Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Classics to Tech: How to Get There from Here

The other day, Kevin Jones (who, BTW, has written a really really cool translation help tool for anyone out there studying Latin, Italian or Spanish -- or trying to brush up their rusty vocabulary), asked in response to a post if I had any advice for a classics major trying to bet into the computer science industry. At the risk of tooting my own horn (and since work has been all-consuming enough this week I haven't had time to think of much else) I figured I'd put down a few thoughts based on my own experience, for whatever that's worth.

Take a job, any job
Well, not necessarily any job. But if you have an apptitude for picking up tech/programming/database skills but no career track record in the area, you're unlikely to get an IT or developer job. However, there are lots of positions which end up benefiting a lot from technical expertise which don't reside in a technical department. The most important thing is flexibility. If you land a fairly cross-functional position, it's easy to dig in, learn the needs of your work group, and produce tools that will become valuable to those around you (or simply allow you to do more work, faster than your peers).

Help People
If there's something that will make you stand out from the standard web development or IT department, it's saying "sure, I can do that" in response to requests. IT and development departments (especially in large organizations) have a habbit of protecting themselves with 12 month+ development roadmaps and prioritazation requirements that make it impossible to get basic, needed tasks done by IT. If you have the toolset to build the small but much needed reporting tools, portals, wikis and such that people need, you'll be much valued. (Just make sure that in doing so you're not violating any rules about who is allowed to create web content.)

Explain & Listen
I'm not as good a developer or even quite as good a reporting wiz as some of the other people I deal with. However, if you take the time to really understand people's needs and to explain to them what you can provide them and why (including why any limitations are necessary) you'll have set yourself above 90% of other 'technical' people. Plus, with a solid classics background, you should be use to dealing with complex abstract concepts and explaining them in decent English prose.

Change Jobs (or Go Independant) When Necessary
As I said, you're unlikely to get a technical job right off, if you don't have the resume tack record to support it. However, once you become known within your organization for doing strong technical work, it's usually much easier to make that case. So changing jobs after 1-2 years of proving yourself is key. Doing independant projects (or simply running your own company for a while) is another great way to prove yourself and build up a good brag list.

After 5-10 Years, No One Will Know the Difference
In my experience, if you come out of college with a Classics degree (or a degree in some similar field) and head towards working in a technical or semi-technical field, you will start out making anywhere from 25-50% less than people with CompSci degrees. However, after 5-10 years, not only will there be no difference in your earning power, but no one will know or care about your degree.

That said, beware of getting boxed in to a type of work that's not sufficiently central to the business. If you want to be a developer, work for a company that produces software or web applications, or start a consulting practice building sites and/or applications. If you work at a company in some other field, get involved with something like sales or marketing analytics. The closer you are to what makes the company money, the fewer career blocks you will have. While if you are in the "IT Department" at a non-tech company (or even many tech companies) you become the bad guy who can never get the infrastructure up fast enough for the rest of the firm to do business. If your work group is made up of aging tech support guys who were promoted to IT so they could get a raise (all of whom have 10-20 years of seniority on you) rest assured that almost no matter how good you are there is unlikely to be a lot of advancement room for you.


southerncanuck said...

As a liberal arts major in the IT world I would say that a solid liberal arts background can really be helpful once you are inside the organization. It gives you more breadth than a lot of individuals. You will still have to work hard, keep your skills up to date and really focus on communication skills to be successful but at least you will have the ability to make and understand arguments. There is no substitute for seeing the middle term.

Getting your foot in the door can be difficult. For someone with a technical bent I would recommend the first thing you do is get yourself a technical certification close to the line of work you want to pursue. A certification in Oracle database's or Java programming can tell a potential employee your no slouch and you have some aptitude for technical work. Without experience its still going to be a challenge getting into an IT department but as someone who has done a fair bit of hiring, I can tell you that certifications are be a good "known quantity" for skills when a technical degree is absent from a resume.

I totally agree with the statement that after 5 - 10 years, no one is going to care about your lack of a computer science degree. Your experience should by then have taken over speaking for your qualifications.

Kevin J. Jones said...

Very good advice, I hope I can put it to use someday. Thanks!