While the responsibilities of a traditional information technology (IT) specialist have evolved over the years, the importance of the role remains as important as ever. Businesses of all sizes often depend on one or more dedicated technical staff to assist employees with tech hiccups and to keep the day-to-day tasks running smoothly.
An IT specialist usually wears a variety of hats, from maintaining security systems to keeping hardware running properly, which requires flexibility and a versatile skill set.
Today we’ll cover some of the basics behind becoming an IT specialist, whatever your current skill level or area of deepest interest. Our goal is to help newcomers find their bearings and prepare for whatever career focus they feel drawn to. As you’ll find out below, you have lots of options for getting started.
What is an IT person?
An IT person almost always works extensively with technology, but they may also need to interact with others frequently. Whether it's with colleagues or customers, diagnosing and solving a problem isn’t always a solitary process.
The term “IT professional” is often used interchangeably in place of specific job titles, because the actual qualifications and responsibilities vary. What an information technology specialist actually does depends on their field and industry.
Here are some specializations to help you think about your own focus:
- Security: protecting against malicious software and external threats.
- Network: providing server support and maintaining communication systems.
- Administration: maintaining office systems and archives.
- Support: troubleshooting for employees or customers.
- Mobile: designing apps and new tech for smartphones and tablets.
- Development: building infrastructure and programming.
- Online: developing and maintaining web resources.
- Research: providing quality assurance and new tech.
Now that you have a better idea of which area you may lean toward, let’s look at how you can get started.
Step 1: Set goals and do your research
Ask yourself the big questions about what you enjoy most in the field and where you’d like to see yourself professionally. Would you work for your favorite game developer at any price? Or are you focused on salary?
If you don’t have anything in mind yet, start simple. Do a little research and learn more about some of the technology you already use. How does it work? Why does it work that way? Could it be better? What other things do you use that could be improved? Be critical and think about the skills you may need to work with that kind of technology.
IT professionals use their skills in a lot of different ways. Some work to make hardware and systems better, more efficient, and more resilient. Others prefer to use their tech fluency to help their community and the people around them. Make sure that your preferences factor into your planning from day one.
Step 2: Take advantage of free and beginner classes
From evening classes to community-based programs, there are many options out there to consider when it comes to starting your tech education. However, there are also a plethora of relevant online courses available for free to students of all ages.
Here are a few that are particularly tailored toward building a background in information technology:
- Learn to Program: The Fundamentals: a great course for Python beginners offered by the University of Toronto.
- Azure Fundamentals: a comprehensive course on how to use Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing service.
- Introduction to Cybersecurity: a basic intro to the world of cybersecurity provided by the University of Washington.
Step 3: Improve job prospects with a bachelor’s degree
While it’s possible to find work in the IT world without a degree, for many a BA is a natural next step and a good way to access the jobs they want. In addition to job experience, formal education is one of the best ways to build your knowledge base. It also helps you build a network with like-minded professionals.
If you choose to pursue higher education in computer science or information technology, you can expect a variety of options and programs. Each offers its own unique opportunities and advantages, so make sure you research degree programs before you make a commitment.
You can also find information on hiring practices and corporate preferences online. If you’re interested in a particular company, look through employee reviews and job listings. Pay attention to qualification targets so you can make the most of the time and money you choose to invest in your education.
Step 4: Build your IT qualifications and try DIY projects
This step is an important one for newcomers and experienced professionals alike. Direct experience in your field is one of the best ways to expand your horizons, so you should always have your own personal knowledge goals. DIY projects and doing work for friends and family is a great way to build experience.
If you don’t plan to pursue a bachelor’s degree, then prioritize keeping yourself in practice and aware of new developments. For beginners, taking apart and rebuilding an old computer is a great place to start. Once you feel more confident, you can apply some of those skills to building your own PC
Step 5: Explore certification options for your field
Professional certifications are another great intermediate option to consider beyond full-time education and training. These are typically offered as conventional professional certification for proficiency, as well as certification from particular services and vendors.
Some may be general, while others are focused on a specific system or technology. The Cisco Certified Network Entry and Associate programs are popular foundational courses for a common business system, available online through Cisco
Whatever your focus, do your research and save the most advanced classes for when you feel confident you can follow through. When you’re ready, check professional-level certification options in Computer Science at online education aggregators like Coursera
Step 6: Weigh the benefits of a master’s degree
Once you find a satisfying job or finish your bachelor’s degree, you may not immediately want to pursue additional formal education. You’re not alone and, fortunately, most entry and intermediate positions don’t require a master’s degree. However, there’s no predicting hiring practices and some companies may prefer it.
For many IT specialists, getting a master’s degree is a secondary priority but it’s still an important part of building on experience and specialization. You may not have to worry about it for a while, but keep post-grad education in mind, especially if you want to pursue higher-salaried or more prestigious positions.
How important are formal degrees and certification?
Information technology education requirements vary widely, and an IT education is active and ongoing. Considering how quickly technology evolves and changes, it’s impossible to stay truly up-to-date without regular experience and continuing education. That means direct knowledge and hands-on experience is just as useful as formal degrees and certifications.
Despite that, there is no guarantee you won’t eventually compete against candidates with all of the above: direct experience and specialist certifications, along with a degree. Regardless of your long-term goals, a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a related field is typically an advantage.
If you’re at the beginning of your education, focus on adding new experience however you can. Look for informal opportunities that you can build on, but also consider formal education when the opportunity arises. Thinking closer to home, you can also take a look at our Office of the Future Technologies
report for a few ways to get ahead with your personal work hardware.
The field of IT is brimming with potential and variety. Want to plan an in-depth education and focus on formal resources? Or maybe you want to stick to DIY and potentially build out your own small business? However you want to do it, your passion and know-how can get you there.
Becoming an information technology specialist may have some unique challenges and requirements, but it’s not too different from other fields of study. If you stay current and set reasonable goals for yourself, there are many career options to explore.