Skills Development and IT

A good friend of mine recently wrote a blog on how to get hired.  Most of the blog posting talks about the interview process and his reflections on the experience performing mock interviews with college students studying IT. 

The main point of the article can be summed up with this sentence near the end of the post:  “Want to know what outdoes a Masters degree and a 4.0 GPA?  Pure, raw, f*cking talent.”

Talent is rarely raw and pure.  It is something that is honed through patience and practice.  It’s not just the successes and failures on projects and teams but applying those lessons you learned.

What everyone does have, though, is potential.  Potential is like a lump of clay or a block of marble.  To the average person, it appears to be nothing extraordinary.  But in the hands of a skilled artist, we get amazing works like Michelangelo’s David or the Venus de Milo

When you think of talent in terms of a career, I often think of job skills.  IT is a career path where one can easily keep their skills sharp and develop new skills.

There are a couple of ways that one can easily develop their technical skills, and anyone coming out of college with the intent of having a career in information technology should be doing some of these early in their career.

One of the easiest ways to expose yourself to new technology or improve your knowledge of existing technology is to read about it.  There are hundreds of books and blogs about every area of information technology.  There is a ton of information that can be gleaned from spending twenty minutes a day reviewing your RSS feeds.

I have 132 blogs in my Google Reader account.  Most are technical blogs.  I know that sounds like a lot, but once you filter through the obvious marketing posts from sites like TechRepublic, there is a lot of good content, and you can usually get through everything by spending 20 minutes per day.

A large chunk of those are also Microsoft blogs.  It seems like every product team at Microsoft has at least one official blog, and unlike many other vendor blogs that I’ve followed, the content usually seems to be geared towards technical readers.  Two good examples are the Exchange Team blog and the Ask the Directory Services Team blog.

Aside from vendor blogs, there is a lot of good community generated content.  I could list off a large number of blogs by other systems administrators that I consider good sources on a variety of topics, but then this would turn into a blog about other good blogs.

Another good source of content are sites like Server Fault and Stack Overflow.  Server Fault and Stack Overflow are a pair of websites that are geared towards IT Pros and programmers where users can turn to for community advice by asking questions about problems, projects, and how to handle different situations.

Technology certifications are usually offered by vendors to certify that someone has a level of familiarity with their products.  For an experienced IT professional, it proves that you know something, and it can help round out your knowledge of a particular product.  For someone just entering the workforce, it can give you some hands-on knowledge.

Entry-level certification often involves one of two paths:  self-study or classroom.  I tend to focus more on the self-study, and this is usually the cheaper option for someone who doesn’t have a company paying for a week-long bootcamp.

Hands-on Experience
When I say hands-on experience, I don’t mean the kind of experience you get when someone is paying for your time, or when you are volunteering for an organization.  I mean the kind you get when you experiment on your own time.  In my opinion, this is probably the best way to learn about technology. 

The nice thing about IT is that you can easily get experience on enterprise-grade hardware and software.  Dell offers decent entry-level tower servers for $500-$600.  A Microsoft Technet Plus subscription runs about $150 for the lowest level package, and VMware and other vendors offer free versions of their enterprise software that allow a user to learn the basics of the system even if they are functionally crippled.

And you can’t forget about Linux and the other open-source *nixes and software packages.

It basically comes down to this – if you want to be a database administrator, you should be learning about databases by building them.  If you want to be a Linux administrator, you should be setting up Linux servers.  It pays off when you can go into an interview and explain a complicated problem that you solved on your personal network and what it taught you.