Voice of experience: What IT newbies should know

Leaving college and entering the job market? Learn from the techs who've gone before

the graduates

Pomp and circumstance

Around the world this month, young people are leaving the womb of college and entering the tech job market -- and perhaps you are among them. No doubt you've gotten a lot of advice from your professors and mentors, but as far we're concerned, more words of wisdom can't hurt. We asked real working tech professionals what they wished they knew back when they were newly minted graduates -- and while there's no substitute for experience, we hope you find their stories and perspective helpful as you make your way through the big bad world.

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meet n greet

Make friends and influence people

The real world is vast and crowded, and you need to make professional contacts beyond the folks you met at school. "Go to as many meetups and events as possible that are relevant to your career on a continual basis," says Michael Gelphman, founder of the tech community KCITP. "Here you'll likely encounter smart, motivated people who have a real passion for what they do. If you focus on building real relationships, some might become mentors or future bosses down the road."

phone stare

Communication is key

You might imagine that you'll be spending your day staring into a screen and typing code, but learning to communicate with other humans is a must. "Most software projects fail not because the technology is beyond our capabilities but because there were miscommunications and misunderstandings," says Mark A. Herschberg, CTO of B2B marketing solution provider Madison Logic. "I spent a lot of my day as CTO playing translator. Being able to explain issues non-technically is very useful." And communication goes beyond Facebook messaging: Nickie Peters, marketing director at IT solutions and managed services provider Logicalis US, urges you to "pocket your tech devices. Nothing is more annoying, or says that you don't care, than looking at a screen in front of someone who is having a conversation with you."

ten commandments

Learn to read the room

Entering the workforce, you might encounter different styles of communication, less direct than what you're used to. "When I graduated with my MBA and started working at a semiconductor company in a marketing capacity, I wish that people had told me that managers do not always say what they mean," says Derek Handova, senior b-to-b content marketing writer at a wireless networking company. "For example, when they say they are suggesting you do something, it's not really a suggestion -- it is an order disguised as a suggestion. Plain speaking is a lost art at big companies and corporate double talk is the name of the game. Use your better judgment at all times to interpret these mixed messages."


Your degree isn't everything

You're justly proud of the degree you've earned after years of schoolwork now, but you might overestimate its real-world value. Jonathan Harrop, marketing manager at mobile gaming services provider Yvolver, says, "When I graduated in 2008, I wish someone had told me that a degree wasn't enough. I had to have drive. I had to be able to demonstrate my skills in every interview. There are a lot of very talented individuals competing for the same jobs you want." Thomas Vaughn, senior software engineer at research and recommendation firm TechnologyAdvice, says that "having a degree doesn't mean a job will just fall into your lap. If you're working a part-time job, plan ahead to increase your hours post-graduation so you can earn more while looking for a new job."

home network

Projects you do on your own are a great calling card

"If I could go back and have the same maturity I have today," says Pedro Sorrentino, community development manager for transactional email delivery and management service Sendgrid, "I would definitely focus on being more of a doer than a talker as fast as possible. Today it's insanely easy to start a side project, a business, and professionally put your intention out into the universe. You can work on entrepreneurial activities while keeping a day job, if you have to." Paul Kubler, digital forensics and cyber security examiner at security firm LIFARS, gives a concrete example: "Someone who has set up a functioning LAMP web server or a RADIUS for their home Wi-Fi will get a more hands-on job in those respective areas, and therefore a higher pay, than those who didn't."


Never stop learning

You just graduated, you're still young, your brain is sponge-like: don't waste it! "After making my way to a CEO of a successful IT company," says Vasiliy Ivanov, chief executive at iOS/OS X app creator KeepSolid, "I realized all the information gaps I had that prevented me from making some decisions. Now I spend all my spare time on studying various subjects, reading tons of books -- I should have spent much more time on these when I was younger, didn't have a family, and had more free time." Pedro Sorrentino says that constant learning is a must-have skill: "Knowledge does not mean anything since in tech it becomes obsolete so quickly. What matters is how fast and efficiently we can learn things."

cert training

Tell people what you know

David Shearer, executive director at infosec education nonprofit (ISC)², knows there are formal ways to let people know how you're keeping your skills up: "Professional certification is a great way to hold ourselves accountable to life-long learning and convey to employers our commitment to our profession." Paul Kubler says that "technical certifications give an extra edge to those who have them; they help to show a minimum competency for an employee and act similar to tie breakers on job applications."

lunch learn

Go where the knowledge is

You aren't on your own in gaining these new skills, or at least you shouldn't be. Elizabeth Schwartz, COO at SaaS company Square Root, urges you to "look for perks and benefits that extend beyond the ping pong table and company keg. Development opportunities and mentorship should be a priority perk, especially for tech professionals. Seek out companies that show a commitment to investing in their employees, whether that means lunch-and-learns to encourage skill sharing or annual budgets for each employee to use for training or attending conferences."

paper prototypes

Understand not just tech, but what tech is for

What you learned in your computer science classes may only be a fraction of what you'll use in your day-to-day work life. "I wish I knew coming out of college how much of delivering a successful software product had nothing to do with writing code," says Kevin Skibbe, VP of engineering at cloud solution provider BetterCloud. "Building a successful software product requires a lot -- market and product research, testing, operations, sales, marketing, and more." Johan den Haan, CTO of rapid application development company Mendix, knows the danger of a development approach that ignores these factors: "You need to iterate with actual users to make a useful product. I learned this the hard way. When I was a younger, I built an application that I was paid for but end-users never actually used."

bee swarm

See through the buzzword swarm

Drew Thomas, CCO at digital agency Brolik, says, "I know now that macro trends are more important than micro trends" -- and the faster you learn the difference, the better. "The industry moves really fast, and everyone feels that they'll be left behind if they don't know everything. Taking the time to adopt everything new in tech is nearly impossible, though, so young people should focus on the 'big picture' signs that differentiate solid tech progress from fads." Brian Mitchell, senior manager of product marketing for data and information management software maker Commvault, thinks that "the Internet of Things and Big Data are hot today, but probably won't be in 15 years. Right out of college is a great time to decide which fundamental technologies are worth learning for the long term."

old radio

Broaden your knowledge base

Chris Ward, who's been involved in IT training for almost a decade and provides education through on-demand training provider CBT Nuggets, started off viewing computer programming as a hobby. "I was told that if I wanted to be a 'serious' programmer/user, I would be required to learn all sorts of behind-the-scenes information like networking, and how memory worked. I brushed all that off. Fast-forward post-graduation. One of my early jobs was putting together radio station networks, and I had to learn everything on the job. Don't make that mistake. Don't dismiss networking if you're a programmer. Don't dismiss programming if you're a hardware expert. Know a little bit about everything and then concentrate on the area that you have fun with, and enjoy."


Your opinions matter

While you should treat your experienced co-workers with respect, don't be so deferential that you withhold what you have to offer. "The bottom line is that leaders and people that make a difference in business have strong opinions," says Gordon Bockus, lead software engineer at backup and recovery solutions provider Spanning by EMC. "I remember thinking when I was younger that I should just keep my thoughts to myself because either I wasn't involved in the decision being made, or wasn't the expert in the field. Eventually, I realized that if you don't participate in the decision when the opportunity presents itself -- regardless of whether you are invited -- you'll never be involved, either in that decision or any of the fallout that will happen over time."


Respect the culture

Derek Handova's first job really taught him that understanding the cultural mores of your corporate environment is key to succeeding there. His employer "had been run for many years by a former British military officer, and the culture of the place reflected this. Meetings started and ended strictly on time and there was no excuse accepted for being late. This is probably true most places, but the culture at Altera was particularly unforgiving in this situation. I had no problem being prompt to meetings, being a very punctual person by nature, but I observed others who had a lot of issues getting used to this zero tolerance for tardiness." Coming in at the bottom of the ladder, it's up to you to adapt.

so rude

Don't tolerate a culture of disrespect

But there's a difference between adapting yourself to a specific way of doing things and tolerating abuse. "When I embarked on my tech career, I wish someone had told me that a company's culture was just as important as other obvious details like salary and benefits," says Rich Waidmann, president and CEO of hosting provider Connectria. "In my first two jobs, there were people with big egos and rude people who made me feel stupid every time I asked a question. Don't let that happen to you -- find a place where you work with people you actually want to work with. In the midst of hectic deadlines, it's easy to forget that a work culture with positive, happy people is invaluable."


Wait a little before striking out on your own

You might be eager to jump out and start your own business right away -- but Ron Bodkin, president of big data and big analytics company Think Big, believes you shouldn't be hasty. "The best way to become an entrepreneur is to work for one," he says. "Work at an innovative company with an innovative manager and learn from a great mentor. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but it was only when I got to work with some more experienced entrepreneurs that I figured out what it really took. You learn a lot more by working in teams than alone. I think we all learn a lot about working independently at school. But in the real world you can 'share credit' by collaborating, especially with people who have different skills."


You don't have to know your future right now

Jim Brozny, senior director of customer operations at services procurement firm Fieldglass, bounced from major to major and felt "trapped" by his English degree. "I wish I could go back and tell the young me, 'Relax.' I now have a successful career that has little to do with my degree. Because I wasn't mentally locked into a specific career path, I could explore anything I wanted. For me, that meant combining my degree with my computer hobby. My first real job was as a technical writer for a software company. Not glamorous, but it opened the door. What's important is the ability to identify and solve problems, regardless of your educational background. If you prove yourself to be a hard worker and a problem solver, opportunities will show up for you."

resume chat

Your background doesn't define you

You may feel stuck with the "wrong" credential like Brozny did, but the limits it places on you may not be as constraining as you think. "One thing I wish I knew at graduation: Just because someone tells you you're not qualified to do something doesn't obligate you to believe them," says IT consultant Harold Mann. "Recent grads are often told about experience, required majors/background, etc. It's all just designed to help the employers weed out candidates. But if you're determined enough, don't let a rule tell you what you can and can't do."

end of line

Not every job is your final destination

Just finding a job can seem like such a trial that you may be tempted to decide that the first one you get is the best you'll ever do. But that's not healthy or realistic. "It's likely your first job after graduation will not be your dream job, but rather a stepping stone to finding that dream job," says TechnologyAdvice's Thomas Vaughn. Don't hold out forever for a dream job -- you need to start earning and learning -- but make sure that first gig is "something that will give you valuable experience your next employer will be looking for."

trail woods

Blaze your own trail

Bottom line? You're an adult now: take control of your life's direction. Leah McGowen-Hare, master technical editor at Salesforce, says, "When you are good at what you do, people will say 'You should ...' However, it may not be aligned with where you see yourself going. It is OK if your vision changes, as it should as you gain more knowledge. Just make sure your choices are aligned with your vision." Or, as Mike Pav, VP of engineering, spanning by EMC, put it: "When I graduated I wish I knew that the direction in which my parents and advisors were pushing me was not the one true direction, but just their view based on their lives. It has taken me more than 20 years to realize that I have to own my own future."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.