A common frustration of first-time job seekers in the field of IT is that it sometimes seems like you need prior experience to get your start in the field. Here are some workarounds to help you get that all-important first job. This article is the first of a series that will deal with this topic.
In a recent article I talked about not embellishing your résumé in an attempt to keep up with the excessive requirements that HR folks include in entry level postings. (One particularly egregious example I called out in the article was an entry level job requiring Active Directory architecting experience.)
In this article, I’d like to cover how to get around the seeming catch-22 of requiring experience to start getting experience. There is no one-size-fits-all that applies here, so in this article, I’ll focus on something you can do if you’re still in school. I’ll cover other situations in future articles to avoid turning this article into a novel.
But first, a word of warning: think twice about applying to places that have extremely ridiculous requirements for very low pay. While you can use the tips that I’ll share with you to get such a job, you should use your time and effort to find work at a company that will value you as a human, not try to squeeze as much work out of you for as little as possible. But perhaps that’s a topic for another day’s post.
For now, let’s say that you’re still attending college (that’s “university” for European readers.) You still haven’t graduated, but you’re already worried about finding a job when you finish. In this situation, you’re in luck! You have an excellent resource at your disposal: your university. Stop reading this article right now and go talk to your advisor. Tell him/her that you want to get an internship. Then come back to this article in four months when you’re done.
Even if you’ve recently graduated and are struggling to find something, there’s nothing stopping you from asking your alma mater if there’s anything they can do for you. Remember, they have a vested interest in having their graduates land good jobs. So, if you’re pretty recently out, why not go back and ask your advisor if they have any options for you? The worst that can happen is that they say no.
I’m always surprised at how many folks get an IT related degree but skip getting an internship. Take advantage of it! In many cases, you’ll even be paid, so it’s essentially like getting a real part time job. Money aside, though, there are a few major advantages to getting at least one internship. (Yes, you can do more than one internship in college. DO IT!)
First and foremost, it’s experience in the field. That alone is worth its weight in gold. Not only do you get three or four months of experience, but you also have a strong potential for a future job. The only thing you need to do is make a good impression (more on that below) to leave the door open to be able to come back as a full time (and full pay!) employee.
You’re also getting a chance to vet a company to make sure they’re a right fit for you. (I dealt with the topic of evaluating a company in this article.) If you do two internships while in college, that’s two companies that you can evaluate without committing to working for them. If one of them is good and you’ve made a good impression, keep in contact. Once you’re close to graduation, reach out and see if there’s an opening. Then, enjoy reaping in that healthy salary right after graduation. Nice!
Now, I mentioned that you have to make a good impression, but I didn’t exactly define what that meant. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t need to explain what I mean by making a good impression, but I’ve seen enough from contractors, interns, and even full time employees to make me realize that we should align on some basics:
- Put your phone away. Focus on work while you’re at work.
- If you’re in the building, you should be working or looking for something to do. Perceptions matter here. If you’re on your lunch break but sitting at your desk, someone looking at you can’t tell if you’re on break or slacking. Either leave the building or go to a designated break area when you’re on break. While at your desk or work area, work. Avoid looking like you’re hiding from work!
- Keep breaks to a reasonable amount of time. When you’re interning, I’d advise you to keep your breaks shorter than the full time employees. This helps you make a good first impression. It also helps you get more done since you’re going to already be there less time than everyone else. If you’re there three hours per day, do you really need a one hour lunch break?
- Approach the experience from the mindset that there is always something to do. This one is really important. There is always something to do. If you are tasked with sitting and waiting for people to walk up and ask for help, you could technically sit there and wait for work to come to you. Alternatively, you could read the company’s documentation and learn about the systems they use while you’re waiting. Or, you could ask if there’s anything you could help with while you’re not helping someone. For example, you might help with imaging laptops. (Imaging a laptop means to install an operating system and software from a master image rather than doing it by hand.) When someone comes up to you for help, you stop imaging. When you’re done helping them, you go right back to imaging. Or you could clean up a conference room. Or tidy the supply closet. (Trust me, it needs tidying. Supply closets are always messy.) Or any other number of things.
- Show up on the days you’re supposed to show up. Everyone gets sick sometimes, but you shouldn’t be missing several days each month. Come to work even if you don’t feel like it. If you have something contagious, sure, call in and let your manager know. Otherwise, come in!
- Remember that you’re not there to make friends or find a girlfriend/boyfriend. You’re there to gain experience and to (hopefully) leave yourself an inroad for coming back to work in this place one day. Keep the flirting for when you’re not at work.
- Dress slightly better than everyone there. If everyone is coming in wearing tee shirts and shorts, come in jeans and a polo. If they’re in jeans and a polo, come in slacks and a shirt. Remember, you’re trying to make a good impression. If you end up working for this place, you’ll have plenty of time to dress casual. Don’t do it while you’re interning.
There’re a million other things that go into being a professional, but these are a good start. If you’re in doubt if something is appropriate to do at work, err on the side of caution and don’t do it. Putting in the work now will pay off when you’re bringing in that sweet salary.
With each post, I cover a new topic to help you get your start (or keep progressing) in your IT career. If it’s your first time visiting this blog, start here. Or, see all my posts about interview questions you should definitely be prepared for.