Shaping Your IT Specialty
When you become the "IT person" at your office, you might be feeling the heat to have an answer to any and all technological conundrums that any of your coworkers may face. You might even be asked to take time out of your busy day to research the answers that you don't have.
Whether you're just starting out at your first help desk job, or if you've already put in the hours to achieve that corner office status, we have some tried and true advice: it's totally fine for you to not know everything, and in fact, not knowing everything could actually help you out.
Building out a specialty for yourself in the IT world could actually benefit you and your career immensely. It has the potential to help you work on the projects that you're wanting to work on, gain respect among your peers and might even make you even more valuable than a generalist.
Let's start at square one. If you are beginning your career in IT, you probably won't be specializing in anything just yet.
Take your typical first job on the help desk. You're the first person your users will call for any problem they have, so as you work in this position, you're going to grow a wide and shallow knowledge base of your company's IT infrastructure and IT practice, in general. Notice how you're already getting exposure to many different areas in this role that could become your specialty.
You're also going to grow some soft skills that will be necessary until the day you retire and/or prepare your three envelopes. You're slowly going to develop into a methodical problem solver (work through a logical troubleshooting process instead of throwing mud and seeing what sticks) and a master researcher (time to get your Google-fu on).
You're also going to have learn to instill confidence in your users. Don't know where to even begin on Betty in accounting's constant BSoD? Stumbling and making excuses is going to fail you. Perception matters; when you appear confident, your colleagues are halfway convinced of your competence. Actually fixing the problem finishes the job and solidifies the perception that you really know what you're doing.
Finding Your Niche
As you move along, you'll find interesting things and things you hate. Think about it. The things that you like could be a potential path changer for you. If you take your career that direction, working on those things will give you great satisfaction to figure out, tinker with, and delve deeper into exactly how they work.
Take this example about getting into networking. Yes, to fix a problem first make sure you have a link light, that you can ping 188.8.131.52, and that you can resolve cbtnuggets.com/. Basic troubleshooting isn't incredibly inspiring after you've done it a couple hundred times, but what actually happens when you type that web address and hit enter? DNS resolution to get an IP, layer 2 switching to get from your computer to switch to firewall, layer 3 routing to get from firewall to web server across the county via lasers and glass (fiber), TCP/IP and HTTPS protocols to massage and encrypt the packets, the more you dig the deeper it gets.
"Hey networking is cool," you think after pondering this. Then Betty snaps you out of your daydream with a call asking why she can't load Facebook. *sigh*
In that moment is when you make the decision: You want to get off of help desk badly and onto the network team.
But where to start?
Start networking (professionally). Start by getting friendly with the networking guys to pick their brains about how they started their careers and how they got from where you are to where they are. Ask questions, but smart ones. Questions that show you've put thought and research into them instead of relying on someone else to think for you.
Work toward certifications. They are not necessarily golden tickets to new jobs, but they will teach you something and demonstrate a base competence of technologies. Go after training and never stop learning. Find out if your company will pay for a class or certification tests. Or maybe even a CBT Nuggets subscription.
You might also want to consider building a home lab, making and breaking your network, resetting your home router, learning by fixing it, reconfiguring it the way you want and learning why things are and aren't done a certain way.
The Real World
Back to those network guys. They are making bank, everyone respects them, they get to work on cool projects and go to conferences, and they don't have to work on printers or help Betty.
However, let's set realistic expectations. A nice salary, no matter how appealing, doesn't wholly satisfy. Don't run after this specialty or that one solely because of the paycheck. Those guys work more nights and weekends than you do and have more frustrations, stress, and burnout than help desk.
Be ready to put in some time grinding. Most won't be promoted to such niche and well-paid positions as Senior Cisco Switch VLAN Configurer or Director of Link Light Deployment and Penguin Enablement Manager overnight, or in six months, or maybe even six years. Something that takes one year even sounds like a big goal, but what if you had started a year ago when you originally started dreaming?
Even though the specifics of this path are pretty crucial to becoming that networking guy, you can take the standards and apply them to nearly any IT path. Networking is only one example of where you could go. Other paths include: Linux, VoIP, security, wireless, sysadmin, big data, database, storage, virtualization, DevOps, project management, the list is long.
And to get started, keep in mind that you have complete access to a full wealth of training, right here.
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