Category Archives: Education

Choosing a University Degree Program for IT

In my last article I looked at the overarching concerns and approaches to an university program and how it would apply to us in IT. Now we will look at individual programs and how to approach the selection of a major and focus area within the university system.

Of actual degree programs we face a world of complexity as universities and colleges often use any variety of names for their programs of study and often attempt to use one program to teach another so a program name will often not match the actual field of study which can be very bad as you do not want to be in a position of needing to explain this discrepancy to potential employers or existing employers. An example of this was a well known northeastern school that lacked the ability to offer an IT program so relabeled their existing library science program to IT and passed that off as such for many years.

The first thing to consider is if we want to have a focused program in our field or one outside of the field. Given what we learned from the last article, that universities excel at liberal and traditional subjects and do poorly at technical ones and that our goals are to be broadly educated and not focused on specific skills, I general prefer to see students or job candidates who have been through non-technical course loads rather than technical ones.

There are any number of good non-technical programs from which to choose. Great examples include communications, business, accounting and psychology. It is good, of course, if any program includes some technical concepts such as project management and systems analysis, but these can simply be addressed through electives. It is also best if any program include studies in math, especially statistics and risk analysis, and general business classes, basic accounting and management. Students, we hope, will leave school with a firm foundation in understanding business context, people and communications because these are the soft skills that are most critical to an IT career and even moreso to an SMB IT career where there is far less departmental isolation between some tech positions and the operational side of the business.

For those that do not want to take the most liberal of paths as described above, universities often offer a large range of degrees within or near the IT discipline itself. This plethora of IT or IT-like options can often lead to confusion and risks making the selection rather dangerous as a highly technical degree that is in the wrong area of study would be the worst possible option – teaching neither IT nor teaching the broad skill set that IT practitioners desperately need. Even worse is going through the wrong field of study will often wildly mislead students as to what to expect when they enter the IT field and may actively look extremely bad on a resume as it can appear (and rightfully so in many cases) that the student did not take the time to understand their chosen field of study, know what degrees would be applicable to it and failed to realize this through years of university classes or did and did not bother to switch to an appropriate program! This is what we most want to avoid, actively bad degree programs.

To make this as challenging as possible, IT degrees often come with a variety of names. And IT degrees may be included under multiple schools or colleges within a university. Some universities have IT degrees inside of an IT school, others may have them within a more general science program, a math program or often within engineering. Some even have IT degrees under a business school. It is not unheard of for IT degrees to exist in multiple places within the same university with different foci depending on which college is administering the program.

We must also address the big question of “is software engineering and programming a part of IT?” In universities, the answer is generally yes even though in the professional world the answer is a resounding “no” – the two are clearly different fields of study and different disciplines. Software engineering is dedicated to the design and building of products. IT is dedicated to the building and support of the infrastructure of businesses. There is some overlap as any two fields might have, but they are very clearly different career fields that deal with extremely different day to day duties and tasks. It is quite common to find software engineering, developer and programmer courses and degree programs lumped into the same schools as IT or even put under an IT umbrella. This is not necessarily bad but can be quite confusing. We must be clear, however, that software engineering is not IT and any degree focused on programming should be avoided for someone with an interest in heading into the world of IT. Any respectable IT program is going to teach programming as a core foundation to the field, but the program will never be focused on it. If it is, this is a mislabeled program and should be avoided.

Proper IT programs should have names such as Information Technology, Computer Information Systems or Management Information Systems. IT and CIS programs are often interchangeable. MIS programs tend to be a subset of IT more focused on certain management-supporting aspects of IT.

Programs that are most insidious and dangerous to IT hopefuls are ones that are most closely named but least closely associated with the IT field: computer engineering and computer science. These two should never, ever cross paths with those looking for careers in IT.

Computer engineering is older than IT and is a subset of electrical engineering. This is a traditional engineering field that focuses on the design of computers and computer components (like processors, chips, boards, peripherals) themselves and has effectively no crossover with IT or any IT-related discipline in any way. Computer engineering and IT should almost never even appear within the same school or college within a university.

If software engineering (which itself is not an IT discipline but is at least closely related) is the programming world’s analogue to the world of traditional product development engineering then computer science is the programming world’s analogue to physics or mathematics. Computer science is truly a “science and math” type field, developing the theories and foundation that is then used by the software engineering discipline to build products often used and managed by the IT discipline. Computer Science, CS, is probably the most commonly mistaken field that IT hopefuls will enter and if a true CS program it is completely inappropriate and a waste of time. This is the program to look out for the most. Avoid CS completely and avoid any university attempting to pass IT programs off as CS, the two never overlap.

Do not take the selection of a university major lightly. My recommendation is to keep your selection as liberal as possible, use electives to introduce IT elements like basic programming and networking into your curriculum, fill your time with mind-broadening classes and learn about business, finance, accounting, communications, writing, speaking and statistics. Attempt to find internships or opportunities in the university to work with IT departments. Actively work to leverage your opportunities at university to make yourself as prepared as possible to focus on the specific skills of IT externally to your university training.

How to Approach the University Experience

All discussions of university versus non-university aside, once a university (or college as the Americans generally refer to it) is chosen, the next step is choosing a degree program that will fulfill our needs for our chosen profession. This, of course, is based on the presumption that our chosen profession is going to be IT. If you are not interested in a career in IT, this is probably not the article for you.

University programs can be problematic, especially in IT, because they are often mislabeled, students often do not know what area of study they are interested in before beginning their studies and those pushing students towards university are often inexperienced in IT and do not understand the relationship between specific programs and the field itself. So those directing students towards university studies with the intention of a career in IT will very often pressure them into university programs ill-suited to IT careers at all.

Two things that we need to consider when looking to choose a degree program: what universities themselves are good at providing and what will be useful to us in our IT careers.

First, where do universities shine? The university system, its very core goals and values, are often completely unknown to the general public which makes the broad use of universities a bit odd and problematic on its own. The university system was never meant to train students for specific careers but instead to introduce them to many concepts and foundational knowledge (not foundational industry knowledge you must note) and to force them to think broadly and critically. In this aspect, good universities usually shine.

It should be noted that some universities, including a very famous and well respected US university on the east coast openly stated that its mandate was not to educate or service students in any way and that students attended its schools solely to finance the professors who were its actual product – beware that your university choices see education as a goal, not a necessary evil.

Treating a university as a trade school is a fundamental mistake made by many, probably most, students. Course choices are not intended to be focused on specific skills that will be used “on the job” but on skills that will make one a more generally useful member of society. For example the intended use of a university is not to teach someone the specific ins and outs of managing Active Directory design on Windows Server 2016; that would be the job of a trade school. Instead university programs are intended to be more broadly based such as teaching data structures, authentication concepts or even more broadly in areas like writing and communications.

A student leaving university is not intended to be ready to hit the ground running in a real world job; that is not a goal of the system. Instead the idea is that the student be well versed in the necessary skills to help them learn the specifics of a job or career and be overall better suited for it. It is not about speeding someone into a career but preparing them for a lifetime in the field at a heavy cost to the short term. The hope being that either the student has no concerns with finances (the traditional amateur system) or will make up for the cost (in both hard finances and in career setbacks) of university over the span of their careers. Understanding this is key to understand how to approach university education to gain the appropriate value that we seek.

Second, What is useful education to us in our IT careers? At an early stage in our careers it is generally impossible to predict which skills are going to be the ones that we will need to leverage throughout our career lifespans. Not only do we not know what industry niches we will want to pursue, but we also have little ability to predict which skills will be needed or even exist in the future. And even furthermore nearly all people working in IT, if not every field, have little ability to totally pick and choose the area of technology in which they will end up working but will instead be required to learn the skills of the jobs that become available to them, moving through their careers more organically than in a specifically predefined way.

Because of this, as well as because of the university values mentioned above, focusing on specific technical skills would be almost wholly a waste during the university time frame. Of drastically more value to us are soft skills and more broad ones such as developing a great world view, understanding business and accounting practices and concerns, learning psychology and sociology, studying good management practices, communications and, probably above all, becoming well versed in both written and oral business communications. Companies hiring IT professionals tend to complain about the lack of these skills, not a lack of technical competence, especially in smaller businesses where nearly all IT practitioners have a large need to communicate effectively with end users and often even management. Having a broad understanding of other job roles and the overall workings of businesses has great value for IT practitioners as well. IT only exists in a business context, the firmer the grasp of that context the more value someone in IT has the potential to provide.

For the most part, what we want from our university experience actually lines up with what universities are best prepared to provide. What is least useful to us, throughout our lives, would be highly specific technical skills that are overly focused too early in our careers (or even before they have begun) and skills that would rapidly become outdated often even before leaving university.

So where does this leave us? First we should look at the broadest degree options. Whether we are beginning to look at Associates (two year) degrees or Bachelor (four year) degrees we generally have a choice of an “of Arts” or an “of Science” option and, in a few rare cases, an “of Professional Studies” option. Each of these is simply a point along a sliding scale with an Arts degree being the most liberal and focusing the least on the area of study selected. A Science degree is more focused and less liberal than the Arts degree. And the rare Professional Studies option is even more focused than a Science degree with very little liberal studies, basically the polar opposite of an Arts degree.

Of these degree options, almost universally I recommend the Arts approach. A heavy focus on specific skills is generally a poor approach to university for any degree field but in IT this is more dramatic than almost any other. Classes and coursework heavily specific are not generally useful with education becoming overly focused on a single area. A Science approach is a reasonable option, but I would lean away from it. The Professional Studies approach is a clear attempt to mimic a trade school program and should be avoided both because it is a very poor use of university resources as well as being so rare that it would require regular explanation whenever a new person encountered it.

Staying highly liberal with our studies provides the best overall benefit from the university experience. Not only does it let us best leverage what the university offers but it also gives us the best foundation for our careers. There is also a hidden benefit, and that is career risk mitigation.

Career risk mitigation here refers to our university training not being overly specific so that should we decide later that IT is not the field that we want to pursue or after some time that it is not the career in which we want to remain that our education supports that flexibility in an effective way. Perhaps our IT careers will lead us into management or entrepreneurship. Or maybe our IT experience will be in a field that we end up enjoying more than IT. Or we might live in a place where our IT opportunities are few and other opportunities exist. There are myriad reasons why having a broad, flexible education isn’t just the best for our IT careers but also the best for our non-IT careers.

Thinking about how university works and understanding its core goals and how they apply to ourselves is the first step in being prepared to leverage the university experience for optimum value.

Getting Started with IT Certifications

This question surfaces very regularly: you are at the beginning of your IT career or maybe have not even gotten into your career yet, and are wondering where to get started with certifications. Maybe you are in high school, maybe you have finished college, perhaps you are six months into your first job and feel that having a certification will help to move you forward. There are a lot of options and a lot of information about IT industry certifications out there but pretty regularly the advice around getting started comes down to just a few basic opinions and I will share mine (having worked in the certification industry for many years and having spent time both as a hiring manager and as a corporate career counselor in IT.)

Certifications that often get mentioned for people “starting” in IT include the CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+ (often called the Net+), Microsoft’s MTA certifications and Cisco’s CCNA.

When just getting started in IT, though, I recommend starting with a firm foundation. Some certs, like those from Microsoft and Cisco, might be great but begin to take you down very specific career paths which may or may not be the right ones for you. We should hold off on those kinds of certifications until we have a little of the basics firmly under our belts. They can be great as a next step, but we do not want to get ahead of ourselves.

It is also extremely important to note that the Microsoft MTA exams are “pre-professional” certs, not certs for IT Pros. They are not meant to demonstrate a level of skill for an existing IT Pro or even to show that someone is ready to work as an IT Pro but instead to show that someone is ready to intern in IT or to attend IT classes. The MTA is targeted at high school students to take after entry level high school classes and are too low level to be considered even at the college level, let alone at the working level. You should never include these on a resume, even if you have them, once you are working in the field. They are excellent for showing initiative for high school classes but should not be used as goals of their own.

CompTIA is a vendor neutral certification authority so tends to be a good starting spot in IT. CompTIA also focuses on more entry level and broad certifications than most other providers. This makes then exceptionally well suited to entry level folks looking to certify themselves before moving into more specific career paths. And because they tend to focus on foundational knowledge the effort spent certifying is rarely wasted at an educational level either.

CompTIA has two major certs that are generally considered here, the A+ and the Network+. The A+ is by far the more well known outside of IT circles, and this is actually because it is not an IT certification at all. The A+ was originally designed to certify that someone had the appropriate experience level of someone having worked on a helpdesk for six months. However the knowledge tested by the A+ generally covers archaic hardware and tasks that generally do not exist in IT at all but belong to another, related, field of “bench work.” No amount of IT experience, even decades of it, would prepare you for the exam. This makes the A+ specifically targeted at bench careers and has become the industry standard in that area – which includes local computer stores, Best Buy’s Geek Squad, Staples and other non-IT computer “fix it” shops. The skills tested by the A+ are too “low” to be useful for testing in IT and focus on aspects of computers that are rarely, if ever, of concern to IT.

The A+ tends to focus very heavily on hardware and physical repair of consumer equipment. It does not cover tasks common to any level or style of IT. While some entry level IT areas would consider the knowledge in it common, most IT disciplines would not see it as foundational or useful and even the most senior IT professionals would often find it obtuse at best.

CompTIA’s other general purpose certification is the Network+, originally designed to represent the level of knowledge expected after “two years” working in IT. Both of these assessments are very poor, the A+ represents general knowledge or low level archaic knowledge that you would hope the general public would have and the Network+ really represents the knowledge level that you would look for a new hire, first IT job person to have. The Network+ is not a differentiator, therefore, between candidates but more of a foundational level of knowledge and a standard requirement. But that does not make it bad to have, it makes it good. The Network+, unlike its counterpart, does indeed focus on common and very important IT knowledge that those seeking a career in the field should most certainly have or acquire if lacking.

The Network+ represents standard knowledge useful for effectively any IT position or career no matter what technology or area of focus one chooses to pursue. For someone looking to go after their very first job or for someone looking to establish that they are well qualified in their first position or even for someone just looking to prepare themselves for the world of certification testing, the Network+ is an ideal starting point.

It is very unlikely that a Network+ on its own is going to lead to a job or promotion, but it establishes a starting point for looking towards other things. It is, more or less, the final “standard” starting point for nearly everyone in the IT field today. Many will not take the Network+ and certainly there are many options to enter the field without it, but I personally recommend it to everyone in every focus of IT. The knowledge needed for it will be useful throughout a career. As a starting point for a certification portfolio it is unrivaled.

The Network+, as the name implies, focuses almost exclusively on networking knowledge. This does not mean that it is only suitable for those interested in networking related IT careers. Networking is a part of everything that we do in IT today and is even important knowledge for non-IT users who want to understand their computers and their networks better. Even very non-network jobs like database administration would benefit from a firm foundation in networking.

Moving forward from the Network+ the world of certifications opens up and this begins a much more complex discussion. CompTIA offers other, good, general purpose certifications, such as the Security+, but at this stage we should be prepared to begin a bit of soul searching to determine exactly what path we want our careers to take from here. There are so many aspects of the IT field there is no way to provide a solid, reliable next step without looking at both short term and long term career goals and interests.

The Home Line

In many years of working with the small and medium business markets I have noticed that the majority of SMB IT shops tend to one of two extremes: massive overspend with an attempt to operate like huge companies by adopting costly and pointless technologies unnecessary at the SMB scale or they go to the opposite extreme spending nothing and running technology that is completely inadequate for their needs.  Of course the best answer is somewhere in between – finding the right technologies, the right investments for the business at hand; and some companies manage to work in that space but far too many go to one of the two extremes.

A tool that I have learned to use over the years is classifying the behavior of a business against decision making that I would use in a residential setting – specifically my own home.  To be sure, I run my home more like a business than does the average IT professional, but I think that it still makes a very important point.  As an IT professional, I understand the value of the technologies that I deploy, I understand where investing time and effort will pay off, and I understand the long term costs of different options.  So where I make judgement calls at home is very telling.  My home does not have the financial value of a functional business nor does it have the security concerns, nor the need to scale (my family will never grow in user base size, no matter how financial successful it is) so when comparing my home to a business, my home should, in theory, set the absolute lowest possible bar in regards to financial benefit of technology investment.  That is to say, that the weighing of options for an actual, functional business should always lean towards equal or more investment in performance, safety, reliability and ease of management than my home.  My home should be no more “enterprise” or “business class” than any real business.

One could argue, of course, that I make poor financial decisions in my home and over-invest there for myriad reasons and, of course, there is merit to that concern.  But realistically there are broad standards that IT professionals mostly agree upon as good guidelines and while many do not follow these at home, either through a need to cut costs, a lack of IT needs at home or, as is often the case, a lack of buy in from critical stakeholders (e.g. a spouse), most agree as to which ones make sense, when they make sense and why.  The general guideline as to what technology at which price points set the absolute minimum bar are by and large accepted and constitute what I refer to as the “home line.”  The line, below which, a business cannot argue that it is acting like a business but is, at best, acting like a consumer, hobbyist or worse.  A true business should never fall below the home line, doing so would mean that they consider the value of their information technology investment in their business to be lower than what I consider my investment at home to be.

This adds a further complication.  At home there is little cost to the implementation of technologies.  But in a business all of the time spent working on technology, and supporting less than ideal decisions, is costly.  Either costly in direct dollars spent, often because IT support is being provided by a third party doing so on a contractual basis, or costly because time and effort are being expended on basic technology support that could be being used elsewhere – the cost of lost opportunity.  Neither of these take into account things like the cost of downtime, data loss or data breach which are generally the more significant costs that we have to consider.

The cost of the IT support involved is a significant factor.  For a business, there should be a powerful leaning towards technologies that are robust and reliable with a lower total cost of ownership or a clear return on investment.  In a home there is more reason to spend more time tweaking products to get them to work, working with products that fail often or require lots of manual support, using products that lack powerful remote management options or products that lack centralized controls for user and system management.

It is also important to look at the IT expenditures of any business and ask if the IT support is thus warranted in the light of those investments.  If a business is unwilling to invest into the IT infrastructure an equivalent amount that I would invest into the same infrastructure for home use, why would a business be willing to maintain an IT staff, at great expense, to maintain that infrastructure?  This is a strange expenditure mismatch but one that commonly arises.  A business which has little need of full time IT support will often readily hire a full time IT employee but be unwilling to invest in the technology infrastructure that said employee is intended to support.  There seems to be a correlation between businesses that underspend on infrastructure with those that overspend on support – however a simple reason for that could be that staff in that situation is the most vocal.  Businesses with adequate staff and investment have little reason for staff to complain and those with no staff have no one to do the complaining.

For businesses making these kinds of tradeoffs, with only the rarest of exceptions, it would make far better financial and business sense to not have full time IT support in house and instead move to occasional outside assistance or a managed services agreement at a fraction of the cost of a full time person and invest a portion of the difference into the actual infrastructure.  This should provide far more IT functionality for less money and at lower risk.

I find that the home line is an all around handy tool.  Just a rough gauge for explaining to business people where their decisions fall in relation to other businesses or, in this case, non-businesses.  It is easy to say that someone is “not running their business like a business” but this adds weight and clarity to that sentiment.  That a business is not investing like another business up the street may not matter at all.  But if they are not putting as much into their business as the person that they are asking for advice puts into their home, that has a tendency to get their attention.  Even if, at this point, the decisions to improve the business infrastructure become primarily driven by emotion, the outcome can be very positive.

Comparing one business to another can result in simple excuses like “they are not as thrifty” or “that is a larger business” or “that is a kind of business that needs more computers.”  It is rarely useful for business people or IT people to do that kind of comparison.  But comparing to a single user or single family at home there is a much more corporeal comparison.  Owners and managers tend to take a certain pride in their businesses and having it be widely seen that they see their own company’s value as lower than that of a single household is non-trivial.  Most owners or CEOs would be ashamed if their own technology needs did not exceed those of an individual IT professional let alone theirs plus all of the needs of the entire business that they oversee.  Few people want to think of their entire company as being less than the business value of an individual.

This all, of course, brings up the obvious questions of what are some of the things that I use at home on my network?  I will provide some quick examples.

I do not use ISP supplied networking equipment, for many reasons.  I use a business class router and firewall unit that does not have integrated wireless nor a switch.  I have a separate switch to handle the physical cabling plant of the house.  I use a dedicated, managed, wireless access point.  I have CAT5e or CAT6 professionally wired into the walls of the house so that wireless is only used when needed, not as a default for more robust and reliable networking (most rooms have many network drops for flexibility and to support multimedia systems.)  I use a centrally managed anti-virus solution, I monitor my patch management and I never run under an administrator level account.  I have a business class NAS device with large capacity drives and RAID for storing media and backups in the house.  I have a backup service.  I use enterprise class cloud storage and applications.  My operating systems are all completely up to date.  I use large, moderate quality monitors and have a minimum of two per desktop.  I use desktops for stationary work and laptops for mobile work.  I have remote access solutions for every machine so that I can access anything from anywhere at any time.  I have all of my equipment on UPS.  I have even been known to rackmount the equipment in the house to keep things neater and easier to manage.  All of the cables in the attic are carefully strung on J-hooks to keep them neat.  I have VoIP telephony with extensions for different family members.  All of my computers are commercial grade, not consumer.

My home is more than just my residential network, it is an example of how easy and practical it is to do infrastructure well, even on a small scale.  It pays for itself in reliability and often the cost of the components that I use are far less than that of the consumer equipment often used by small businesses because I research more carefully what I purchase rather than buying whatever strikes my fancy in the moment at a consumer electronics store.  It is not uncommon for me to spend half as much for quality equipment as many small businesses spend for consumer grade equipment.

Look at the businesses that you support or even, in fact, your own business.  Are you keeping ahead of the “home line?”  Are you setting the bar for the quality of your business infrastructure high enough?

Originally published on the StorageCraft Blog.