What is an information technology professional? What does an IT professional do? It seems like a lot of people don’t understand that. For that matter, I have close friends and relatives who have no idea what I do for a living. So let’s explore it a bit.
What is an information technology professional?
A lot of people think IT professionals are programmers, or software developers. That’s never been completely true. I guess you can say all programmers are IT professionals, but not all IT professionals are programmers. I realized in college I would never be anything more than a mediocre programmer, and I rarely write code. But it’s not hard to find an IT professional who’s never written a line of code, especially today. You can be an IT professional without knowing a word of any coding language.
When I was in college, and to a large extent today, computer science meant programming and designing chips. Information Technology is setting up computer systems for businesses to use them to make money. Those are distinctive skillsets, and it’s difficult for someone to be good at both.
What does an IT professional do?
It’s pretty safe to say that if you work setting up or maintaining computers for a living, you’re an IT professional. I’m super-specialized now, but at the beginning of my career, I was about as much of a generalist as you could be. I worked with almost any type of hardware and software you can think of. In my early years, I set up networking equipment, printers, laptops, desktops, and servers. I had to work in Windows, Linux or Unix, and Mac OS. I could install the operating system, reinstall the operating system, and install and configure applications. And I could do hardware maintenance, everything from upgrading memory to replacing components. And in an emergency, I could write simple programs.
That’s a lot. My employers at the time had no idea what a wide range of knowledge and skills those jobs required.
When you work in IT for larger companies, you tend to specialize fairly quickly. By the time I was about ten years into my career, I specialized in deploying patches to servers and administering antivirus. The guy sitting next to me set up and maintained networking gear: routers, switches, and firewalls. We could fill in for each other in a pinch, but any of our coworkers would tell you we weren’t interchangeable.
Most people probably don’t get to specialize right away, but once you find what you’re best at and enjoy, you’ll probably make more money as a specialist. You’re also likely to be happier.
How to become an information technology (IT) professional
When I was in college, my university didn’t offer a degree program in information technology. If they had, whatever they would have taught would have been obsolete within a couple of years anyway because the industry was changing so fast in the 1990s.
Today you can probably get a degree in information technology, and you can even get a more specialized degree and study in the growing field of cyber security. You can also get one or more certifications, which will help demonstrate you have the requisite skills, especially if you don’t have a degree. Knowledge and experience are more important than any kind of special education, both in the United States and abroad. If you’re in college, see if you can get some kind of a job on campus in their IT department. My first information technology job consisted of unboxing systems, installing memory upgrades, and installing the operating system.
It’s likely you’ll need to take an entry-level job, or something close to entry-level, early in your career. For a while in the mid-2000s, when the economy was bad, I took a job where my primary responsibility at first was routing tickets. It bored me to tears but it paid pretty well. A year later I was pushing patches, which set the stage for the job I have now.
Once you get into an organization, you find out about all kinds of job openings that never show up on the job recruitment sites. Start applying for openings once you’ve been on the job for about six months. If you’re reliable and dependable and don’t cause trouble, you can move up pretty quickly in most organizations.
Stay in touch
You’ll also find a lot of people tend to come and go pretty frequently. Stay in touch with them if you can. One thing a typical information technology professional doesn’t do well is stay in touch.
The biggest mistake I made early in my career was not staying in touch with people who had moved on to other companies. The biggest break in my career came when a former coworker spotted me in a parking lot one day. He asked how I was doing. I asked him, half joking, if there were any job openings where he was at. He said actually there was, and he thought I’d be good at it. He handed me his card and told me to call him.
I’ve returned the favor a couple of times. Information technology is a small world. You’ll cross paths with the same people over and over.