IT is a rewarding field, filled with challenges and an endless supply of learning opportunities. I’ve been an IT guy for 16 years. It’s taken me a lot of that time to come to an understanding of the different aspects of the Tech Field. Your job can be as diverse or specialized as you would like it to be. I believe that anyone with the right personality can be a tech professional. If you see past initial problems and quickly begin formulating solutions, IT may be the job for you. In my experience I’ve observed that there are a couple different type IT guys, Tech Hacker and Tech Worker. I’m not talking job titles here, there are too many of them to count. I’m just trying to simplify IT into two ‘types’ for lack of a better word. These two types do much of the same things. Either might make a website, build a network or install a server. The difference is what happens after the job is done. Tech Workers tend towards keeping the system running smoothly, while the Hacker looks for ways to use the system in new ways. Either one can work the help desk, but only the Tech Worker will do it with much zeal.
Tech Hacker- I work for a small to mid size business and I believe that is the niche for me. When working for a small business, or as a consultant, you need to have knowledge about a lot of different tech related areas. I may be installing a phone system one day, troubleshooting network issues another and doing graphic design for a web ad the next. My greatest fear is having to do the exact same thing day after day. This is why I believe Hackers are well suited to both small businesses and consulting. I love figuring out how to use technology to solve problems, or streamline current processes. As an IT guy in this niche you’d better be comfortable as a one man show. Calling a consultant often isn’t in the budget, and there may not be enough work to keep two people busy. A Hacker prefers abstract problems and questions, and loves the process of designing a solution. Hackers would be perfectly content to invent their own work rather than be told what to do every second of the day, making them resistant to micro-managing.
Tech Worker – As much as I love innovating, I also love fixing stuff. I love getting my hands dirty and doing ‘actual work.’ I am happy running cable, digging a ditch, or putting a rack together. Tech Workers love the nuts and bolts of stuff, installing and maintaining systems. I’m more of an Tinkerer than a Tech Worker, so I will have to speak in third person when referring to that niche. Tech Workers love daily checklists, fixing incorrect records and fixing broken computers. They will do well on a help desk, or in a specialty job in a large corporation where work is constantly being fed to them by external forces.
Regardless of what niche you find yourself in, you will need to have many of the same skills. You will not start at the top, but will most likely have to accept an entry level position in order to gain experience. In my experience I changed jobs several times in the first few years, learning something useful at each job and using that knowledge on the next to improve my value. Below is a list of key skills that have served me well:
- People Skills – Being able to listen to people and understand what they’re asking is VITAL to being effective in IT. No one likes the snarky IT guy. I fall into this trap from time to time and I believe it’s one of the common pitfalls of IT. Everyone makes a contribution to the company. Your job is to make sure that they are enabled to do so. Just because a salesperson infected his laptop with spyware from a phishing email doesn’t make him an idiot, it makes him human. Without him/her out selling the products and services of the company they wouldn’t be able to afford your paycheck, cut them a break!
- Communication Skills – This could almost be combined with People Skills but since communication is such a vital part of IT I believe it deserves its own bullet point! Being able to effectively communicate your understanding of a problem, or your proposed solution will go a long way towards establishing your value to the company. A large portion of communication is done through email, so good writing skills are a must. You need to be able to organize your knowledge and thoughts in such a way that others can understand what you are tying to say. Being able to relate complex technical problems to non-tech people can be a challenge, but it is a vital skill and one you should spend a significant amount of time on.
- General Construction Skills – At some point you will need to use a tool. You may have to run wire through an attic, down a wall and into your wallplate. I’ve had to run scissor lifts, use power tools, and precision hand tools. You should be able to do just about anything that a typical handyman can do.
- An Understanding of Networking Concepts – You will have to know at least a little bit about switching, TCP/IP, DHCP, routing and firewall rules, among other things. Computers and other devices are in a constant state of chatter with each other, asking for and sharing information across a wired or wireless network. You will be the one in charge of making sure that it works.
- Microsoft Active Directory and other Server Concepts – All computers, users and services on the network are in a hierarchy. They each report to a Domain Controller that is controlled by a system designed to regulate access to files, services and resources. Microsoft AD is a remarkably advanced system, and it can be a bear to figure out what’s gone wrong in a system policy if it becomes necessary. Time spent learning about it is time well invested.
- General Computer Repair – Understanding what the parts of a computer are and what they do is important. Being able to do simple tasks such as replace a faulty video card, or add a NIC can go a long way towards reducing downtime on computers.
- Network Security – You will need to know how to protect your network from attacks. The internet is a cruel, dark place, filled with unethical people who would love to gain unauthorized access to your network, computers and servers. You need to be able to take the proper precautions to protect your network.
- Microsoft Office Knowledge – As IT guy, people will naturally assume that you know everything about computers. I see no reason to deprive them of that belief. Being able to show how to format a Word document, or put a formula in Excel can improve your stock with employees, management and owners.
- General Database Knowledge – This one really is optional, I only include it because it has become such a big part of my current job. Every company will have some sort of data. Hopefully this is in the form of an SQL database, populated by employees and filled with relevant data that would be helpful in decision making. Identifying and delivering this information in an easily digestible form to management can make you into an IT Hero!
- Graphic and/or Web Design – I have toyed around with graphic programs since I first discovered MS Paint. I’m no virtuoso, but it really doesn’t take much to impress when the alternative is a handwritten flier. I have been able to make weekly specials, web sites and other marketing material. Being able to put relevant pictures onto a website explaining what your company does combines several of the skills listed above, and is a very visible showcase of your talents and contribution.
Hopefully I haven’t totally scared you out of wanting to be an IT guy! I will dig deeper into each of these skills in future posts. I believe that anyone can be an IT guy, as long as he/she loves to solve problems, and doesn’t mind a lifetime of learning.
Take Care! – Matt