Systems Engineer/Information Technology – Mentor, Kirk Miller

This Mentor has had an interesting career path within the IT industry.  He rose to a position with one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the US where he was the Director of Service Delivery and a Security Operations Manager. But like many young people, he started out on another career path before he got his engineering degree. His article contains a number of personal experiences and suggestions for the best ways to prepare yourself for a career in this field and suggestions about entry level jobs and the experience you need to have to advance in an IT engineering career. Like all engineering careers, becoming a systems engineer offers one of the highest starting salaries and lifetime earnings. It is also one of the categories within the engineering profession with the highest projected growth.

Kirk MillerAs expected, when writing about Information Technology, IT, and computer career options and opportunities there are many paths one may follow.  I'll focus on some of the main roles in IT, such as System Administrators, Network Administrators and Desktop Administrators.

My career path is in some ways common and in other ways different than many system, network or desktop admins.  I pursued a college degree in something that interested me, the outdoors.  I enrolled in classes and finished a degree in Resource Management.  By Resource Management, that meant environmental resource management, such as forests and National parks.  I ended up working in sales for a few years and knew I had to obtain true skills to compete in the job market now and in the future.  In my case, I went back to school for Computer Engineering, which is similar to Electrical Engineering except the elective courses are in software development.  While in school I began to learn about Windows Servers and how to administer permissions and users.  My programming classes used Unix, so I began to learn about that operating system, OS, as well.  That led me to Linux and all the flavors of that OS that I learned in my off-time.

Before I graduated, I found an internship with an Engineering company.  My role was for software development and also to administer 12 servers, which to me sounded like a large number. At that time  I learned about administering, troubleshooting and upgrading, mail server, SQL database servers, Active Directory, AD, Domain Controllers, firewalls switches and routers.  These tasks were much more interesting than writing code in C, C++ and C# .NET.  I ultimately ended up consulting at a large company with over 40 thousand systems and 70 thousand users.  There are tasks I like about both small and large environments, so do not think that more systems is always better.  With more systems you lose some of the responsibilities you once had at a smaller organization.

The point of that long introduction is to show that I went through two college degrees and really ended up working in a different field, which often happens. What I discovered as I worked through a couple IT jobs is that credentials and results are what matter.  In many companies, it is not whether you have a college degree, but do you have the certifications and then also the true skills to perform and excel in the role.  Companies often use technical tests to evaluate potential candidates before they receive an interview.  With that, if you can perform, for example write an Access Control List, ACL for a router or firewall based on a theoretical example, then that means you have the technical chops to make it on to the interview.  So, learn your craft.  If you desire to be a network admin, learn everything you can about those devices and configurations.  Staying with the example of a network admin, study for and obtain your CCNA certification.  It shows employers you have a basic understanding of networks for entry level positions, where you can then obtain real world experience with hands on practice to advance and work towards your next certification.  Notice, I do not mention that you need to pursue a college degree.  Do not spend two to four years after you begin if you can learn the same while working.

There are times where it is beneficial to attend a two year program or shorter to learn your craft.  There are many programs to help students pursue their desired career and obtain the necessary certifications.  For example, if a student desired to work as a Sys Admin, and does not have the knowledge, hardware and time at home to setup and learn on their own lab, then attend a program to teach the processes and procedures required by a Sys Admin.  If possible, find an internship or entry level position and take classes in the evening.

A good way to break into the industry, even if you ultimately want to advance to more responsibilities, is to start as a help desk technician.  Help Desk Technicians are the first line of support to assist your business employees or clients.  It is an important role and requires good communication and problem solving skills.  Desktop support is a great way to learn about how the company functions, it offers you a chance to talk to many people in the organization and interact in a positive way.  Help Desk support can be difficult, though, because some of the work is repetitive.  However, it builds a knowledge base for the future as you learn common issues about the technical environment and also what is important to the employees and the business.

One point to note about IT is that it changes so quickly that it requires constant reading, training and practice.  If you don't have a passion for your craft in IT, you will fall behind or be held in the same position for lengthy periods of time.  IT is not about history, for the most part, but, rather, it is about the future.

Network Admins and System Admins, may start as Help Desk Support or begin straight into an entry level position with the proper credentials and firm skill set.  Once in an admin position there are many paths forward.  One option is to continue your technical growth to intermediate and then advanced knowledge and contribution to the business.  Working up through an organization on the technology side of the business allows for laser focused learning and growth in one specific technology, if the company is large.  Or, advancing in technology may mean learning several technologies and becoming an expert on some and proficient on others.  This often is the path for a smaller company that has a smaller IT staff and requires more flexibility from their IT department.  Different personalities are attracted to the different paths so during your career think about what path interests you. Another route is to work up through the technical ranks and then take on a leadership role.  Common leadership roles begin as a team lead for a couple people or even one person.  This allows you and the company to evaluate your desire and proficiency as a leader.  After a team lead, then other management positions are possible.  Whether staying in a technical role or moving into a technical management or company management role, the higher salary rate expected is between $80-$100+ thousand for 15 years experience.  Entry level positions range from $30-45 thousand for desired positions such as networking and solid system administration.

I'll end with something I mentioned briefly above once, but is as important as your technical prowess.  Soft skills are required.  Soft skills are how you interact with your team, how you speak to other employees and customers, whether you can document a process clearly for others to follow or produce a document that flows up through management describing a technical event in common language that they can understand.  There are other soft skills, but one that limits many is the ability to present information in front of others in a meeting or in a stand up presentation.  I urge you to not only work on your technical skills, but force yourself to focus on the soft skills, as they often matter at least as much as the technical skill in an interview and your new role at that company.

Salary Statistics for Software Engineers

Like all careers in the engineering profession, Software Engineers can expect a higher starting salary and lifetime earning than any other college major based on a  US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary survey completed in 2009:

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Like most occupations, there are regional differences in salary levels that should be considered, although the stare and regional disparities and not that large for this this engineering profession.

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The Bureau is predicting a growth rate of 22% for software engineers and developers between 2012 and 2022. This means that for the foreseeable future, there will be strong demand for young people who get degrees in software engineering.

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