There are a lot of different ways to take a career in IT. A lot of the time, people fall into a path in their career without really realizing. I personally fell into a focus on email because I kept getting assigned to work on email systems as a primary assignment. The more I learned about email, the more my employers began to rely on me to work with Exchange server. This is an extremely common thread in IT careers. It’s not always easy to keep this from happening, and it’s not usually a bad thing. The more you specialize in the IT industry, the more you are likely to earn. Specialists are important, but I tend to recommend not specializing too much. The IT industry can change rapidly and I’ve seen several IT specialists whose careers took major hits because their specialty almost entirely disappeared (Hi Novell specialists!). Here are some of the different paths you can take with your career. This is not an exhaustive list, but should help you either choose a path or consider the different directions you can take your career.
People in IT like to joke that all we do in IT is search for the solution on Google (or whatever search engine). This is true for a lot of the entry level positions in an IT department, but it becomes less true the longer you work in IT. Or at least it should become less true. We all spend a lot of time on Google in IT, but you need to learn some specifics so you know what to search for. Which brings up the topic of terminology (as an aside). If you don’t know what to search for, you won’t get the right answers. Learn the lingo and you’ll find answers quicker. But don’t be just a Google pilot. Knowing “why” you should do something is more valuable and important than knowing “how” to fix a problem. Getting out of the Google pilot rut takes some effort and study. Developing skill with search engines is necessary, though. You will, hopefully, get to a point in your career where all the Google piloting skill in the world won’t help you solve the problem. I’ve run into a mountain of issues that simply had no proper documentation anywhere in any Google search I could think of. Understanding the technology makes this problem easier to deal with, because you’ll be able to dig in and find the problem. Then you can write your own blog post on how to solve the problem.
The IT generalist is a “jack of all trades” and there are a lot of them. Generalists mostly work with smaller companies that can’t justify hiring IT people who will only work with a single technology. Generalizing in your career can limit your income because it gets very difficult to gain the deep knowledge that people are willing to pay a lot for. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t learn a bit about everything. General knowledge in IT can serve as a very solid foundation and allows you to be adaptable. Generalizing with specialties in one or more areas makes you a more valuable employee because you’ll be able to say “yes” whenever you are asked to do something. “I don’t work with that” is not something you want to hear yourself saying on a regular basis. However, you can’t know everything.
Modern IT environments have to have at least some level of network infrastructure to work. Routers, switches, firewalls, and wireless access points all need to be installed, configured, and maintained. Network admins focus on device connectivity. This can become extremely complicated as the network gets bigger. Environments with lots of subnets, physical locations, and security requirements are difficult to manage without people who have specialized in networks. You will want to know at least something about how networks do their thing regardless of what you focus on. Networks touch everything in modern IT, so if you don’t specialize in networking, you should still learn how they work and interact with your part of the equation.
The best network specialists can build and manage any network. From the smallest SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) network to global, redundant networks. The level of knowledge required to do this can get very high as network complexity increases. Subnets are fairly simple, but implementing BGP and other routing protocols can be complicated. This is, at least, from my own perspective. Keep me inside a LAN and I know networks fairly well. The closer you get to the Internet, the less I know. Once I have to work on something outside of a firewall, I am regularly clueless.
Desktop support is the “face” of IT. By that I mean they’re the one people interact with most. It’s probably the most frustrating part of IT, because users don’t always know what to ask for or understand things they are asked to do. This is also a section of the IT world that you don’t want to get stuck in because it doesn’t usually pay well. But it’s easy to get stuck into it. You have to spend personal time or downtime studying to move to a different area of IT. Or you can move up to management (ew). Desktop support doesn’t pay well because the answer to a lot of problems is “Reboot and try again.”
Server management is where I live in the industry. Server admins and engineers work with servers. I like to tell people that managing servers is the same as desktop support. You just can’t reboot anything, so you have to dig for an answer. Sometimes you can reboot, but you have to do everything you can to avoid it because servers do the work of the whole company and downtime is expensive.
Server support can cover everything from DNS to global application management. It’s challenging because you have to learn how many different applications work so you can fix them. There are a dozen backup solutions out there and each one works differently (though there are similarities), for example. Email filters, Active Directory Domain Controllers, Intranet systems, and other functions are managed by server admins and engineers, just for starters. Not to mention any custom built applications out there. There are people who specialize in one or more server application or function, but it’s pretty important to get a grasp of fundamental server and even network functions like DNS, DHCP, firewalls, and switching because they all play a part in server operation.
Databases are a subsection of server support, but I separate it out because it’s a massive subject that is a realm of its own. Database Administrators (DBA) and other server admins don’t tend to think alike. You need to understand database languages, structure, and scripting, just to start. There are several database solutions out there that you have to learn if you’re planning to be a DBA. But the pay for DBAs is generally much higher than other IT admin functions because of the level of specialization required to thrive here. DBAs are extremely important, as well, because almost every server-based application out there uses some form of database. Central Database solutions like MS SQL and MySQL can get very big, as well, with multiple applications running on the same database server. If you can handle working with databases, this is a great way to go in your career. It is important to understand a bit about databases and how they work, however. Otherwise you will have a lot of difficulty troubleshooting problems with server applications.
Cloud specialization is where a lot of IT functions are going, and the work of server admins tends to mesh well with it, since Cloud services revolve heavily around server-based solutions. Network admins can do a lot in the cloud as well, but the work of networking is greatly simplified with cloud services, depending on what level of the shared responsibility model the company is working with. The difficulty with cloud specialization is learning the multitude of service plans cloud providers make available to their customers. Understanding the shared responsibility model is a critical part of cloud support work, because you need to know what pieces of the IT puzzle you can work on directly and when you need to contact the cloud provider’s service personnel. You will need to talk with cloud support teams at some point, so learning to work with external support teams is very important.
Here’s where things get difficult. Cybersecurity is in high demand these days. But it’s a tricky part of the IT industry. Everyone needs to know a bit about cybersecurity, because everyone needs to be involved in it. Otherwise you get environments with bad security that are easy to break into.
There are several different specialties under the cybersecurity umbrella. You can specialize in policy, auditing, penetration testing, security operations, and others. And cybersecurity jobs pay extremely well. But you have to study hard. Cybersecurity can be difficult to break into without specialized training, and cybersecurity specialists have to keep up to date on a daily to weekly basis, because new vulnerabilities and tactics are found on a very regular basis. You have to know about the changes that happen as soon as possible so you can respond appropriately. It’s a constantly changing section of the IT world and you have to be prepared to move right along with it. The difficulty is usually worth it, though, because cybersecurity jobs pay very well. Some of the highest paying jobs in IT are in the cybersecurity world.
There are plenty of other job functions and specialties in IT. Things like mobility, software packaging and deployment, hardware support, phones (again, ew), and Point of Sale (double ew) all need people who know a lot about them. Try to find a focus you are comfortable with early on in your career, but be prepared to switch to something else. You don’t want to be in a situation where you are a decade or more into your career, making good money, when the industry changes and your chosen job function no longer exists. Having secondary and tertiary specialties can save your career.