May 7, 2012
Breaking Into the Tech Sector
How a UWPCE Certificate Can Take You From Newbie to IT Pro
Every so often, a new list of jobs rankings makes the rounds online. More often than not, tech careers are found near the top, thanks to measures like salary, job openings, growth potential and work environment.
And the perks don't end there.
"It's a field where new ideas are embraced, so you end up with a better lifestyle in a lot of regards," said UW Professional & Continuing Education (UWPCE) instructor Randal Root. "Being able to work from home a couple days a week, having a daycare onsite or bringing a dog to work are just a couple of things unique to the IT world."
Not everyone gravitates to the field early on in life, but that doesn't mean a career in information technology is beyond your reach.
Making the Leap
Years before carving out a career as a technology consultant and instructor, Root followed his father into construction.
He remained in the field until the late 1990s, overseeing projects that ranged from high-rises to finish work.
But when it dawned on Root that construction wasn't his life's calling after all, he fell back on the logical alternative: technology. During his college years, Root dabbled with programming and even launched a small computer-assembly business.
He decided to pursue a new career incrementally, studying for Microsoft certification exams in his spare time. Those credentials led to a contract job at Boeing in 1998, a position at Onyx Software a year later and contract work at Microsoft in 2002 and thereafter. He then became an instructor and co-authored a book on .NET in 2006 and another on business intelligence this year.
These days, Root says employers prefer certificate programs like the kind offered by UWPCE over Microsoft certifications, which have become commonplace. UWPCE certificates can be a launching pad for a career in information technology, even for those without a programming background.
"One of the cool things about the computer industry is there's usually a pretty decent amount of jobs," he said, "and there are often ways of breaking in by just educating yourself."
Choose Your Own Adventure
To get in on the action, you need to first decide what kind of work you'd enjoy doing most.
From an outsider's perspective, the information technology sector "might seem like a mysterious black box," said UWPCE program manager D.A. Clements. "They're not clear on what possibilities are in there."
The IT field can be broken down into four primary career tracks, not all of which require programming:
- Infrastructure (physical networks, hardware and servers)
- Data management and analysis (database design, administration and business intelligence)
- Application development and programming of any kind (Windows or Mac, Web and mobile)
- Web design (design and user experience)
Test Your Compatibility
Even if you're just looking to break in, you don't have to reinvent yourself.
"People don't come into these programs newly hatched," says Clements, a former lecturer with the UW Information School. "They've got some background. They've got some interests."
Clements explains it this way: "Maybe they're interested in Web design and their background is in accounting. They loved accounting too, but it wasn't fulfilling, so they go to work for someone who builds websites for accounting firms, or they become freelancers with a series of accounting clients. Or they go to work for someone like Intuit. Their experience is just as valuable as their new IT training, and that subject-matter expertise makes them stand out from the rest of the applicants."
Another example is a health care professional who came to Clements for advice when her back pain necessitated a career change. After earning a UWPCE certificate, she went to work as a Web developer at UW Medical Center.
"Having that subject-matter expertise makes you a much better Web developer or designer than if you're just coming at the subject cold," Clements said. "Clients don't have to explain what they're doing, or who their audience is. You already know that stuff."
Not all computing and IT careers require programming. But to advance in many jobs, a certain degree of programming will be required. Some languages are easier to master and don't necessitate a programming background to get started, like PHP, .NET and Python. Ultimately, you'll need to align your end goal – whether it's creating desktop, Web or mobile applications – with one or more programming languages, be it Microsoft's .NET platform, Ruby, Java and Python.
If you want to work with data, you'll need to learn how to design databases and pull data with SQL. If you plan to program or design for the Web, you'll need to know the HTML and CSS markup that sets the structure and appearance of Web pages.
Other careers in technology don't require programming skills. Here are just a few. Those with a background in psychology or sociology might consider usability and interface design. If video games are a passion, consider game design. Those with an artistic bent might check out 3D animation. Accountants already adept at number-crunching and organizing information might transition into data management.
If you're fluent in another language, consider localization, a field concerned with adapting software products and technologies to different cultures and languages. If you're passionate about maps and geography, learn more about Geographical Information Systems (GIS).
Take the First Step
Not sure which IT track to follow? Get in touch with a UWPCE program manager by calling 888-469-6499 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
UWPCE now offers foundations courses for those interested in Web development and design, GIS and other programming but lack prior experience — Introduction to Programming and Application Development, Foundations of Web Design & Development, GIS: Presentation, Analysis & Problem-Solving, .NET Development Foundations and Networks & Networking Foundations. These 10-week classes can help students gain entry into a related certificate program.
Microsoft senior software developer Kal Viswanathan, who teaches a UWPCE course on .NET development, says she's seen a number of students land full-time positions after completing the certificate program.
"You're already prepared to get on the job on the first day, and then learn what the job is about. And build on top of that," she said.
Root tells his students that a certificate is not guaranteed to get them jobs, but what it does do is "get them to the top of the interview pile. And that can make all the difference."
To find a variety of UW Professional & Continuing Education certificates, degrees and courses to help you break into informational technology, visit www.pce.uw.edu/computing-it.html or contact us.