How to Get Your First Tech Job -- It's Not What You Think

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Bob,

With colleges graduating their students this spring, what advice would you give those seeking to enter the IT profession? Both about their job search and expectations they should set for their first job. Thanks!

Galen Gruman

Executive Editor, InfoWorld

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Galen,

Gee, does this mean you're finally going to graduate and get a real IT job? Or is one of your offspring ready to rock 'n' roll?

Regardless, I'm delighted to answer your question, not least because do you think my own daughters would ask for my advice on a topic like this? Not a chance! They did, however, take my advice about going into a different line of work, so that's something.

[ Check out available tech jobs with InfoWorld's IT jobs finder. | Keep up on career advice with Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

The short answer to any graduating student asking your question is: Stop thinking like yourself and start thinking like the person you'd like to work for. What you want doesn't matter right now. If you want to crack into IT during a period of relatively high unemployment and a fragile economy, you'll need to have a great answer to the question "Why should I hire you instead of one of the other applicants knocking on my door?"

You won't have a good answer to that question if you're focused on what you want.

First you have to get a job. Succeeding at that starts with the understanding that none of the tools you're supposed to use will work. Forget the jobs boards -- they're a waste of your time. Spend a bit of time on LinkedIn, but not all that much. Facebook? We love to write about it, but unless a hiring manager you want to work for is one of your online friends or is a friend of one of your online friends, don't make that the heart of your effort, either.

The Process That Should Never be Called "Networking"

What you need to do is to get directly in front of each manager you want to work for. Whatever you do, don't contact Human Resources, either. Its job is to screen you out if there's any possible reason for doing so. HR comes later, once you are a candidate.

You're going to contact each manager you'd like to work for, explaining that you're graduating with your IT degree and would like an opportunity to talk with someone who manages IT in the real world, to find out how it's different from what you've been learning about in the classroom.

Every time you're successful, have the conversation you promised, spending most of your time asking questions and listening carefully to the answers. Somewhere in each conversation, you'll hear about the problems the hiring manager has to deal with. When you do, look for opportunities to say something like, "You know, we covered this in one of my classes. Here's what I learned. Does it make sense in your world? Or is it something I'd better unlearn?"

You're looking for opportunities to show you're the kind of person who can solve real-world problems, who knows how to listen and understand so that the problems you settle are the problems your manager has. In a nutshell, you need to show you are someone who is ready to learn, not ready to show off.

End each interview by thanking the manager for his or her time (of course!). Also, make it clear you are actively looking for your first professional position, that you would be very interested in working for the manager if he or she has an open position, and if not, you would appreciate some guidance on who the manager might know and would be willing to introduce you to.

This is just a sketch of the process, of course. Last bit of guidance for the job search: Don't ever call this process "networking." The word is overused, is dehumanizing, and sounds manipulative. You're just meeting as many people in the industry as you can.

That's the starting point. Next you have to land a position.

Interviewing

Out of everything you might need to know about interviewing, if you remember just these few points, you should stand out from the pack:

  • Interview questions fall into two categories: qualifying questions and disqualifying questions. Qualifying questions are your chance to explain what you can do. Disqualifying questions are reasons to not hire you. When you're asked a disqualifying question, answer it as briefly as you can without sounding like you're ducking it, because no matter how brilliant your answer might be, it won't matter a bit. Example: "Are you willing to relocate?" Answer: "For a good opportunity, absolutely."
  • You're a professional, defined as "I have no problems, I cause no problems, I'll solve your problems." Project this attitude throughout the entire conversation.
  • What you aren't is a prima donna. You're the exact opposite. Say you're asked, "The pipes start to leak, and our equipment is in danger of shorting out. What do you do?" Answer: "First I grab my overcoat and put it over whatever looks most vulnerable. Then I grab a mop. Or, I do whatever the person in charge of managing the situation tells me to do."
  • Don't try to negotiate a great salary. Don't even mention salary. When the manager asks what you're looking for, explain that you realize getting your first position is the toughest step in your entire career. That's what you want to do, and your plan is to do whatever work the manager needs you to do. If that means learning Cobol or mainframe assembler, that's fine. You understand that right now, what's most important is building credentials that demonstrate you're the kind of person who gets whatever job done that needs to get done.
  • Finally, don't interview at all. Have a conversation.

Succeeding Once You've Been Hired

First: Make everything you just read about in the preceding "Interviewing" section real. Be a professional. Don't be a spoiled brat.

Next, in most companies there are great employees, average employees, and duds of various kinds. You'll be known by the company you keep.

Lastly, remember that beyond being an employee in IT, you're an employee of the company. Learn everything you can about it. Make friends outside of IT, too. The best IT careers don't stay within the boundaries of IT -- they take some turns elsewhere in the business. And the best IT employees understand the point of what they do, which isn't to build and manage great technology.

It's to help people throughout the business be more effective using technology.

Hope this helps, Galen. Write when you find work!

--Bob

This story, "How to get your first tech job -- it's not what you think," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com.

This story, "How to Get Your First Tech Job -- It's Not What You Think" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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