Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A little more career advice...

So, I've given career advice here before a few times, mostly for folks who have already started their careers, or who are thinking about college:

A Little Career Advice

A Little Clothing Advice...

Tulips and Tuition

The Power Law Distribution Applies in Ways You Might Not Expect

Recently, I received a request for advice from a career counselor for college students, asking for help advising a student with a generic field of study currently considering a masters in some IT field, with their serious considerations lying in the virtualization, infrastructure, information security, or various architecture fields...

As it happens, I had been talking with others about the subject recently, and thought theirs was a good venue for combining and refining my previous advice.

I thought I would share my thoughts on the matter here as well, since my previous posts on the subject have generated a lot of interest.

Before I begin, let me just outline my basic qualifications and experience... 
I'm primarily an enterprise, infrastructure (including virtualization), and security (including risk and compliance) architect. Secondarily, I am a professional courseware developer and trainer in these disciplines. Finally, I am an experienced team leader and technical manager across these disciplines, in both small businesses and large enterprises, as well as a long term small business owner. 
Particularly significant to this discussion, for six years I was a chief architect, architecture manager, and team leader, covering all of these disciplines and domains; for one of the largest financial institutions in the world. 
I currently work as an independent consultant in these disciplines and domains, primarily serving the technology, medical, financial, government, and defense sectors. I am, and have been, a thought leader, executive, and hiring manager in these disciplines as well as a senior level advisor to executives and hiring managers in these disciplines. 
Now, having established that I have some relevant knowledge and experience, and am reasonably qualified to give advice on this topic... 
Here's my actual direct advice...
Education is great, I recommend it... 
...but as a hiring manager for these roles, and someone who has done a lot of career development and mentoring of junior and mid-level staff in these roles, I can tell you no degree program that I know of will have anywhere near the value, of two to four years of work experience in the industry... even if that experience is not directly related to their duties in ant particular role. 
That does NOT mean I think that students shouldn't get a degree... just that they should go about it somewhat unconventionally. 
MOST IMPORTANT... No IT degree is worth any significant amount of debt. 
 Let me repeat that... 
NO IT degree of ANY kind, including any masters degree, is worth any significant amount of debt. 
Whatever value the degree may provide (which, in most disciplines is no more than the value of "any bachelors degree" as a filter for candidates), will be more than outweighed by the burden of debt. 
Freedom from debt lets you do things like take a lower paying... or even non-paying... position that will give you more valuable career experience. 
I think the smart way to do it, is to work with colleges that grant accredited four year degrees, AND which give degree credit or even offer classes, for valuable industry certifications, and vendor and technology specific training and education. Doubly so for those institutions which offer credit for direct work experience, and through work study opportunities. 
This is especially true for masters degrees (and there are more universities willing to accept work experience and work study programs for masters credit). 
At the same time, the student should be working full time if possible, at a position within the industry. Unpaid intern if they have to, anything other than 1st level call center based tech support if they can... But WORK in the industry. 
Establish a track record of providing value within the industry, and hopefully the segment and discipline, they would like to direct their career into. 
Finally from a purely technical side, work on as much new, and different, and outside stuff... things not directly related to their specific job or degree or position... as they can possibly manage. Volunteer to work on it for free just to get the experience and exposure if necessary (though get paid for it if you can... if it' a particularly interesting or valuable skill or technology, certainly, volunteer). 
This may seem counterintuitive, but in an IT career you will find that a broad exposure to different technologies and processes is generally at least as, if not more valuable, than additional depth in a skillset already mastered.  
My final piece of advice is non-technical, but certainly far more important to any students potential career. 
The best, and most important advice I can give is this... 
Learn BUSINESS skills...
By "business skills" I mean business management, financial, and communications skills. 
Learn to read, write, and speak (both in public, and in private), very well. 
Learn to do so properly, and effectively (this may seem redundant, but actually all three are very different). 
Learn how to tailor your style, and your content, to your audience. 
Learn how to present, and defend, arguments, in writing and while speaking (both publicly and in private... the skills are related but different). 
Learn how to write business and technical documents, and documentation. 
Importantly... learn how NOT to do it, so you don't make the same mistakes as others, or your own mistakes over and over again. 
Learn how to sell... how to present, how to justify, how to craft and shape your message.
... and learn WHY you are doing so. 
Learn about basic financials, economics, basic business operations and management. 
Learn how to write (and read) policies and processes, and both technical and operational documentation for them. 
Learn how to read basic business legal language, particularly regulations and contracts. 
Learn how to write business cases and justifications, and how to read them. 
Learn about project management, and costings, and resource management.  
As a hiring manager... these are the people I really need. 
A candidate who can understand the business side, and the technology side, and can communicate effectively with both sides; is INFINITELY more useful, and valuable, than someone who can't, or who only has one of these skillsets, or can only work effectively with one of these groups of people.  
I can find plenty of people who have business skills, plenty who have communications skills, and plenty who have technical skills. All very good people, who will provide value in their specific areas of expertise. 
It's a lot harder to find any viable candidates, with any two of those skillsets. We want as many of them as we can get. They are at least twice as valuable to us as a candidate with just one of these skillsets... more often than not five or ten times more valuable 
It's DAMN NEAR IMPOSSIBLE to find people with all three... and when you do, you grab them and hold on to them as hard as you can manage, because you can't replace them.  
You don't actually CARE if they don't have the EXACT skills and experience in the technologies and products you need; they'll provide value with their other skillsets, while learning the specific technologies and products. 
Let me be very clear... people with this combination of skills, are are more valuable to you, even not knowing the details and specifics of the exact technologies and tools, and the specifics of the organization; than all but the most expert, highest performing individuals in any one of those fields. 
If you want a rewarding career with great jobs doing interesting things... That's what you should be trying to learn, and who you should be trying to get to be.