How to Launch an IT Career with an Arts Background
By Joe Issid
Monster.ca Tech Jobs Expert
Back in 1995, I had to call IBM support to ask them how to save a document to an external device (yes, a 3.5-inch floppy) from my Windows 3.1 desktop PC (yes, I am old). I was so tech ignorant that I did not know how to perform much beyond basic word processing and launch the odd game of solitaire. I can still recall the unwavering patience of the young man who walked me through the hundreds of clicks to move my WordPerfect document to the little blue diskette (yes, that is what they were called).
By 1998, I was slightly more informed, having recently learned how to navigate the thorny maze of the new and terrifying Information Superhighway; I was also proud to be able to print essays directly from my Windows 95 machine.
In May of that year, I graduated with a degree in English Literature, so it was no great failing on my part to be so technologically inept. I mean, what Pulitzer-prize winning writer needs to know networking or server-side scripting? It was utterly unrelated to my projected career path.
And then something totally unexpected happened.
I was not immediately recruited by the New York Times. Nor the Wall Street Journal (I had, after all, studied Economics in high school). I even had a hard time convincing local free publications to hear me out. I was dismayed to discover that my literary skills did not translate well to the job market that existed at the time. The world was in a furor over the Internet and technical people were in enormous demand. Having very little technical education, I was at a loss.
Realising that my career options were far more limited than I had dared admit while in school, I had to accept that I needed to learn a new skill. I toyed with the idea of staying within the Arts (marketing, for example) or take the popular route and go tech. Regardless, I had committed to going back to school to learn something new.
And then – again – something totally unexpected happened.
A local Internet Service Provider was looking for new tech support agents. It was quite serendipitous that my best friend was already working there as a senior agent. Overnight, he was able to teach me the basics of Dial-up Networking, TCP/IP, routing tables and DNS. By sunrise, I was able to walk into the interview and make a complete fool of myself. But the interviewers were desperate for bodies and they could see that I was clearly motivated to learn. So they offered me a position that I eagerly accepted. Having a company pay for me to learn on the job was far more appealing than accumulating further debt by going back to school. But that’s just me.
Unwittingly, my new career in IT was launched.
The first few months were difficult as angry customers became frustrated with my inability to elegantly solve any of their connectivity issues; but, as time went on, I learned the trade. I spent hours after work quizzing my co-workers and researching troubleshooting techniques online. I bought books and subscribed to newsletters if they were relevant to what I was doing. Within 6 months, there was no issue that I was not able to fix. With no formal education whatsoever, I had become fully entrenched in the IT world.
Shortly thereafter, my natural creative proclivities steered me towards web design and, eventually, software development. Again, I found it difficult convincing people to hire me without any relevant experience or education. However, I was now fully committed to this career path so it was an easy decision to invest further: I enrolled in some courses and obtained a handful of industry-standard certifications. I managed to get my foot in the door working as an intern in early 2001 and things began to roll shortly thereafter.
When it came to interviewing for increasingly technical positions, I always feared that my Arts degree would hinder my progress. I believed that candidates with Computer Science degrees would be greatly preferred over someone with a BA in Literature and a handful of hyper-specific certifications. However, it came as a great surprise that many employers looked very favourably on my Arts background as it provided an additional dimension to my profile that other candidates just did not have.
Employers could trust that I could communicate effectively with their clients and suppliers and that I could be counted on to perform ‘softer’ tasks within the workplace. Having an articulate and technical resource was more coveted than I had expected. So, to my amazement, my Arts background proved to be a great accelerant in my IT career.
By 2004, I was leading teams of developers and releasing complex and sensitive applications for multi-national corporations. Within a few short years I had managed to cultivate an entirely new and successful career out of nothing more than a lot of hard work and a little bit of chance.
As my career evolved, I never stopped trying to learn new skills as you can never be sure where the market is headed. I attended data warehousing seminars in 2001 that proved to be valuable to me only 5 years later. This was the key to my professional evolution: never stop trying to learn something new.
Now, I am not suggesting that this is a path that will work for everyone. In fact, it may not even work for anyone else. This is merely my story of how I ended up working in an industry altogether unrelated to my education. In the end, everyone takes a different path and there is no single recipe for success. All I can offer to you is to be patient, take the time to learn new skills and the rest will fall into place.
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