So you want to get a job in IT?

by Natalie P.

March 8, 2008 | Filed Under Computers, The Heartless Bitch Way, Work | 7 Comments

Recently, I’ve been interviewing people for an IT administrator position. I’m an exec, but of a small company, so I literally roll up my sleeves when required and manage the servers and network alongside my existing IT admin as and when needed, so I know a fair bit about the actual day-to-day workings of corporate IT infrastructure. I’m also wickedly good at debugging and problem solving.

After going through a round of interviews this week, I’m going to impart some sage advice to those who might be reading and want to have a hope of having a successful career in IT.

To be a *good* IT admin, you have to love to solve problems. I want to see an attitude that says, “No computer is going to get the better of me.” I want to see someone who has taught themselves scripting languages and dabbled in installing wikis, blogs, firewalls, and other software components – just because they want to learn how to use these new technologies. You are in IT administration. If you are making a career of this, you should be constantly looking at what is coming down the pike – what new hardware and software is coming out – what will businesses be looking at implementing in 2 to 5 years? What are the latest virus and security threats? There’s tons to know and I don’t expect someone to know it ALL – I just want to see that you aren’t waiting for someone to tell you what to read or learn.
You have to be on a path to continuous self-improvement and learning. I’ll ask you what tech blogs you read, what podcasts you follow. I want to see someone with INITIATIVE. I’m looking for someone who is so INTERESTED in technology that they keep pace with the latest trends and tools because they want to – not because they HAVE to.

So you haven’t had a chance to use Linux at work. Did you install it on your own network at home? Do you have a network at home? Did you put in VMWare Server (It’s free!) and try installing various VMs on your own? Did you install and play with configuring an Apache Server even if it’s just inside your home network? Did you get a free web account somewhere and experiment with setting up a family website, wiki or place to share personal photos? Did you set up a VPN between your home and your parent’s, ostensibly because you can manage your dad’s computer remotely, but really because you wanted to experiment with the latest open source VPN technology? Show me SOMETHING that tells me you’ve got that spark.

Even if you’ve never configured it, can you tell me what Raid 5 is, when and where you’d use it, and when it’s not recommended? Do you know what a DMZ is? A Packet Filter Rule? A DNAT? Can you explain to me the difference between an SSL VPN and PPTP or L2TP? (other than the protocols they use).

If you are slotted into a position where “other” people take care of network servers, and “other” groups handle security, then what are you doing to make sure you aren’t dead-ended? What are you personally doing to grow your skills if you aren’t getting that kind of opportunity in your current job? And if you are a contractor, well, there’s NO excuse for not taking courses and learning things outside your current scope of responsibility. Your courses are a tax write-off. What are you doing after work? Are you a member of any of the local users groups for Microsoft, Linux, XML, security, etc?  If you have time to follow a regular TV show, or sports team, you have time to take a course and expand your skills – otherwise, you are painting yourself into a very narrow corner, and people like me are going to pass you over for that next really cool job.  And don’t give me the excuse that you don’t have time. I worked full time, raised two kids and still had time to take courses.
Oh, and be prepared, in your interview, to have to demonstrate your problem-solving skills. I might put you in front of a console and tell me how to add a user on the network. I will definitely give you a few hypothetical situations and and ask how you would diagnose the root cause of the problems.

And as a little side-rant, I’m trying to figure out if working in a government job kills initiative, or people who choose to work in the government for long periods of time just lack initiative. (Here come the flames). Why do I ask this? Because consistently, the people I interviewed who were government contractors or employees, did NOTHING to improve their skills outside of the very narrow focus of their current jobs. The people from the private sector (even if they were far more junior) consistently had more broad-ranging knowledge and skills and showed more interest in learning things on their own, than the government employees who had three to 5 more years of direct work experience. Yes, private sector tends to provide more broad-ranging demands in IT, whereas in the government there are very focussed roles and locked-down environments. Never-the-less, that doesn’t stop people from joining a user group, listening to podcasts, reading up on new technologies, or experimenting at home – all of which was demonstrated by the private-sector workers, and not by the government employees.

Perhaps the bf sets a high bar for me in this. He isn’t an IT admin – he’s far, far more senior than that. But he inisists that he has to know about the new technologies and methodologies so that he can understand and make sense of what the IT people are saying doing and proposing. He doesn’t work with Linux at work – in fact he has never had linux at work as far as I know. But he has three different variants of it on our home network – and three wireless LANs, segmented for different traffic (such as guests and visitors). There is always some new piece of hardware or software on one of the several systems on the network. There is a RAID-configured disk array for storing our photos. And all of that is in addition to my 2 desktops, laptop and development server on the network.

He’s also set up a LAMP server, with WordPress for me to start porting HBI to.

He’s continuously improving his knowledge and hands-on skills in the area of his chosen career. When I interview you for an IT administrator position, and you tell me you want to be an IT architect some day, I EXPECT to see that kind of personal involvement in your own skill and knowledge development.

But this transcends IT and really flows into ANY kind of work environment. If you want to be successful, if you want to be promoted (or, get a better job elsewhere because your current job is a dead-end), then for heaven’s sake, DO something on your own about it. Take a course, read a bloody book or two, try some things on your own to extend your skill set. Don’t expect your job, or your boss to hand-hold you through your career growth. You aren’t in school anymore – nobody is handing you the courses and saying this is what you must learn. Anywhere you want to go is a path YOU must set. Sacrifice that TV time, that hockey game, that night out at the bars, and take the time to learn something new. Have kids? Listen to podcasts in the car as you drive to work, or on the bus if you take public transit. Use your lunch period to read something relevant. Book time after the kids go to bed to take an hour for yourself on career improvement. If your spouse takes issue with the time you are spending improving your skills, then you need to get that spouse to read this article.

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7 comments so far
  1. Kimberly March 10, 2008 8:52 am

    Bravo!! Yeah, impossible to know it all (nor do I care to) BUT an IT professional should know not only her/his piece of the puzzle but also have knowledge and the ability to communicate about the other pieces of the puzzle as well, IMHO.

  2. hobs March 17, 2008 12:13 pm

    While your post makes me cheered that there are bosses of your caliber around, I will share something with you: I have never met any manager in the IT field who was looking for someone with an expansive viewpoint.

    Many times I have been hired into a place for my exact qualifications of having that spark, only to have every idea shot down, and everything be “business as usual” because they do not have the vision needed to grasp new technologies and their previous inertia or investment in some previous method or technology basically merits a super glue like adherence to the past.

    I have learned that going into a job expecting that spark to be a pay-off is naivety at best, and a good way to get fired at worst. For some reason I keep trying though.

    Good post, found you through stumbleupon.

  3. Natalie P. March 23, 2008 11:55 am

    Hobs, It sounds to me like you need to do a better job researching the kinds of companies you want to work for. Rather than look at who is posting positions that are open, figure out what companies you’d like to work for, and approach them directly. I’ve heard statistics that as little as only 10% of open positions are actually posted.

    Interview the manager and the company as much or more than they are interviewing *you*. Morons abound. Unimaginative, soulless drones exist everywhere. Weed them out in your job search. The key is to find the kind of company that fosters creativity, and offers a cool and enriching work environment. That kind of place doesn’t always pay the highest salaries, and may not be the most “stable” because they are likely a startup, but they usually have the highest job satisfaction and employee loyalty.

    In larger organizations, figuring out how to get a revolutionary or evolutionary idea adopted can be done, but that’s the subject of an entire book, or at least a few chapters…  The reason so many technical people fail at this level is because moving a large ship in a new direction requires a whole different set of skills, often undeveloped in (and reviled by) IT people – behavioral psychology, “people skills”, marketing, sales.  However, if you want to work your way up into enterprise IT architecture, that’s an area you have to work on just as much as your technical skills.

  4. JadeWolf April 17, 2008 3:16 pm

    “I’m trying to figure out if working in a government job kills initiative, or people who choose to work in the government for long periods of time just lack initiative.”
    Yes, and yes. The government heartlessly squashes any bit of initiative, creativity, or spark in its employees, so either you leave fast, or you die (intellectually, at least) young. There is a rare third option, fighting, but it takes a lot of bullheadedness to fight a bureaucracy.

  5. Markus April 27, 2008 6:10 pm

    “I’m trying to figure out if working in a government job kills initiative, or people who choose to work in the government for long periods of time just lack initiative.”

    I’d like to comment on this… here in Finland we’ve recently had huge issues with one of our major banks; namely, they’ve been bought by another large Nordic bank, which decided to switch their browser/server-based web banking system into a java-based windows piece of crap that was out of date 10 years ago. The merge-and-switch was done by a child corporation of our largest government-subsidised corporation.

    Naturally, the merge was a mess, resulting in thousands of people switching banks, not being able to transfer or receive funds, small and large businesses not getting any money flow going, and of course horrible customer support from harrassed and annoyed bank workers. But back to the government (well, close enough) workers:

    Turns out that at the last stages of the merger they started new bank accounts in different banks for money usage. I don’t think that can be called lack of initiative in any way! ;)

    Seriously though, great post. Found it over IRC, and while I’m not an IT admin (mostly because I see how harrassed and annoyed our IT people get on build time, and on every other time as well), I found it good reading. I completely agree, when finding new people you’re really looking for attitude and maybe a little bit of aptitude, not someone who sits on his possible diploma and/or ass and expects his skills will be valid 5 years in the future with no hardship whatsoever.

    BTW, I had to check on wikipedia which Raid 5 was (I had remembered it correctly, though). ;) Personally I ran into the concept when someone was developing a way of handling torrents with the 3/2 method on-the-fly.

    In other news, if you’re already not reading the site http://www.thedailywtf.com/ , you’re missing out. It’s full of tales “from the trenches”, and from both sides of the interview table, and based on your post I think you’d like it. Let’s just hope you’ve never asked your interviewees how they’d find out what a Boeing weighed ;)

  6. Rod May 10, 2008 1:40 pm

    Agree with JadeWolf. I would extend this to some degree to large cap corporate also. That said, large cap corporate do have some extremely talented people. I’ve worked in government twice (IT application development and then electrical project engineering), academia (instrumentation control systems engineering) and large cap corporate (software systems for hardware in development, ie. it didn’t exist and the early versions generally aren’t stable). I’m currently contracting to academia and small cap R&D firms. All interesting projects. Each time I’ve moved into a completely unrelated field successfully. When asked why I think I can do the job without specific experience? Answer, attitude. If I don’t know something, I can read, learn, think and know when there are important questions to get answered before proceeding. I buy my own books when I need to and they’re tax deductible. So, it’s a combination of aptitude and attitude, and often the latter is more important. My experience with government and academia general employees are they tend to show limited initiative with respect to the big picture, guard information to make them secure in their position, spend a lot of time either bragging or whining about their classification level against their peers, are petrified of confrontation that may limit their progression and will, almost without exception, say yes to whoever is above them wanting them to say yes. I’ve found that, in some environments, it is necessary to take on the hierarchy directly if they are not providing the resources to do the job or they have processes that work against what you are being asked to deliver. In such cases, being an agent of change can be unpleasant for a few weeks as egos that refuse to listen get bruised, particularly if dealing with micro managers. However, when the results start coming through they deal with it. Sometimes you just have to do things in stealth mode and then reveal the results when you have some new technique of doing something in a fraction of the time it used to take someone. Amazingly, many people will keep doing the task with more tedious and error prone way even when a better way is available.

    In government, academia and large cap corporates, most middle managers I’ve come across are one of the following: (i – not so much in academia) incompetent at the technical role they formerly held but had reasonable people skills, (ii – commonly academia) very strong technically and were forced to be a manager in order to get reclassified to a higher level. Unfortunately, they often lack people management and organisational skills, or (iii) are good at politics and have sociopathic tendencies, getting pleasure running around blowing their own trumpet and cutting reputations out from under their competitors for promotion.

    These middle managers on interview panels will often say anything to get a good candidate in the door, like they encourage ongoing learning and process innovation. Once you turn up to start on the job their attitude changes dramatically and they do it the way they do because (a) they alway have or (b) because it works. The latter is usually code for we don’t actually know if it works better than other ways but it was the brainchild of the person defending it.

    If I’ve made terrible typos, please excuse, it’s 3:30am…

  7. NotQuite September 14, 2013 12:45 am

    What you’re looking for is not an IT “admin” as you so state. You’re looking for a hobbyist, and then comparing them to someone that is “far, far senior” to an “admin”. So you want someone that can administer a network, which could include any number of technologies. Linux, Windows, networking equipment, security equipment, and managing all of it. You don’t want much do you. I’m also assuming that your “admin” title rates around $60k/yr…well, you get what you pay for. I have a feeling you’re also way off base with the government guys. Having known numerous military personnel with extensive training and certifications paid for by their employer, it’s pretty obvious that you’re basing your article off of very little real world experience.


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