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IT networking career maintenance and advancement best practices

With the economic downturn, aspiring IT network professionals and even pros with plenty of experience are getting reacquainted with the job market. We spoke with network career training and certification guidance expert Ed Tittel about how to survive and even flourish in the networking field.

In this Q&A, Tittel explains some of the best practices for staying ahead of the economic downturn, how the networking job market is faring, the pros and cons of getting involved in startup companies, which IT careers are most lucrative, and how to gain experience. Find out how to make the most of your assets and skills in this expert tip.

It's no secret that the job market is tough right now. Is the networking profession better or worse off than the rest of IT (and is IT better or worse off than the general job market)?

Ed Tittel
Ed Tittel

The networking profession is neither at an extreme advantage nor disadvantage compared to the rest of IT. I've seen indications that there are plenty of opportunities for developers; but, on the whole, IT itself isn't too far ahead of, or behind, the rest of the pack. The downturn has been tough for IT as well as the general job market, but there's a strong indication that IT is turning around, or never fell as far as other sectors did. We've been hearing that some enterprising IT pros who've been laid off recently are finding success with their own startups. This sounds like a risky move. Would you advise a networking pro who has been laid off to go this route?

It's really difficult to judge "success" in so short a time as three or four months; but, really, now is a great time to start a company, when you can benefit from the economic rise that's coming. Because investments are inexpensive right now, a new company could do very well, as long as it really is something new. The word of caution here is that unless you have enough assets to cover yourself and your business for at least six months, starting up a company is a serious risk. What about the other way around? Say you have an IT startup that isn't making it in this economy. Should you hang in there, or is there any hope of getting a corporate IT job right now?

Again, it depends on how "leveraged" you are already. If you can ride it out safely as you are, that's always a better idea. However, doing something is always better than doing nothing, so if you're not working, then there's certainly no harm in trying for a corporate position. If you've got the stomach to keep your business running during tough times, or you think that you can manage to stay in the running long term, then it's definitely a smart idea to stick with what you're doing right now.

There's certainly a balance to this. You don't want to throw good money after bad by sticking to a business that hasn't been making a profit for three years or so, but you also don't want to throw away good money in the first place by dropping out of business too soon. Do you think there's a particular area (networking, security, etc.) that is more lucrative than another?

Security, ERP, storage and voice are all doing well right now, and if you want a good look at how different IT careers are doing in the job market, I recommend you take a look at the research done by David Foote and the others at Foote Partners LLC. A word of caution, though: The skills and salaries lists put together by the Foote research group are based on people who have years of experience, solid careers and a bunch of other perks going for them. It isn't always a surefire gauge for those interested in introductory positions. For those who have the necessary "people" skills, what about jumping into something like sales or project management as a career?

Project management is a vital skill for anyone who's serious about an IT career. For people who are really interested in the soft skills side of the field, a career in sales or project management is an option, but generally the people who get into the IT field in the first place do so because of their interest in the technical side. With that in mind, I recommend that anyone with an opportunity to pick up or refine their project management skills should take that opportunity. Working on your "soft skills" is just as important as keeping your "hard" or technical skills fresh. Sales is a good choice for those who don't mind knocking on lots and lots of doors just to get into one or two to make a pitch. How can network pros who are just starting out or starting over make better use of social networking sites like LinkedIn to help in their job search?

Work it 'til it hurts. You really have to hit social networking hard to get as many connections as you can. Social networking like LinkedIn is a really good example of "you only get out what you put in," and if you're not working, you should make social networking a full-time job. The best job possibilities come from social network connections anyway, whether you network online or some other way. Experience is probably one of the most prized assets that any IT professional can have on his resume. What are some good ways to pick up more?

Always look for more experience. Volunteer in your community, pick up additional jobs or projects at work, and go after additional training. Anywhere and everywhere you see opportunities, you should jump on them.

There are only three ways a professional can pick up more experience. First, you can set up your own lab and work that way, which can be expensive and difficult. Second, you can put in more time at work with new projects or just in the lab in general. Third, you can take part in study groups and pick up some classes and get the most out of your coursework and the labs to which they'll grant access. And remember: hands-on experience is as important as -- if not more important than -- learning from a book. Any other tips or tricks for professionals trying to advance their careers in the IT field?

Sure. Keep refreshing your technical skills all the time. As I mentioned earlier, soft skills such as project management and social/job networking are important, but anyone who's working with technical qualifications as recent as even half a decade ago can be pretty far behind the curve. Also, as you do more, learn more and know more, take opportunities to re-evaluate yourself. Take inventory of your skills and your situation so you know that you're making the most of the assets that you have.

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