of technology.

In short, take the time to find the right fit. Don’t invest too much time or money into exploring a career path without validating that it’s the right role for you. Also, don’t underestimate the importance of building your personal network.

 

IT Career Advice For College Students

I recently completed my first term as an Adjunct Professor. It was important to me that I shared some “real-world” advice with the students before the start of their careers. So, I asked some of my colleagues at IGS if they had any words of wisdom to share with my students and I presented their answers on the first day of class. Here are a few of their responses…

  • You should always treat your customers (or people who need your help) as if you’re a customer of theirs; in other words, when you get asked to do something, it may seem insignificant to you compared to other things you’re doing, but your efforts may have downstream impacts that aren’t apparent to you. Your time might translate to something very significant to someone else.
  • Looking back, nothing was more instrumental to my success than an internship. Applying what you learn in class to real world problems takes your learning to the next level. In the three months of my internship, my skills grew at an exponential rate. I made lifelong friends, I learned about new technologies, and I learned how Information Technology can support and even drive the business.
  • “Do not sacrifice theoretical learning for implementation centric learning, and vice versa. They are both duals of each other, and not at odds with each other. If you sacrifice theory, it will deprive you of a much needed analytical framework to rigorously scrutinize the complexity of algorithms. If you sacrifice implementation, you might as well be a math major specializing in discrete math. Likewise, do not sacrifice depth for breadth or vice versa.”
  • Focus on people and learn your business/industry. The technology will come naturally.
  • Always tell the truth. The cover-up is worse than the crime.
  • If you focus on automating yourself out of a job, you’ll never have to look for employment.
  • You’re going to cause an outage. Learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat them.

My encounter with an IRS scammer

For those of you that don’t know, phishing is the activity of defrauding an online account holder of financial information by posing as a legitimate company. Last year, I almost fell for a phishing attempt by someone claiming to be an IRS employee.

I’ve held a variety of roles in Information Security and you’d think I would try to hide the fact that I almost fell for a phone-based scam. However, I think my story can help others so I’ve decided to share it on my blog. Also, it’s not like I’m the only IT Security professional to almost fall for a phishing attempt. Chris Hadnagy literally wrote the book on Social Engineering/Phishing and has been tricked by a an Amazon phish.

 

At the time I first was contacted by a fake IRS employee, I was in the middle of a legitimate dispute with the IRS over a tuition deduction from a few years prior. I working from home and randomly received a call from a number in Cincinnati from someone claiming to be an IRS employee. I knew that the IRS had an office in Cincinnati and despite the fact that all of my prior correspondence related to my aforementioned dispute had been written, I didn’t think it was out of the realm of possibility that someone from the IRS would call me.

The “employee” began the call by stating that I was going to be taken to court over unpaid taxes. The caller gave me a case number and knew enough about the inner workings of the IRS to sound legitimate. It didn’t make any sense to me why I would suddenly be taken to court when my last document submission was mailed several months before the stated deadline. This should have been my first clue that the call was not legitimate. Unfortunately, due to the fact I was actually worried about my legitimate issue with the IRS, my guard was down.

I was obviously distraught at this point. If my dispute went to court, I would possibly spend more on legal fees and accountants than I actually owed to the IRS. Even though I knew I did nothing wrong, the idea of a settlement went through my head while the caller discussed the issues. However, I wanted to make sure that my accountant was involved in the final decision.

The “employee” let me know that I could avoid court and the associated fees by simply settling over the phone. It was if they could read my mind. I let them know that I wanted to consult my accountant and a few family members with deeper knowledge of tax law before making a final decision. The caller started to get very impatient at this point.

I started to get more of a sense that this call was fake. I eventually asked the “employee” to provide me with a publicly posted phone number for their office. I wanted to call a validated phone number to confirm that I was speaking with an actual IRS employee. I felt that this was a completely reasonable request.

The scammer became enraged, they told me that if I hung up the phone that they would issue an arrest warrant. They demanded that I drive straight to the bank while leaving them on speaker phone. They wanted me to wire them money to a specific account. I was now 100% confident that I was being phished.

If this ever happens to you, this is the point where you should just hang up and report the incident. However, I decided to have a little fun. I decided to keep the scammer on the phone for around 30 minutes while I “drove” to the bank to wire them the money. In reality, I was just sitting at my desk listening to music and catching up on email. I asked them for the account number and routing number so I could “wire” them the money. Armed with that information, I placed the scammer on hold and called the Ohio Attorney General’s office. I filled out a form to inform the IRS as well.

After providing the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and IRS with the details, I hung up on the scammer. They called me back about a dozen times in rapid succession before moving on to their next attempted victim. I’m now almost certain this fraud attempt originated from India where dozens of people were arrested for operating entire call centers filled with fake IRS agents. A few weeks later, I received a letter from the IRS stating that my dispute had been resolved based on the documentation that I provided and I no longer owed any money.

Lessons Learned:

  • The IRS has an entire webpage devoted to validating communications received by their employees. The page also has information for reporting phishing attempts.
  • The IRS will never
    • Call to demand immediate payment, nor will they call about taxes owed without first having mailed a bill.
    • Demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.
    • Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card.
    • Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
    • Threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.

My Thoughts On IT Certifications

A few days ago, a former colleague asked me about IT certifications. They’re at a bit of a career crossroads and wanted to know whether or not I thought obtaining a certificate was worth the investment of time and money. Given their circumstances, I told them that I thought it would be worthwhile for them to learn about a specific piece of technology and take an exam. However, I was sure to specify that obtaining an IT certification won’t necessarily guarantee that they’ll get that big promotion or secure their dream job.

It’s important to note that every hiring manager is different. As a hiring manager myself, I personally don’t hold a whole lot of stock in certifications. I’ve had coworkers with a half-dozen certifications that were very unreliable when it came to implementation and troubleshooting. I have also worked with some extremely talented individuals that don’t hold a single certification. There isn’t necessarily a correlation between a cert and success.

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely benefits to obtaining IT certifications. In fact, some organizations won’t consider candidates without relevant certs. During my most recent job search, I ended up getting more questions about my certs from VMware and Microsoft than I did about my Master’s degree. I’m positive that those little vendor logos went a long way to get my resume past HR and to the hiring manager. However, that’s only half of the battle when attempting to secure a position.

Certifications aren’t ever going to be a silver bullet. At some point, you’ll need to rely on your reputation and industry experience to advance your career. That being said, certifications won’t hurt you. They can expose you to technology that you may not get a chance to interact with on a daily basis. Every circumstance is different but if you’re looking to gain exposure to a new area of technology or feeling a bit stale, obtaining a vendor certification is the way to go.

 

Lessons Learned During My First Term As An Adjunct Professor

This fall, I taught my first undergraduate course. The class was an overview of Network Engineering and covered everything from the OSI model to DNS best practices. Despite a few hurdles, the students all passed the course and I really got a sense that a majority of them learned a lot in the process. As someone who struggled academically high school, the successful completion of my first college course as an Adjunct Professor felt like quite an accomplishment. My confidence was through the roof until a student informed me that they decided against a career in Network Engineering after taking my course.

At first, I was crushed. This student received an A and was very engaged throughout the course. I assumed this meant that I failed my first attempt at teaching. I suddenly began second-guessing the lecture material and lab content. I eventually asked the student more about their decision and was pleasantly surprised by their answer.

It turns out, I actually did the student a service. They stated that they really learned a lot throughout the course. They gained enough information about Network Engineering to decide that it wasn’t something that they wanted to pursue. It didn’t have anything to do with the content of the lectures or the structure of the labs. They simply didn’t feel passionate about this aspect of technology.

Looking back, I’m really glad this student found out what they weren’t passionate about without endangering their career. I will keep this experience in mind as I teach additional courses. As I help students embark on their careers in IT, I will encourage them to seek internships or job shadowing opportunities. This will help them identify if they are truly following their passion or just attempting to earn a paycheck.

Overall, I loved my first experience as an Adjunct Professor and I can’t wait to teach future courses.