First Tech Job: Years 0-4

A very good Twitter friend posted today about his first four years in IT. I met Rob Nelson at the Indy VMUG in 2014 and we’ve been communicating back and forth since. If you haven’t checked out his blog, you MUST! It’s a wealth of information that is 75% over my head, but I enjoy reading it anyway.

Rob was intrigued by a Twitter hashtag over the weekend (#FirstTechJob). Someone raised the question about how to get the elusive four years of experience employers are looking for when just starting in the IT field.

Always one to piggyback off of a great idea, here is my story… 

Laser Printers

A lot of people get their start fixing printers, figuring out why printers aren’t printing, swapping toner cartridges, etc. That wasn’t my first job. My first real “tech” job was working for a printer repair company in Champaign, IL named Lazer’s Edge. After working for a few years in construction, I wanted any job that was remotely related to anything technical. I wasn’t working on the printers however; I was the guy who refilled laser printer cartridges. I would take apart the cartridge, clean the drum and other pieces, refill the toner, then reassemble the cartridge.

During this time (1994-1995) I was taking courses at Parkland College in Champaign, IL. One of the courses was HTML. I asked if I could take a stab at designing a website for the company. I wrote a very basic website which for 1995 was probably pretty decent looking back at it. I wrote it in “vi” in one of the Unix labs on campus.

College Labs at 1AM

While taking classes at Parkland, I volunteered every chance I could to help out in each of my computer classes. One instructor (Dave) was very willing to let me help. One of my evening classes took place in one of the computer labs on campus. Dave would start the evening by imaging the computers in the lab, starting around 5PM for a 7PM class. At 10PM when the class was over, he would have to re-image the computers back to lab configuration. This was done via scripts and was a copy process though, as the college didn’t have the resources for true imaging software. I stayed after to help each night we had class and I learned a lot by troubleshooting when we had problems. This was also a good time to get tips from someone who was already in the field. Dave was always willing to give advice while we were waiting for data to copy.

Desktop Support

I imagine this is where 90% of the IT field gets their start. Well, here or Help Desk. Sometimes they are one in the same. At Carle Clinic in Champaign, IL they were separate and I was lucky enough to land on the Desktop Support team. Don’t get me wrong, I would have taken a job with Help Desk, but Desktop Support for a decent-sized hospital was pretty cool. Most of my tickets were to “install the Internet” on PCs for those employees whose managers felt they needed Internet access to do their job. The running gag was grabbing 3.5″ floppy disk with “THE INTERNET” written on it and proclaiming “I’m off to install the Internet” before walking out of the desktop support area. We were so clever.

As we started early preparations for Y2K, I was moved to a LAN Administrator position and I started working with this new product called Citrix WinFrame which was based on Wiindows NT 3.51. Shortly after that I landed my first job in consulting when a company from my hometown was looking for someone with Citrix experience. The next year I did Citrix consulting for a small consulting firm that focused on the SMB market.

My Advice

When people ask me how to get around the catch-22 of needing experience to land a job in order to get experience, I always tell them to volunteer as much as possible. You will not only get knowledge that can help you land that first job, but you will make connections that can help you down the road. IT is a small world and every connection you make can help (or hurt) you in the future. Make good impressions and don’t burn bridges.

I’m going to sound like an old man now, but when I was a kid we didn’t have some of the things that are available now. There is a wealth of information available to people just starting in IT, whether it is free training, low-cost training, online labs and virtual servers, etc. With a minimal investment, people can get a lot of experience without having to stay in the college labs until 1AM on a weeknight.

I also recommend attending VMUG events in your area. This community is AMAZING for the most part, and people are usually more than willing to go out of their way to help out. Attend VMUG events, soak up information, network with people, ask for advice, and find any opportunity to learn as much as possible. If you put in the effort, good things will come. I found the first four years very challenging, but I look back at those years with a bit of nostalgia now. I don’t know if I would go back, but I remember those times very fondly.