It might surprise you that you do not need a college degree to work in IT security. In fact, 90% of all of the people I have ever worked with in IT over 20 years do NOT have a college degree. Usually, those with degrees do at some point get into leadership levels, but this is not necessary for many either.
Many of you might just not have a clue where to start. You are intimidated by computers. You don’t know “techie” stuff well. “It is a young person’s career”. All of these things are in your head. I’ve worked with people from all backgrounds.
It might also surprise you that “working within IT” might have one of 100 different types of careers. From help desk to database admin to web programmer to IT security – there are so many different careers I cannot even begin to list all of them. Point is, there is something for everyone in this field. In one contract I was looking at, we even needed a graphic designer to help with slide shows.
I once did a 3 hour presentation to a 400 level class at my alma mater on IT security, but it was about a 30 minute lecture followed by 2.5 hours of students asking me question after question after question on “how to get jobs”.
You see…learning about computers is a skill, but getting jobs are also a valuable skill. Many college programs throw all kinds of shit at you over 4 years. It gives you a great background. When I was in college, at 19 years old, I was working the college help desk with a 40 year old who was on the GI bill after retiring from the Navy and wanting to start a second career for the last 25 years of his life. Awesome dude. Could be you? Anyway – I’m going to tell you a way to get into the field, quickly…where to go….how to advance…and what jobs to look for.
Where to start???
- Cheap training (1 week)
You can find some cheap classes on how to learn a skill at your local community center, church, or high school. Maybe something like “Office 2016 training”. This might get students used to spreadsheets, word processing, and databases. If you spend the $50 or so for this class, it might give you a cheap way of getting some quick skills you can use immediately.
2. Buy a computer book (1 month to read)
Go to a book store and look at all of the shit they have. You will be intimidated, but it might give you a good idea of what is out there. For example, you might see a lot of books on programming. While technically you don’t need a degree for this, it’s HARD to find entry level programming jobs where you don’t need lots of schooling and experience. Apps? Web design? Maybe. I would steer you towards a book called “A+ for dummies”. The A+ is a book for you to get acquainted with PC hardware. You might also get something like “Windows 7 for dummies”. This is an “operating system” which is what you are clicking through. Most businesses use Windows as opposed to your Mac or Ipad at home. That “operating system” is called ios, which is apple’s operating system. This is where Bill Gates/Steve Jobs come into play. Most of what you do to start is helping people with hardware, software or operating system issues.
3. Buy a PC (1 month to play)
At this point, you had a cheap training and got a book. You can buy cheap PCs on ebay with windows, so you can get one of these and tinker with it. You don’t have to be an expert, but you want to be comfortable. Learn to take out components by looking up videos online.
4. CBT Nuggets.com (ongoing)
This is about $100 per month, but I think you can do a trial for cheaper. This will give you some entry level computer based training, but could also get you some next level stuff if you care.
5. Night/day school (3-6 months)
At this point, you might want to take the plunge to sign up for some IT training. Many of these schools also have some form of job placement and deals with local businesses to get you jobs upon completion. Shop around for costs and rating. Some schools are fly by night, some have been around for 40 years. They all have financing…think of this as investing in you.
6. Get your first job! (Probably 4-7 months from deciding you want to do this!)
This might crush your soul, but most people start at a helpdesk type of job. This is typically called “Level 1 support”. You usually answer phones and help people through answers. Scripts and knowledge bases are there to help you out. You will fail at times, it’s ok. These jobs are entry level, and have high turnover. Why? People in IT are constantly learning more, and more knowledge is what gets you paid. You can be a lifer on the helpdesk, which is fine, or you can choose how much you want to make by learning more.
The more you learn….the more you make. Despite what you think, or what you have heard, it takes several years usually to get to a decent pay. Many factors affect this, which I’ll get into below.
Like I said above, this is usually one of the first steps for many folks. There are exceptions, but your 6 month networking class is not going to ever get you placed in charge of a $100 million network. Often, the helpdesk gets people in to an organization, then different groups within your IT department may then poach your best helpdesk people to work with them in a form of apprenticeship. Any chance you have to volunteer for anything, do it. One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure…and can get you steady work. At this point, people are evaluating you for the following:
- Can he learn new things?
- Is he a punctual/dependable employee?
- Is he suited to work with people in a professional environment? (I always tell people to dress for your NEXT job, not your current one)
Helpdesk ($$) – level 2 (or desktop support or systems administrator)
Here is where you get your first break from level 1. This is when people on the phone can’t fix your problem, so someone has to go out and take a look. Or, it might be a networking issue. Or a software issue. Lots of types of problems here, and you get a good understanding of how IT works as a whole.
Tier 3 support ($$$-$$$$$) (might take you 3-6 years to get here if studying hard)
This is where you sort of graduate from working with customers face to face and you take on a specialty. Server rooms, networking, database admin, network admin, infrastructure, backup/recovery, citrix, etc. Here is where the best tier 2 personnel end up. This is not only fixing what tier 2 cannot fix, but these folks also design your systems.
Within my specialty, I’d like to consider 4 types of classes….
Administrator – performs troubleshooting of issues and learns a lot about the discipline
Engineer or peer to scripting/programming – engineers configure based on architect standards and there are sometimes automation guys who script or program which are above the admin level but usually perform different tasks than engineers…
Architect – the designers of the systems, whether it be networking, databases, etc.
Management – you might do 2 years of a helpdesk, have your shit together, and have a knack for leading people and are great with policies/procedures. It would not be out of the ordinary to get a lead position here, which might be a tech lead. Management, per se, usually have more formal education completed, but you might run into an exception at tier 1/2 leadership. More typical is managers are either non-technical or highly technical, depending on the business…but have been in the field for 5-10 years at least and can lead people.
Different industries pay more than others. For example, if you’re a systems administrator at a non-profit, you might make half or a quarter of a systems administrator on wall street. So, your more entry level jobs are going to be in the lower paying industries.
Industry pay (top first)
- IT Defense contracting (usually need clearances and work on term-limited contracts)
- General industry and large business/IT contracting
- Medical/Federal government
- Medium sized business/state government
- Small business/local government
- public schools/non-profit
So if you’re really good at being a systems administrator and work for a non-profit, you will be able to get yourself a nice raise by applying to a manufacturing facility or a hospital. It’s unlikely you would be going right to the top without more formal education.
Typically, larger cities pay the best. Many guys like myself live outside of smaller cities and have done ridiculous commutes to larger cities where the money is. If I had to do it all over again, I would live between two major metropolitan areas. For example, in Maryland – between Baltimore and DC. In Delaware, between Philly and Baltimore. In Jersey, between Philly and NYC. Live near major highways so you aren’t driving through 30 minutes of back roads to get to a major highway.
Certifications are like cub scout badges. Some businesses don’t care about them. Others, like contracting, do. Different certs might be a baseline for a helpdesk job (like A+) and others might be a contractual requirement for tier 3 defense contracting (like CISSP). Currently, I possess:
- A+, Network+, Server+, Security+
- MCSE (server 2012)
- MCSA (server 2008)
- MCTS: SCCM 2007
- Working on Certified Ethical Hacker
This is where the many, many specialties come into play. IT security is a BIG deal today, and the field constantly doesn’t have enough people to support it. This drives wages up. So, if you work on the helpdesk and look into the Security+ certification, you might be taking your first step towards IT security.
How does this work? Well, if you are selling 3 cookies and have 200 hungry people, you can sell the cookies for top price. If you have 200 cookies and 3 hungry people, the cookie prices are lowered a ton so you can move it. IT work is sort of like that. There are a LOT of people qualified for helpdesk, so this is where the salaries are the lowest. Often advanced specialties have few qualified people and many open positions and these pay the best.
So – taking the above into account….if you start today, you could be joining the IT security field inside of 2 years and be getting paid for it along the way….