What Color Is Your Parachute? 2017: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers

How to Get an IT Job without Computer Degree and No IT Experience

February 11, 2017 by Rich Arden

IT is the fast-growing industry with the most promising career prospects. Even during the time of economic downturn, IT job openings were still tremendous. If you have to get a job to make a living, but can’t decide what to do, then do IT. In the conventional job sectors, you usually need a college degree of the field, and you would need some job experience to get the job. The most frustrating dilemma is that, you need a job to build your experience, - how can you get the experience without a job, and how to get the job without experience?  The good news is, - IT is different.

Everyone Can Do IT

First of all, college degrees are not relevant in IT. There is not really an IT degree. No college major or degree is specially designated to prepare IT professionals like database administrators, systems analysts, application developers, and information security specialists. There are computer degrees such as computer science, computer engineering, and management information systems (MIS), which support some of the IT functions, but they are not IT. Computer science guys are likely the assembly coders. Computer engineers are mostly IC designers. The MIS is like a MBA degree twisted towards IT.

Thus no wonder, IT professionals are from all walks of schools. In fact, over 70% of IT professionals come from somewhere without the computer science background. Obviously, ALL of them started without IT experience. In the workplace, you may see IT workers with college degrees in accounting, political science, marketing, chemistry, education, finance, engineering, psychology, and so forth, but few earned a computer science degree. As you see, some of the degrees are far from IT; why don’t they find a job matching the major of their studies? - Because for them it is easier to find a job in IT; and IT pays much higher.

IT is an open market with diversified workforce and great growth potentials. If you are interested in IT, and know how to break in, you’ll be able to land a job and do well in your career no matter what background you are from. Whether you have some kinds of college degree or none, even if you don’t have actual IT working experience at all, you could follow the guidelines in this article to prepare yourself, - it’s a proven way to jump onto IT. With some efforts and time invested, you will get a real IT job, - fairly paid, full time, permanent, and with all employment benefits.

Acquiring Knowledge

Knowledge is power. Fortunately, the knowledge of IT is easy to acquire. Acquiring knowledge will help you reflect what you’re keen on doing. After you determine what you would like to do, you will find the way to increase your chances of getting there.

Investigate the Field

The first thing you need is to think about what kind of job in IT you want. Each job has its own special requirements, so you should assess your own skills and interests, and then decide which job might be best for you. Be very specific for the starting point; what exactly you’d like to start? – Programing codes? Developing applications? Designing the web? Administrating the database? Fighting the hackers? Caring hardware and equipment? Analyzing tech requirement? Managing IT projects? There are two quick and easy ways to investigate IT fields and get a sense of IT subjects:
  1. Search the web, especially search and surf mega job sites such as monsters and dice to learn IT job categories, descriptions, and requirements. Discover what’s hard, what’s not; what’s easy, what’s hard.
  2. Go to a local bookstore, browse all books in the computer section. Only read the introduction and the first chapter. Make sure you browse all computer books, it may take whole day. That is a very intensive training.

Read a Book

After investigating the field, you may have found out what you would like to try in IT. The next step is to read one book to get deeper knowledge on an IT topic. These days, there are books that teach you just about anything to do with computers, from the basics all the way through advanced programming. The Secret Guide to Computers by Russ Walter was quite famous decades ago, and more of newer book series become popular nowadays. People often find the following types of books are very helpful for this purpose:

  • The “Dummies” books can help you get your feet wet if you’re just starting out, but won’t help you for long. It is likely a fun read.
  •  The “Teach Yourself ____ in 21 Days” series by Sams Publishing can teaching yourself how to become a programmer of a software engineer.
  •  The “How to Program_____” by Deitel & Deitel can help you learn computer languages quick and easy.
  •  The “No Experience Required” series by Sybex are liked by IT beginners.
  •   Books by O’Reilly Publishing cover about every topic in computing, and they are what the professionals have on their desks at work (keep your “Dummies” books at home).

Remember, you only need to read one book, and get it at least half way through. That’s all the knowledge needed for your resume, and for the little talk in the job interview. Let’s move to the next steps.

Having a Mentor

Nothing is more effective than have a mentor to transfer knowledge to you. You probably know someone who knows more about computers than you do, - your friends, your brother in law, your coworkers, etc. If you work in a company, come to get those IT folks and make friends with them. Learn all you can from one person, and then find someone even more knowledgeable to learn from. Soon, you’ll be the expert, and people will start coming to you!

Obtaining Training

IT training is very expensive. A one-week Oracle course could cost $2000 or more. Taking a training course is the most obvious approach, yet many IT pros have worked in the industry for quite a long time but never had any formal training. The truth is, not all computer skills are easy to get by self-learning. When you cannot teach yourself, go and take a training. Also, as more and more students graduate with IT skills and knowledge, the competition will make it harder for the self-trained to land the best jobs. In many cases, a degree, certificate course, or vendor certification such as MCP will greatly improve the odds.

Don’t be discouraged by the financial burden of IT training. You don’t have to pay big bucks to get them. There are all sorts of training resources available to you for free.

Free Online Training. Many vendors and training companies offer free online training courses. They are either special promotions such as first class free or some kind of trail versions. Some of courses are designed for IT certifications. Take advantage of them and sign in.

Product Tutorials. Take free online tutorials. All IT vendors provide tutorials with sample code and instructions. A lot of tutorials are also provided by third parties. They are all free. Use them to learn a specific skill, such as programming, database, web design, etc.

Technical Seminar.  Go to technical seminars in your local area. These seminars are organized or sponsored by IT vendors to offer new product overview and brief training. You don’t get in-depth skills from them, but it is a quick way to get basic concepts and directions on a technology, and it is a good opportunity to meet people and build your career network. They often provide free lunch!

Onsite Job Training. If you already have a non-IT job but plan to move into the IT career, you should keep eye on onsite IT training opportunities, meaning you can do some IT-related tasks and gain experience. For example, if your company is starting a new IT project, talk to your manager to put you in. This is usually not a problem because it does not cost the company a penny. You may help for requirement gathering and even do a little bit of coding (with the newly acquired knowledge). It will be hard at beginning, but the more you learn, the better your skills will become. Soon you’ll become eligible for promotions to IT positions, or you can look for better jobs at other companies.

Newsletters and Magazines. That’s where you get info of free training opportunities. Newsletters and magazines provide the industry trends and the knowledge update to keep you informed. You can subscribe many IT magazines; they are free from publishers and vendors. For instance, you can have a free copy of Oracle Magazine which covers DBA skills, PL/SQL coding, database tuning, and a lot more. But nowadays many magazines discontinued the paper form. Most likely you will get the e-zine delivered to your email inbox.

Building Skills

You don’t have to get a computer degree, but you do need to have some IT skills to start and do the job. You must convince recruiters and hiring managers that you are well prepared and capable in the IT field. To compete for an IT position, you need to show your IT skills. Luckily, there are tons of free or almost free resources you can use for skill building. All you need is a plan and some dedicated time to build your IT skills.

You can build the latest IT skills from knowledge and information which are always overloaded in IT industry. In the previous sections we discussed how to acquire knowledge and obtain training. The tech knowledge, IT skills, and IT training are all interrelated. IT skills don’t have to be the skills you gained from IT jobs. IT skills are the IT knowledge extended to the practical sense, meaning you can build real IT skills from self-learning and free training. Here are a few practical approaches you can take to get top-notch IT skills:

Read a Lot of Books. Read technical books online and offline. There are at least twenty published books available for each IT topic and sub-topic. A lot of them are for beginners. Pick up one of your interest and start to read. You don’t have to buy all of them. Many books have the PDF for download. Be aware of copyrights and virus when you search for free IT books online.

Use Vendor Websites. Go to top IT vendors’ websites to get knowledge for their systems and products. These vendors offer excellent online knowledgebase. For instance, if you want to get Java skill, just go to Oracle’s website (no more Sun’s), you’ll find any Java related information you need, from installation, coding, to creating complicated Java components.

Study Manuals and Documentations.  All IT systems, products, and tools come with volumes of manuals and documentations available free online from vendors. Nothing would give you more detailed and accurate knowledge than the manuals and documentations by the product’s vendor. For instance, if you plan to build skills on Oracle database, you need to get the full set documentation from Oracle website. It’s free and everything is covered.

Run Trail Software. Download trail software tools, install them, and play to gain hands-on skills. That’s the most important. In fact, a lot of trail versions are fully functional, and a lot of software systems are fully free for developers to use. Playing them and using them personally would make no difference from actually working on paid projects to build your IT skills.

Join the Club. Join the user groups locally and participate in online forums of a IT specialty. You’ll get all sorts of tips and tactics there, and you can ask questions. That will speed up your process in gaining latest IT skills.

The Most Basic IT Skills You Need

There is too much to learn and so easy to become overwhelmed in IT. Therefore to keep moving forward, you need to maintain a minimalist mentality. Basically, there are only three skills you need to get.

One language. Equip yourself with one computer language. You can pick up an easy one or a hard one, but make sure you get the hot one. For example, it is still hot in programming with Visual Basic (easy). There are high demands in web programming language such as PHP and MySQL (medium). The valuable computer language skills are always on C/C++(hard) and Java/C# (almost as hard as C++). In the long run, you may not want to put all of your eggs in one basket, but at beginning you just need one.

One database. My recommendation is either Oracle or Microsoft SQL Server. It is that simple. Both Oracle and Microsoft provide enough resources to let you learn and practice the database systems.

One operation system. The choice is between Windows, Linux, Unix, and Mac. My recommendation is windows or Linux. Most likely you have Windows on your desktop or laptop already, so you can just start to play with it. Or you can buy a cheap Linux box from Walmart.

Making Experience

So far we have covered knowledge, training, and skills, now let’s talk about IT experience. Again, they are all interrelated. Assuming you never had an IT job, you don’t have to make the experience from IT jobs. What we focus here is the self-made experience, - functioning as the real job experience you need for get a new IT job.

Even though you don’t have a full-time job in IT field, you can still make real, practical, and countable IT experience by yourself. Your self-made experience would be served for two purposes: (1) prove the skills that you claim to have; (2) provide credible materials for your resume to land the job. You’ll find practical tips on self-make experience in the following paragraphs.

1. Play it. Sit down in front of the computer and just play and experiment. This is a great way to learn new programs, tools, system, the network, and the web. Using whatever the resources you’ve already have. If you have a Windows PC, you can start to work on Windows system administration issues. If you have Microsoft Office installed, you can use Access to experience SQL and database technology. You can learn to write HTML and design a website. All you need to get started is a test editor like Notepad.

2. Try programming. Programming experience is the most wanted, and is the easiest one to obtain. All you need is a PC and a compiler tool that you can get for free. For instance, to get Java programming experience, you can download Java SDK from Oracle’s (not Sun’s) website, install it, code, compile, and run!

3. Hands on database. Database experience is essential in IT. To have some, you can play with Microsoft Access if you have it installed in your PC. You can download a free database system called MySQL to learn SQL and database structures.

4. Group projects in school. If you are a college student or graduate student, you’ll take some courses that require group projects. If you have to do a project as part of the course work, try to put some programming and database tasks into the design so you can make it an IT project.

5. Experience in workplace. If you work on engineering or administration projects in your job, think of that if you can use some computer skills and knowledge to help your task. Can you use a desktop database to assist data collection? Can you build a web page for presentation? Anything as small as this would be a good experience.

6. Volunteer work. As every career mentor recommended, you can offer volunteer work for non-profit organizations such as churches, charity associations, and public schools. Create a website for them; build a membership database; setup the computer network, etc. That’s a good opportunity to build close-to-real-work experience.

7. Internship. Get internship with IT or consulting companies and participate in their IT projects, even if it is unpaid. There are enough information online regarding how to get an internship.

8. Build a software.  You can develop a shareware or freeware and publish it. For instance, you can write a mortgage calculation software, or a card collection management system. You can submit your software to website such as download.com and let people download and use them. A lot of technical books come with example codes of small applications that you can start with. You should count this type of small work as big accomplishment.

Writing Resume

Your resume is the stone you throw to knock the door and break in. Writing a strong, solid, powerful, and appealing resume is essential to get IT. How to write a high-power IT resume is another big topic for which I’ll separate articles to cover. Skimpily speaking, you must put a lot of IT stuff to the resume. It is not much concerned that you have no computer degree and no IT experience, you do have all of the knowledge, skills, and experience, - all self-made and professionally presented. Here let me give you a few IT resume tips:

1. Show hot IT skills. If you followed this guide, you should have learned quite some of the hottest IT skills - Java, .NET, database, CISCO network, TCP/IP, information security, etc. List all of them in the “Technical Skills” section of your resume. Use bullets to make them clear and standing out.

2. Show IT experience. Include in the resume your IT work and experience with organizations where you offered volunteer work. Describe your accomplishment in the resume. You don’t have to emphasize that it is unpaid, part time, small, or volunteer. If you make yourself understand the technical concepts and feel confident to implement the technologies at work, you should list these skills in the “Sills Summary/Inventory” section in your resume and provide more details in the “Experience” section.

3. Show your projects. Describe the project and the work you did in internship or in the college courses. Focus on the technology and your accomplishment, instead of the internship or class itself.

4. Show your product. If you developed a shareware software, list it and describe it as an experience in your resume. Be proud of it even if it is small.

5. Show your training. Take one or two free online training classes and list them in the ‘Education and Training’ section in your resume. For example, sing in a free SQL Server online training course, so you not only learn the skills but also put it in your resume as “Microsoft SQL Server Database Administration training by Innovative Solutions”.

6. Show your education. If you earned any college degree or certificate, show it in the ‘Education and Training’ section in the resume. Make it as much relevant to IT as possible. For instance, write it like “B.S. in Business Administration with courses in database analysis and management information systems, Stockton City College.” Since you don’t have an IT related college degree, you need a little bit more material in the ‘Education and Training’ section to make your resume IT flavored.

7. Show professional affiliation. Join an IT professional association and list it under ‘Professional Activities’ section in the resume. For instance, “Member of Association of Information Technology Professionals.” The membership is not free, but you may join as student member to get deep discount. Professional affiliation does show you are serious in IT career.

8. Show your certification. Try to get one IT certification so you can list it in the ‘Education’ section in the résumé, i.e., ‘Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP)’. Take one of Microsoft exams or Oracle’s Java programming exam. They both require only one passed exam to give you the certification.

In addition, it is always good to demonstrate your business knowledge and non-technical skills. Business skills and communications skills are highly valued by employers. IT worker who can communicate effectively both verbally and in writing have an edge in the job market. Those who have a business skills, especially an MBA, are also more desirable to employers. Also, soft materials such as attitude, desire, and inspiration are all important and would be very help if they are properly presented in the resume and cover letter.

Some so called experts suggest that you mention something about computers in an “Interests” or “Hobbies” section to make your resume reflect some computer flavor. That is very bad. You don’t want IT to be your hobby. Don’t mention any hobby at all. You must make sure your resume looks extremely professional. Again, since your resume probably doesn’t reflect computer work experience, you’ll need to add a “Skills” section that lists all of the skills you’ve acquired. They are professional skills but not hobbies. If you followed some of the tips listed above, you should have had a solid resume with strong IT muscles. You are in a good shape to land the job. The next thing is about self-empowerment in job interview. I’ll discuss interview strategies in another article.

Entering IT

The most exciting step of IT is to get your foot inside the door. Now you have built the skills you need to do a job, and you have written a killer IT resume, you still have the hardest part ahead of you - getting hired. The following tips should help.

Networking

The networking of computers and people will allow you get any IT jobs you want. Connect as many people as possible. It will pay out. It’s not what you know; it is who you know matters. Actually, you need both.

It really helps to know someone on the inside. If a resume is submitted by an employee for a friend, most companies will conduct an interview as a courtesy, even if the resume doesn’t quite meet their qualification requirements. In the interview, you can show them what you know. Be prepared, though - they may quiz you. Be careful not to put something on your resume unless you’re actually competent in it.

Find out where the computer guys hang out. Join the professional club, attend the user group meetings, and go to the seminar. You’ll be surprised how much info you can get just talking to people in the field. And you might also find that it’s not your cup of tea. Most people that work in computing don’t fit the stereotype. They have characters; most of them are warm and willing to help.

The Easy IT

There are IT or quasi IT jobs that are easy to get. You don’t even need to do all the preparation as we just discussed. These jobs are either considered as supportive (none core) IT or near IT. They are not paid as good as the core IT jobs, but they are easy to break in. The following are just some examples of easy-to-get computer jobs.

Data Entry. This is a job just about anyone can get. Basically, you take information from a piece of paper and use it to fill out a form on the computer.

Administrative.  This position involves computer and software application skills. Not only must you understand the basics of using your computer and a few applications, but you’ll probably also be expected to take dictation, answer phones, type letters, and keep things organized. In terms of computer skills, you should know how to use word processing, accounting, and spreadsheet programs at the very least.

Power User.  Not so much a position as a status of being an extremely proficient user of (typically) Microsoft Office or similar tools. Advanced users of these tools become familiar with the basics of computer programming through starting with Excel macros or Access database programming. One can become very valuable to a small business by learning such skills, and even start to consult with other small businesses at rates typically starting around $50 an hour.

Customer Service/Telesales.  These positions usually place a higher emphasis on phone skills than computer skills, but you should know at least the basics of how to use your computer. This is the position to use large scale software such as customer relationship management system (CRM). The skills of commercial off the shelf (COTS) systems such as Siebel CRM are very valuable. It is a good starting point.

Technical Support.  Most companies consider technical support to be an entry-level computer job. You are expected to know the operating systems on which the product you’ll support will run, and you’ll also need to know the basics of any programs that product might interact with. The good news is that the company will teach you what you need to know about their products - you just need to learn everything else. Success in technical support requires good problem-solving skills and a great deal of attention to detail.

Software Quality Assurance (SQA). You need to know as much as the best technical support personnel. You need to be a problem solver, a detective, and sometimes even a Customer Service representative. You’ll also need some basic programming skills, since more and more companies are beginning to rely on automated testing. The best SQA engineers understand a little (or a lot) about every aspect of computers, from building them to using them to programming them.

Technical Writer. To be a technical writer, you must understand computer basics and the product about which you’re writing. You also need to know the programs you’ll be using for your writing, such as word processors, desktop publishing programs, web languages such as HTML, and Windows Help-authoring tools. You’ll also need to be a good writer (or trick people into thinking you are).

Medicine/Diagnostic Imaging.  There are lots of new jobs for computer literate people in Medicine. CT, PET, and MRI scanners all run complex software that should be operated by people with good computer skills.

The Hard IT

Now let’s take a look on some of the core, main stream IT jobs. They are very competitive. But with effective preparation as we have gone through, you can get it in a few rounds. The following are some of the well-respected IT positions you should consider.

Software Engineer (Programmer).  Some programmers can get away with knowing very little outside of programming. For example, a programmer doesn’t necessarily need to know anything about the Internet (unless he’s writing Internet programs), doesn’t need to know how to install a modem or hard drive, and doesn’t even need to know which hole the keyboard plug goes into. (On the other hand, to get a job at a top software shop such as Microsoft or Google, you’ll need a degree in computer science and detailed understanding of the field.) What they do need to know is the language in which they’ll be programming. They also should know database fundamentals and (if programming for Windows) the Windows API. Knowing more than one programming language is very helpful. Understanding many of the basic fundamentals of computer science (e.g. linked lists, arrays, pointers, object oriented programming) will be essential in demonstrating your proficiency.

Database administrator/programmer.  Database specialists are often software engineers, but not all software engineers work with databases, and some database specialists do not have high formality software engineering or computer science training, having come in via support-oriented career paths which can lead into database administration. DBAs are highly compensated and command considerable influence in typical corporate IT settings. Some DBAs get started by programming Access databases, move to SQL Server, and then to Oracle, through pursuing applied, product-specific certifications. Once a DBA, one can then move into data architecture and systems analysis.

MIS/Network Administration. MIS (Management of Information Systems) is responsible for making sure that a company’s network of computers is working properly at all times. This includes everything from showing the users how to send an e-mail to upgrading or repairing the computers to managing network resources such as file servers, network printers, and Internet firewalls. For user support positions, you need to be an expert at the operating systems in use by computers on the network and the network itself. You also need to know the fundamentals of hardware repair, the Internet, and the applications in use on the network. Network administrators need to know all of that plus how to set up network hardware, cabling, and network resources. Larger companies prefer their MIS personnel to have (or at least be pursuing) special certifications that prove they know their stuff.

Summary

Are you clear now for what can you do to get an IT job? You just need to the following six steps:

  1. Acquiring It knowledge and determine what you want to work in IT.
  2. Obtaining Training from many free resources.
  3. Building IT skills by self-learning and practice; focus on one language, one database, and one OS.
  4. Making IT experience through many channels
  5. Writing a strong, solid resume
  6. Entering IT through job hunting and networking. Try to get easy IT job first, or right jump onto a hard-core IT position.

Do IT, you are done.

Caution

College or no college

Even though I said you can get a highly paid IT job with no computer degree or without a college degree at all, I must say that college is great for getting a job of any type. It’s the best investment you’ll ever make. The best bet if you don’t have a 4 year degree is to go to a junior college. Most have certificate programs in PC Support/Help Desk or Lan/Networking or Programming. The curriculum from these programs are essentially what you would get if you attended a 4 year college and got a degree in computer science but the certificate program leaves out the unrelated classes such as Math, Science, English etc. This is a great way to get a good educational background in IT and best part is, is that it’s cheaper than a technical school.

Never Stop

Once you’re hired, it doesn’t end there. Keep learning new skills constantly. Once you think you’ve learned enough, you might move on and apply for more advanced positions. This industry is always evolving. If you don’t evolve with it, you’ll be replaced by someone who will. Also, always work hard. There are a lot of game players in the industry, but there are very few high paying jobs that allow you to play all day. It is a real career that requires a lot of work.

Update date: 2/10/2017. First published on 18 August 2006