Breaking into IT requires more than a college degree

It takes a plan, such as the one Bob outlines for new grads trying to land their first IT job in a tough employment market

Dear Bob ...

I am hoping that you can give me some good advice and hope.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Sick of sending out resumes? Bob shares more unconventional tips for booking your first tech job. | Keep up on career advice with Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

I am a woman in her mid-40s who will be graduating with a bachelor's degree in Business Information Systems shortly. I know I am entering the game at a possible disadvantage, considering my age and even gender. Please advise me how to proceed in entering the workforce with this degree.

I am young for my age -- but nevertheless ...

- Breaking in

Dear Breaking ...

Hope? Well, sure. Hope depends entirely on your expectations. Set them too high and you have no hope. Set them too low and you'll sell yourself short. It's like selling a house. With some exceptions, if you want to sell one, you can. Getting the price you want is a different story.

Or in your case, getting the job you want, in the kind of environment you want, and with the compensation you're looking for might be a different story.

In any event, you don't need hope. You need a plan.

First things first: Forget your age. Forget your gender. Neither matters.

It isn't that sexism and age discrimination -- and ethnic and racial bias, so long as we're on the subject -- don't exist. It's that they don't matter. While ageist incidents do occur, more often they're factors that cause those of us who have, shall we say, significant life experience to discourage ourselves (if the subject is age; substitute your societal disadvantage here). If you run across bias of any kind in one potential employer, just move on to the next one.

Second things second: Don't limit yourself to positions for which you're fully qualified. Apply for every open position you can succeed in. That's a very different matter. Smart managers rarely hire anyone who's fully qualified, for the simple reason that anyone who applies for this sort of position is coasting rather than stretching.

Third things third: Very few businesses are hiring novices at the moment. While IT unemployment rates are far lower than those of many other trades, they're still high enough that employers can be choosy because they have plenty of experienced IT professionals to choose from.

What this means is that your goal should be building your resume, even if it means a delay in getting your first paying IT job.

By all means, start your search. Go to the professors with whom you did well and built rapport; some will be in a position to introduce you to people who will be in a position to introduce you to people who will be in a position to -- you get the idea. Begin the process of developing what has sadly been turned into a cold-blooded cliché: your personal network.

You don't really want a "personal network." You want a collection of human beings who think of you as a person and also might be able to introduce you to managers who have open positions for which you might be qualified.

But this is the long shot at the moment. In this employment market, I'd recommend you focus most of your effort in a different direction: Volunteer.

Take a page out of how successful actors get started. They wait tables and drive cabs while taking whatever parts they can get, to gain experience and build their resumes and scrapbooks of favorable reviews. In your case, wait tables, drive a cab or whatever, while you contact small nonprofit organizations in your area, offering them free information technology services in exchange for their willingness to provide you with a reference -- and possibly introductions. Many nonprofits have individuals on their boards of directors and contributors lists who are well-positioned in the business community. These individuals are, for the most part, deeply committed to the organizations they serve and will think highly of someone who does good work for them.

One more thing: Be open to the possibility that you like working this way. If so, you'll find that volunteering gives you a terrific start on a career as a contract IT professional. My guess is that for the rest of your professional life you'll find more opportunities as a freelancer than as an employee, so this is nothing but good.

- Bob

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