Career Opportunities

The High-Tech Career Handbook

A weekly ComputorEdge Column by Douglas E. Welch

Education - Fundamentals

November 14, 2003

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Last week I talked about the importance of direct experience in building your high-tech career. This should not lead you to believe, though, that formal training is not necessary. An education in high-tech concepts will allow you to expand your horizons beyond your direct experience. They can also lead to ways to garner even more experience by applying this newly acquired knowledge.

Better than before

When I was first starting out in my high-tech career, the opportunities for training were limited, if not completely non-existent. If you wanted to learn about computers, you simply had to do it on your own. Sure, you could get a Computer Science degree, but this was mainly about programming “big iron”, mainframe and mini-computers, even though the PC was well on its way to dominance.
Today, you have a host of opportunities, from free training classes, to inexpensive seminars and exhibitions to technical schools and colleges that offer computer science degrees more in tune with today’s high-tech environment. Your biggest challenge is deciding how to take advantage of all the opportunities. That said, there are certain areas on which I would concentrate to develop a good high-tech foundation.

The Foundation

In order to develop a clear understanding of high-tech, you will need grounding in the concepts and structures that underlie all the individual programs that you use today. Information Architecture, how best to store and access data, is an important place to start. Each type of data brings its own challenges. Before you even start to think about which database or spreadsheet program to use, you need to understand the data and how it will be used. A foundation in Information Architecture helps you learn everything you can about how to translate data into usable computer systems.

Once you have developed a sense of what data is and how it can be computerized, seek out classes that give you an understanding of the underpinnings of actual computer systems. How do databases work? How are files stored on a hard disk? How do microprocessors do what they do and how can they be made to do it faster?

This might sound like too much focus on the theoretical, but I assure you, it will pay off throughout your career. The more you know about what is happening inside the computer, inside the chips and inside the hard disk, the better able you will be to develop new programs, troubleshoot problems and analyze the quality of hardware and software. People often say they don’t want to have to learn to repair the computer in order to use it. I would say that, as a high-tech careerist, you have more in common with a race car driver whose deep understanding of their car yields an enhanced ability to make use of it. The more you know about computers, especially at fundamental levels, the more you will be able to do with them.


While you may eventually develop specialized skills in 2-3 different high-tech areas, your early learning should seek to encompass all aspects of high-tech. I highly recommend you learn something about each variety of computer hardware, every operating system and the standardized tools of the Internet. Early in your career, you want to build your foundation wide and deep. Take the time to learn as much as possible about as much as possible.

Work with Windows PCs, Apple Macintosh and a Unix-varient or two (or five). Investigate various networking standards and how they work. Try out mainstream software programs, but play around with some that are lesser known. Look into “vertical” applications, those developed for specific industries, professional offices or tasks, like accounting. You want to expose yourself to as much as possible. This is important for many reasons. First, you never know where you high-tech career may take you. Generalized knowledge allows you to fit into many different companies in many different departments with many different responsibilities. By developing generalized knowledge, you are giving yourself the most opportunity for finding a job. Generalized skills also allow you to work well with those around you, since you will have, at least, a basic understanding of what those around you are doing with their computers.

Finally, by exposing yourself to the full breadth of high-tech systems, you will begin to develop some idea of where you might like to develop deeper knowledge. These areas of specialization can’t be developed until you have some idea of what is possible. It is unwise to become a programmer if you don’t know something about the realities of programming. You don’t want to specialize in a technology that seems destined to disappear in the next few years. It is only through an exploration of the high-tech possibilities that you will be able to intelligently decide where to focus your attention. This is where I will pick up the discussion next week.

Book of the Week: How to think like Einstein by Scott Thorpe


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