Saturday, June 5, 2004

What do I need to do?

I was part of a presentation today which was attended by two groups of high school students, along with various CIO's from local schools and gov't. Most of the high school students were bored out of their gourds (how interesting can talking about policy and procedures be?). There were a few that were actually interested and asked questions afterwards.

One of the common questions was about how to get into the field. Here's some of the answer(s) to that type of question (I try not to blather on in person about it but, here, it's a brain dump):
  • Don't do it unless you're really interested in it. The money's good but unless you really like your job, it can be a real ball-buster (not in those words)
  • When you're first starting out, don't try to specialize. Learn as much as you can about the underlying theory. Ex: you want to know as much as possible about TCP/IP before you work on Foundry or Cisco equipment. (Doctors learn general medicine before they specialize.) Learn as much as you can about DNS before you work with just *nix or MS implementations. (Don't be a point-and-click administrator.) Specialization comes naturally as you find favorite topics/areas to learn more about.
  • Leave the "which OS is better/more secure" argument behind. It's a religious argument which will never be settled. Your job will be to protect the castle, not just the chapel in the north-east tower. The actual question isn't "which one is better". It's "which one is worse". The answer is "all of them". OS's are only as secure as the people managing them.
  • Plan on spending a good portion of the rest of your life in school (something most teenagers find painful). It doesn't have to be formal though. The idea is to keep current in technology or to learn more of what you're interested in. If you're focused enough, this leads to a Masters or a PHD. If not, (like me) it, at least, adds up a lot of college credits in varied curriculums, a decent GPA, and working relationship with a LOT of the people you need to know in your local neighborhood. (Hint: the people "in power" are doing the same thing: continuing/broadening their education to keep ahead.) Or, at least, you make a lot of friends.
  • To go along with that, read. The Internet makes it easy. Current developments with RSS make the process even easier. (Heck, borrow/steal from my blog feeds if you're that desparate.) Learn about the advanced features on your favorite search engines (an invaluable skill!!).
  • To get ahead of the rest of the pack, keep yourself busy. During the week, find something you're interested in. Spend the weekend learning more about it. Set up a DNS/mail/web server. Learn about all of the switches in tcpdump (or whatever utility strikes your fancy). Barring any projects, read up on the bleeding-edge technologies.
  • No matter how painful it is, be polite and honest. Your career in the technology field depends on three inter-related things: your knowledge/experience, your ability to interact, and the amount of trust your employer has in you. The first two may offset lack of the third to some degree but trust and integrity are large parts of the package that your employer is "buying".
  • As part of that, "keep your nose clean". Contrary to popular myth, very few organizations hire hackers to to protect their systems. Nowadays, the big-money positions require a LOT of talent and a LOT of integrity (both of which you'll be selling to your employers).
  • Pay attention in English Composition (at least). To be recognized "within the community", you're going to have to research and talk about new (or new twists to old) developments. This means "publishing", either in trade journals or magazines. (Or even blathering periodically in a blog.)
Like it or not, your parents expect you to move out in the near future. Many are willing to help pay for your seconday education but the end goal is to let you loose into the world to make your own way. They have their own lives to live and they're looking forward to the post-child-rearing years (really, their lives do not end when you move out). The objective is to do well enough for yourself that you're able to do the things that you really like doing. If you can "get by" by flipping meat at the local burger joint, more power to you. Many computer geeks, nowadays, have a nasty eBay (hardware) or book habit that can't be supported by a minimum wage job.

Not that I'm the fount of wisdom here, but the main points are: only "do it" if you really like it, plan on working to staying current, and remember the Boy Scout creed.

To be honest, we had aimed at a slightly different audience but, due to layers 8 and 9 of the OSI model, other groups were invited to "fill in" for the missing attendees.