Looking Back, Looking Ahead (Parts 1-4)
© Douglas E. Welch 1997
Over the last 6 months, this column has discussed the various
trials and tribulations of starting and maintaining a high-tech
career. While it isn?t always the easiest career road to travel,
it can be one of the most rewarding. We only need to look around
us to see there are far more troublesome jobs out there.
The New Year is always a time of reflection and planning for the
future. We reflect on what we have and have not accomplished and
attempt to make new plans. You can call them resolutions, but
I like to think of them as goals. They are not rules you are trying
to follow but important milestones for which to strive. You may
not fully reach them but the target they provide helps steer both
our personal and professional lives.
Where do you want to go today?
While Microsoft might have you believe that Windows 98 is a destination
in itself there is a whole world out there that needs to be explored.
Are you preparing to graduate from college this year? Do you think
there is a better job, out there, than the one you have? Do you
want to start your own business?
You can?t figure out where you want to go unless you know where
you are. Take some time this month defining where you are and
what you would (or should) change about your career. Do you really
want a high-tech career or do you secretly long to be a painter,
a writer, or a musician? Spend a few quiet moments and think about
Once you have discovered the direction you want to take begin
to think about the steps necessary to get there. Break it down
into small, easy-to-complete, tasks instead of one gigantic change.
Do you need to take a training class? Do you need to start lining
up outside clients? Do you need to start looking for a new job?
Start putting your career "ducks" in a row by working on your
resume, making a few phone calls or even writing your letter of
resignation. You don?t have to send it. The act of writing it
down will be enough to start you on your way.
A word of warning. Don?t go into a high-tech career because it
pays well. Don?t try and use it as a springboard into the career
you really want. Don?t do it unless you really like computers.
There are several reasons for these warnings. You really need
to enjoy working with computers if you are going to do it for
a living and do it for a long time. You need to be able to find
solace in the system when the other trials of your job intrude.
Most people can take quite a bit of stress if, despite the bureaucracy,
they love the actual work they are performing. If you find no
joy in your work, what will you do when the angry user calls or
the boss assigns you a 3 month project with a 1 month deadline?
It is important to remember that you probably wouldn?t work with
horses if you didn?t like them.
Next week I will explain why high-tech careers can define you
as a person, regardless of any other interests you might have.
We all have dreams. We dream of being a famous conductor or opera
singer. We dream of being in the Olympics. We dream about being
president of a large corporation. Whatever the dream, it is important
to remember that a high-tech job is not always the best springboard
to another career.
Mark of the Nerds
There are few careers that mark a person as deeply as one in computers
or other technology. Whatever your true personality or calling,
people around you, especially your boss will assume that computers
are your only interest in life. It can be very difficult, if not
impossible to change that opinion.
This observation comes from personal experience working for a
large entertainment organization as a senior microcomputer analyst.
Despite my interests in other aspects of the creative company,
and some demonstrated skills, nearly everyone thought of me as
a computer person and little more.
I started my writing career during this time and began to achieve
some success, but even this did little to change the perception.
I went out of my way to learn more about various departments in
the company, hoping one day to move out of computer support and
into a more creative position. I certainly wasn?t the only one
to experience this. Even people who worked in one creative aspect
could not seem to move into another. You were branded with the
first job you had.
Moving out to move up
One solution to this problem is the concept of moving out to move
up. Unable to achieve promotions or lateral moves due to preconceptions
or staffing freezes, many employees move to another company. This
often allows them to achieve a higher title, higher pay and higher
job satisfaction. The final irony is that some of these people
can and do return to their previous company a few years later
in the new position. Once they left, people forgot about their
previous history and accepted them in a new role.
This is what makes a high-tech career a bad springboard you plan
on staying in the computer field. If you want to expand into some
other career later, you will face the same problems as those above.
If you find yourself in any of the above situations, there is
no better time to start than now. Once you have a clear idea of
your future, make a few moves in that direction. Build some new
contacts both inside and outside of your current company. Find
out the requirements of your new career. Talk to those people
who are doing the job today. You might change your mind about
a new career but, at least, you will be thinking about and exploring
Whether you are just starting out in a high-tech career or are
a veteran, you need to continue your education. The computer industry
waits for no one. There are two questions you need to ask yourself
about 1998: what do you need to learn and how will you go about
If you are new to a high-tech career you will quickly find that
you are responsible for your own education. No one is going to
offer you classes or books. You will need to take the digital
"bull" by the horns and wrestle it to the ground.
Now is the time to see if you can turn an internship or volunteer
opportunities into a paying job. Carefully note everything you
have absorbed from your own learning sessions. You may not have
a CNE (Certified Netware Engineer) certificate, but perhaps you
learned how to add users and print queues on the job. This is
not to say that you should stop volunteering once you have a job.
Volunteer positions are good for networking and gaining even more
skills you might not be exposed to at your full-time job.
Continue to help your friends, your friend?s friends and anyone
else who needs computer assistance. Who knows, these people could
become your first clients if you decide to move out on your own.
It helps to expose you to even more technology and, more important,
teaches you a certain amount of people skills.
People skills should never be underestimated. In some cases they
can even be more important than technical skills, especially in
technical support positions. You will always have resources to
turn to for product specs and troubleshooting info, but dealing
with people, is almost an art form. Cultivate these skills and
you will increase your marketability a hundredfold.
On the company dime
If you are lucky enough to get a job at a large company you may
have some allies in your education. Most corporations have some
form of tuition reimbursement program. This usually allows you
to attend college courses appropriate to your job while the company
picks up some portion of the cost. Take advantage of these programs.
Not only will you be learning but it can also improve your standing
in the company.
In some cases, companies will pick up the full cost of attaining
a technical certification like a CNE or MSCE (Microsoft Certified
Engineer). They will often let you attend classes on company time.
Companies are "requiring" these certifications more and more,
but if you can demonstrate skills with these products they might
be willing to hire you and send you through the program themselves.
Plot out your education course for 1998. What products do you
want to learn about? What skills do you need to improve? Who can
Next Week: What technologies are the most important in the coming
I am often asked, what new technologies should I be learning?
Where should I be dedicating my attention in order to get a better
job or improve my current position? At the risk of sounding foolish
over the next 12 months, I have listed below those technologies
and areas that will generate the most interest in 1998. The computer
industry doesn?t stand still, so there may be new unannounced
technologies that will change the entire picture. This is merely
my best guess.
The Internet is probably the most obvious choice for important
technologies in 1998. I believe the clamor for Internet-savvy
people will continue to grow at even a higher rate than the last
It is important to remember, though, that the Internet is not
one technology, but it is thousands. One aspect to focus on is
the use of database driven web sites. Major web sites are abandoning
static pages, where each page is hand-coded, in favor of a database
system that allows for dynamic presentation of data. This allows
them to build customized pages "on the fly" for any user or group.
Graphic design for the Internet is another important area. Web
site producers are quickly learning that it requires a graphic
designer to build a truly attractive and useful web site. If you
are a computer graphics designer, make sure you understand the
concepts of effective online design.
Finally, employees that understand the vagaries and secrets of
UNIX systems and other Internet hardware and software are in great
demand. You cannot go wrong by mastering DNS, SMTP mail systems,
RealAudio/Video servers and other software that provide high-end
Training and Support
Unlike other technologies, computers have become harder to operate
instead of easier. This opens the door to professionals who can
train and support computer users on the myriad of hardware and
software products on the market today.
Profitable companies can be built on providing exceptional training
services in either a home or office environment. The most effective
method seems to be one-on-one training on the user?s own computer.
Telephone and on-site support are an important adjunct to these
The explosion of telecommuting and home offices has increased
the demand for people knowledgeable in installing and maintaining
remote access systems. This requires a deep knowledge of the various
connection alternatives, phone lines, ISDN, cable modem, ASDL
as well as the software available for each computer platform.
The need for these employees is sure to continue growing for the
foreseeable future whether as consultants and full-time employees.
It is impossible to say what 1998 will bring for both the computer
industry and those of us that work within or around it. The only
constant is change and our most important skill is the ability
to adapt to this change, even if it means reinventing our skills,
our careers and even ourselves.
Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant
in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with
other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on
Douglas' web page at: http://home.earthlink.net/~dewelch/
He can reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org