The road to a career in IT isn't the same for everyone. Sure, some find that a traditional college education is the way to go. Then there's Bill Gates, who dropped out of college after only two years to start a company with his childhood buddy. While diving in headfirst worked out fine for Bill, that doesn't necessarily mean it's the right choice for you. It all depends on your personality and goals.
When to Pursue a College Degree
Depending on your learning style and personality, going to college may be the perfect fit for you, especially if your goal is to work for an employer, rather than start your own business.
The perfect personality for this path: You don't like deadlines and you want to make bank.
"If you struggle to complete deadlines, stay accountable to yourself, or have trouble with organization, a traditional route may be more appropriate," says
Dr. Caitlin Faas (@drcaitlinfaas), a
college psychology professor at
Mount St. Mary's University
(@MSMU) and career coach with a focus on helping young adults. "Also, bachelor's degree earners almost always make more money in the long run, as compared to high school or GED graduates."
Added benefit of getting your degree: Some employers won't bring you in for an interview unless you have some type of degree on your resume.
"A traditional four-year degree does give you an edge when beginning your career, especially when considering larger organizations that ordinarily place a premium on such a milestone," says
chief operating officer at
Open Systems Technologies
(@OpenSystemsTech), a staffing agency specializing in technology jobs.
Worth noting: Just because you have your diploma doesn't mean you're done learning.
"Being an IT professional requires great dedication to constantly learning and growing," says
Dr. Charles Lively,
IT faculty member and program coordinator of the
Colorado State University – Global Campus
Computer Engineering Department (@CSUGlobal). "Technology is always changing. Therefore, it is important that IT professionals continue to grow and learn about the latest trends and developments in technology through workshops, seminars, conferences, or other professional training opportunities."
When to Opt for the Trenches
If your ultimate goal is starting an IT business, you won't have to worry about jumping through HR hoops because you'll be the boss. But if you prefer a hands-on, DIY approach to education, you better make sure you have the discipline to go this route.
The perfect personality for this path: You are extremely self-motivated and organized.
"People who are high in conscientiousness would have the dedication to follow a non-traditional route for an IT career," says Dr. Faas. "Taking online courses and finding your own path requires a lot of dedication, organization, and commitment."
Dr. Faas suggested checking out this Bustle article that compiles a list of the six most common characteristics of a conscientious personality. Sound like you?
Get your feet wet: Earn some IT cred through an internship.
"Depending on your discipline, the real way forward is in an internship, or series of internships, that give you exposure to seasoned professionals who will allow you to do something instead of just watch," says
J. Colin Petersen (@JColinPetersen),
president and CEO of
J - I.T. Outsource
(@JITOutsource)."Do whatever you can to develop your critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Try to not Google your solutions. It’s one thing to be able to look up answers on Google, and it’s quite another to be the one providing solutions to be found on Google."
Finally, if you're really confident in your abilities, you can always plunge into an IT career feet first.
Take it from someone who's been there:
Michael Herrick (@michaelherrick),
and Matterform, attended college for two years before deciding to drop out. After a few years of waiting tables, he decided to go into business for himself.
"Because I was comfortable with computers, it was easy for me to jump into that and find things people would pay me for," says Herrick. "So starting out with really simple stuff, like literally laying out business cards, I kept adding new skills and learning more things. Anytime somebody would ask if I could do something I would say, 'Sure, I can do that.' "
Herrick says none of his clients ever asked him if he has a college degree. However, if your goal is to find a job instead of start your own company, some HR managers may want to see to some certifications.
"Without a formal college experience, I would strongly recommend an individual get as many relevant professional certifications as possible," says Borghesi, who also suggests addressing your lack of a degree head-on in interviews if you think it might be an issue. "Let the person interviewing you know that you are a self-starter, very motivated, and self-sufficient. Talk about specific projects you have worked on and try to demonstrate a challenge you ran into and how you solved it."
When to Take a Little Bit of Both
Sometimes folks have college degrees, but not in tech. That doesn't bar them from a tech career, either.
The perfect personality for this path: You're interested in a little bit of everything or you want a more lucrative career.
Robin Strempek (@MiHyun101), an
IT manager for the US government, holds both a bachelor's and a master's degree in music education, but needed a career that could offer better pay. That's when some of her friends recommended she apply for an IT internship with the US government.
"It took a lot for me to walk away from teaching," says Strempek. "But the opportunity to increase my salary was what I needed, so I just took the leap."
Strempek says her master's degree in music education didn't keep her from landing an internship, although she would have started at with higher pay had it been an IT-related degree. Strempek says that as an IT manager, she makes three times as much as she did as an educator.
Added benefit of switching fields: Employers may value a diverse education.
Herrick says the employees at his company have run the gamut from people with degrees to fellow college dropouts to a recent hire with two degrees – but neither in IT.
"Our junior developer is a double major in biology and English," says Herrick. "Last spring she went to a local coding boot camp – Deep Dive Coding. Every time they have a new cohort of students, I always go and talk about the software industry. And she caught my eye with some of the database work she was doing. And you know, her degrees make her an interesting, more well-rounded person."
The Right Gig for Your Personality
In addition to figuring out the best path to a career in IT, you also need to consider what jobs within the industry will fit your personality and interests.
"I think that any personality can find success in the IT industry," says Dr. Lively. "A person that likes to socialize is likely to be a good asset on a software engineering team. On the other hand, a reclusive person is likely to be a strong IT systems analyst or support technician. The field is so widespread in career opportunities that there might be a position for any type of personality."
If you need a little more inspiration, the following articles might help:
About the Contributors
Tom Borghesi has more than 15 years of professional staffing experience. As COO of Open Systems, he is responsible for the overall strategic planning and direction of the company. Mr. Borghesi previously served as the district president for Robert Half International, where he was responsible for 25 offices in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions, overseeing all aspects of technology and creative practices, both for permanent placement and consulting businesses.
Dr. Caitlin Faas is a college psychology professor at Mount St. Mary's University and career coach who is passionate about helping young adults find their own paths to being productive and successful. Connect with her at www.drcaitlinfaas.com/ or @drcaitlinfaas on Twitter.
Michael Herrick is the founder of HIPAA.host, a healthcare risk management firm in Albuquerque. HIPAA.host helps healthcare practices and hospitals improve patient privacy, cybersecurity, and HIPAA compliance. Michael also founded Matterform in 1992 to help small businesses in all industries with business processes, integrations, and automation. He lives with his family in downtown Albuquerque.
Dr. Charles W. Lively has been the program coordinator of the Colorado State University – Global Campus Computer Engineering Department for two years, and has combined an academic career with real-world engineering experience. His career has included work as a technical advisor to The Go! Generation and as a Software Engineer at IBM and Primoris Services. Dr. Lively holds a Bachelor of Science in computer engineering with a minor in mathematics, and a master's and Ph.D. in computer engineering from Texas A&M University.
J. Colin Petersen is the president and CEO of J - I.T. Outsource, providing full-service IT support, disaster recovery, and helpdesk support for small- to medium-sized businesses, as well as VoIP and digital identity, web development, and SEO. He is the author of Win With Technology: 5 Critical Strategies to Implement Technologies That Grow Your Business, Keep Computer Guys from Ripping You Off, & Help You Crush Your Competition EVERY TIME.
Robin Strempek stepped out of music education and into the unknown world of information technology eight years ago. Her IT career has evolved from entry-level intern to being a team leader to helping implement one of the largest agile transformations. Robin is a certified scrum master. Prior to her IT career, she was a master educator and directed a large middle school orchestra program for seven years. Robin earned both a bachelor's from Towson University and a master's degree from Boston University in music education.