Sep 20 2005

Help Out Beginners — Be a Mentor

IT newbies need guidance to forge useful and fulfilling careers.


Photo: Michael Abramson
Charles L. Rapier, Senior IT Manager

A career in information technology offers a lot of promise. It also offers a lot of ambiguity.


Unlike professions such as law, medicine and engineering, IT has few mentors to help people fine-tune their career aspirations. But many who pursue an IT career need someone to help them identify opportunities and plan a career path that will lead to success.


In the 1990s, computer science was the degree of choice. Many of us who were quick to sign up based our decision on how lucrative we thought the field would be. We gave minimal consideration to exactly what we'd be doing or what it would take to actually develop a career in IT. And our advisers were of little help. When I was in school, majoring in computer science, my advisers could tell me how many credits I needed to graduate, but they couldn't advise me on how to pursue a career in the field.


Not much has changed. Educational institutions bear a good part of the responsibility for guiding students into useful and fulfilling careers. That requires advisers and counselors to understand what employers are looking for and give better direction to students and graduates about how they should approach IT disciplines and prepare themselves for the job market.


Part of the problem, however, is that employers generally are unable to identify and articulate the skill sets they require. That makes finding your first IT job complicated and frustrating. Are employers looking for specific certifications, advanced education, on-the-job experience, MBAs? No one really knows.


I've been fortunate in my own career despite the lack of guidance. As a consultant, I've worked in many different cultural and technical environments, which helped me determine the career path I wanted to pursue. I also was committed to maturing as a professional and gaining the certifications and additional education I needed to help me achieve my goals.


But for many, the path is unclear. Often young people don't realize how gigantic the tech field is. They get their computer science degree, then have no guidance on where to go. Colleges need to emphasize the various career paths early on in the process. They should tell students about specialties within IT, such as security, networking, storage and IT management, to help them figure out what they want to do.


People in the profession also should mentor new-comers. Those of us who have been lucky enough to break into this field should volunteer our time to work with organizations that train young people to become technologists. We are the best resources because we know what it takes to forge a career in IT.


The mentoring process should continue even after people start working in IT. We have a mentoring program at our company, and every week for about an hour I mentor some of my people. If someone is interested in databases, we define a timeline and plot a course that will allow that person to become a database manager. Other employees might want to specialize in servers or networks, so we figure out a way for them to do that.


It's never too late to receive mentoring. Ideally, the process begins in college or early in a person's career. IT is an exciting profession filled with opportunities. But we need to provide clarity and direction so more people can find the way to their ideal job.


Rapier is with Ovation Research Group in Highland Park, Ill.