Over the past few years, I’ve mentored over 100 students that are getting started with careers in technology.
Most of these sessions involve students asking me for general advice on how to get an entry-level job in tech.
However, regardless of the specific role or technology, I seem to repeat the same key pieces of advice on a regular basis.
It appears there are a few best practices that are generally applicable across a wide variety of careers in technology.
So, to help get started with your career in technology, here is the advice I give most often in my mentoring sessions.
When you’re considering a career in technology, you need to ask yourself three questions: (1) What do you enjoy doing? (2) What are you good at? (3) And what skills does the market value?
Finding a career you enjoy doing involves trying a bunch of technologies and roles to see what you like. The more exposure you get to a wide diversity of IT roles, skills, and technologies, the easier it will be for you to identify a career worth pursuing. It’s no fun doing a job that you hate every day.
Finding a career you are good at involves testing various skills to see where you excel. Ideally, you want a role you are good at but also one you want to become great at. Being good means you will be valuable to potential employers. Wanting to become great will motivate you to continuously improve each day.
Finding a career that the market values involves researching job postings in your area — or remote jobs. Determine which companies are hiring for what roles, what are their minimum educational requirements, and how much they are willing to pay for each role you’re interested in pursuing.
For each role in the IT industry, there is a minimum barrier to entry — a set of minimum requirements to qualify for the role. Some roles require a high-school diploma and some online courses. Others require a 4-year degree. Still, others may require a Masters or a Ph.D. to qualify for the role.
In addition, for each role in the IT industry, there is an ideal learning path and lots of sub-optimal learning paths. Some roles are best taught through university courses. Other roles can be best learned through online courses. Still, others might be best taught through an in-person workshop or bootcamp.
It’s important that you get the right education based on which role you want to pursue. If you don’t understand the minimum requirements and the optimal learning path, then it’s easy to spend more time, effort, and money than is necessary. However, it’s even worse to be under-prepared for an IT role.
As the old saying goes, “practice makes perfect“. This saying couldn’t be more applicable to the IT industry. You need to practice your skills in order to become proficient with them. We’re not just talking about a little practice after watching a few online videos — we’re talking about many hours of practice.
It’s one thing to know something and it’s a very different thing to be able to do something professionally. Take neural networks, for example. It’s relatively easy to learn what a neural network is, conceptually. However, it’s very difficult to be able to train a neural network to detect credit-card fraud.
As a result, you need to spend the bulk of your time practicing your skills in order to become proficient with them. Employers don’t really care about what you know — they care about what you can do. So, be sure you have lots of hands-on experience with practice projects before you enter the job market.
When you’re practicing your IT skills, it’s best to create an online portfolio to showcase your skills. A project portfolio acts as a repository for the skills that you’ve learned during your education. This can be a WordPress website, a Github repo, or even a static HTML webpage with links to your projects.
An online portfolio serves a few key functions. First, it shows potential employers the skills that you’ve learned. Second, it teaches others who are learning these same skills. Third, it makes your name and skills more visible on the internet (via SEO). And it helps motivate you to create and finish projects.
For example, when I was in college, I created a simple website to showcase all of my final class projects. For each project, I had a title, a brief description, and links to download the source code. I continued to expand this online portfolio over time which eventually became the website that you see here today.
When you’re ready to enter the job market, one of the best resources you can have is a solid professional network. In fact, some of the biggest successes in my career were the result of connections I made through my professional network. I discovered new jobs, new opportunities, and great friendships.
Start by searching for local conferences, user groups, and other meetups focused on your specific IT role or skill set. For example, if you’re interested in a role as a Data Analyst, try to find a conference on Data Analysis, or a user group for the Python, R, or SQL programming languages — which data analysts use.
Make friends with the attendees and ask them questions. Learn who is hiring, what skills they require, what technologies they use, how much they pay, etc. You’ll find that most attendees of user groups, conferences, and meetups are very friendly, helpful, and willing to answer your questions.
Your resume is your first impression for potential employers. So, you need to have a great resume to let them know that you would be a great employee for their company. However, a great resume is not about how awesome you are — it’s all about communicating to a potential employer the value that you provide.
So, know your audience, write for them, and focus on outcomes. Keep your resume short and simple. Avoid having more than 1 page of text if you’re just starting out in the IT industry. Use as few words as possible to convey your message. Don’t pad your resume with fluff and never lie on your resume.
It’s also very important that there are no typos or grammatical errors in your resume. Many IT companies will exclude you as a candidate for even a single mistake. A single error in a line of code can cost a lot of money; so, if you have errors in your resume, then you will likely have errors in your code.
Even with the right skills, the right education, and a great resume, many job candidates get stuck when it comes to the interview process. This is especially true in the IT industry where many tech experts might be a bit more introverted or socially awkward compared to the typical employee.
So, practice interviewing by finding friends or peers who are willing to help you set up mock interviews. Search online for a list of the top interview questions for your specific role. Then, have your mock interviewer ask you these questions — just like a real interview — either in person or over a video call.
Ask them to provide you with feedback on what you did well and what you can improve on. The more you practice, the less nervous you will be when it’s time for a real interview. In addition, you will have rehearsed with similar interview questions, so you will be ready for them during the actual interview.