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How to Get a Job in IT without Knowing How to Write a Line of Code

December 13, 2011

A few weeks ago, I was invited to join a panel discussion on alternative careers for librarians hosted by SLA’s Boston chapter.  I was very excited to be able to participate in this — my boss and I both come from LIS backgrounds, and have had some animated conversations over the course of the past couple of years about how frustratingly under-informed many LIS students and professionals are when it comes to career opportunities outside of traditional library settings.  I was even more excited to see several dozen interested folks show up for this session — clearly, there’s a lot of demand for this sort of information, and I’m very happy that SLA Boston made this program available.

Like most people, I didn’t grow up aspiring to be a taxonomist.  Even when I began library school, I couldn’t have told you that the career path I would end up following even existed.  Neither could the faculty who were teaching me.  And indeed, enterprise taxonomy is a novelty — it has historically deep roots, but the relative ubiquity of available positions is a product of only the past decade or so.  I became a taxonomist because I was a grad student in desperate need of a job and was a little startled to discover that I had a skill set that would allow me to do something so … well, technical.  Ironically, since receiving my M.L.S., I haven’t worked in a library setting again.  And I don’t regret that one bit — my job rocks.

I prepared a handout for the audience listing some resources for learning about career opportunities in IT settings, and also shared some tips in my remarks for thriving in the field once you’re here:

Don’t count yourself out for job opportunities that appear above or beyond you.  However unlikely it may seem on the surface, you may be able to see a fit between a job and your skill set and experience which a recruiter or hiring manager may not have considered.  If you do see one, take a few minutes and apply for the job.

Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.  Lots of people don’t necessarily enter IT with deep technical or business expertise.  The expectation is that there’s a willingness to pick up new knowledge and skills on the fly as needed to support business priorities.  Be willing to learn a little bit of a lot of things, because odds are you will end up doing some of them (writing requirements or documentation, designing screens, performing tests, conducting research, managing projects), even if they’re not in the job description.

Be honest about your limitations.  Sometimes, talking to web developers or database administrators can feel like relying on Berlitz while traveling in a foreign country.  If you’re up front about the fact that you’re bluffing your way through, people will most often be happy to help you learn more.

Appreciate what you have to offer.  Most customer-consumable enterprise data is managed by people who have not been trained to do it and for whom it is only one (small) priority among many.  Having a dedicated, specially trained resource to do it allows for improved internal communication as well as improved customer experience.  Those are big impacts to a company’s bottom line.

Toot your own horn.  Self-promotion is an option for career librarians, but in industry it’s a way of life.  The hardest work I did in IT consulting was not meeting client needs, but convincing project managers within my own organization to option me for more work.  Many people will be happy to avail themselves of your services (rather than doing a half-assed job themselves) once they understand what it is you do.  To make them understand, don’t spend time explaining what taxonomy is or how to do it — tell them what kinds of business problems your expertise helps you solve.

Quantify, quantify, quantify. In a related vein, you will get a lot of requests for business justification or “ROI” ( = return on investment) from the work you do.  This is not simply to harass you (though sometimes it may seem that way) — management needs straightforward, quantitative evidence in front of them to determine business value.   Has your taxonomy facilitated information discovery or streamlined publishing workflows?  How many minutes or hours of others’ time are your efforts saving? There are a number of resources out there which will help you calculate this.

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