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What used to be called the "mid-life career change" and regarded as a curiosity is becoming the norm these days, for both genders.

Traditionally, women were faced with the challenge of finding a "new job" after the kids grew up and left home. Men, in earlier times, were perhaps less familiar with this "starting over" phenomenon. Ideally, they went to work for a good, solid company, rose through the ranks, and retired from the company 30 years later (at which time they *did* get hit in the face with the "What do I do now?" issue).

Today, job stability seems to be almost an anomaly. Some of us get laid off, down-sized, or uprooted when a spouse gets transferred to another part of the country. Those who don't often find ourselves bored, underpaid, or otherwise unhappy with what we're doing for a living, and decide to pursue other possibilities. Whether change is forced upon us or we do it to ourselves, it's almost always exciting and it's almost always at least a little scary.

A lot of women (and men) today, tired of selling or teaching or typing or even lawyering or doctoring, are drawn to the growing computer field as a way out of their career ruts. They read newspaper articles about the huge shortage of personnel in the IT field. They read tech school ads promising a plethora of job offers at double or triple their current salaries. They may have friends who work in programming or networking and are always tossing around mysterious, technical terms and buying new BMWs. Even physicians and attorneys are tempted - no more being on- call, they think. No more need for liability insurance. No more governmental regulation of every aspect of what they do.

You may be one of them, considering going back to school, thinking about getting some vendor certifications (like the Microsoft MCSE, the Novell CNE or the CISCO CCNA - which I'll define a little later) so you can put those impressive-looking letters after your name. But you may have questions and doubts, as well. Can it really be that easy? Can you really get one of those high-paying jobs when your previous experience with computers is limited to word processing and spreadsheets and surfing the web and checking your email? Or is it all a bunch of hype?

Well, the answer to all those questions is: yes and no.

I did it. My husband did it. We made the transition, respectively, from police officer/academy instructor (me) and medical doctor (him) to computer networking consultants, trainers and technical writers.

There is no denying the computer field is full of employment opportunities. The need for *good, trained, experienced* professionals is overwhelming. But before you leap into the unknown, take a moment to gather information and do some soul-searching. Those who go into a field solely for the money - no matter how much of it they make - usually end up being unhappy. So consider a few factors:

• Computers are big business, but so is computer training. Many private technical schools have popped up to fill the demand, and colleges and universities have added fast-track, non-credit computer training programs to their catalogs. Some of these courses are excellent, but some are designed only to bring in revenue. Recruiters at some private schools are paid commissions for each student they sign up, and may not be motivated to let you know if they think you aren't qualified for or wouldn't enjoy this type of work.

• Computers are not "a piece of cake." Some tech school recruiters will tell you that the classes are easy and "anyone can do it" (see above for their reasons). It's not true. The high-paying jobs in the field require a high level of technical knowledge and expertise. Network administration requires intense study of operating system architectures, protocols, hardware, basic electronics theory, and even some understanding of binary and hexadecimal math. Programming involves mastering whole new languages, learning to "think like the computer." This is not brain surgery, but it's not basket-weaving, either. Don't let anyone fool you into believing you can just sit through some classes and you'll be able to pass the tough vendor-developed exams.

• Computer careers are not for everybody, and all computer-related fields are not alike. If you hate dealing with people and want to go off and sit in a corner all day with your computer, don't even think about training for the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) or Novell Certified Netware Administrator (CNE) titles. It would be a waste of time. Network administrators and engineers design and oversee computer networks. A computer network is made up of dozens or hundreds or thousands of computers, almost every one of which comes with a human being (referred to as "users") attached. People skills are way up there on the list of necessary characteristics for networking professionals.

And if you hate dealing with computers - if you curse your PC every time a program hangs or an application doesn't behave as you expect it to, if you're afraid of "messing with" the system files out of fear you'll "break the computer," if the thought of opening up the box and replacing the processor or adding a new hard drive makes you shudder - this is probably not a career that will make you look forward to getting up and going to work in the morning.

If you don't like problems, stay out of the computer biz. Problem-solving is the primary job function. It's no coincidence that many high tech firms include problem-solving puzzles (sometimes called "brain teasers") as part of the interview/screening process.

If you've read this far and you're still interested in getting into the computer industry, here are my recommendations:

1. Develop a master career change plan. Depending on your personal situation, you may have to stay in your present job and get training at night, or you may be able to devote all your time to study. Either way, the first step is to get the knowledge, which brings us to the next step.

2. Get vendor-certified. The hottest "tickets" to getting a job in the computer industry are the following certifications: Microsoft Certified Network Engineer (MCSE), Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD), Novell Certified Netware Engineer (CNE), and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA). The MCSE and CNE qualify you to design and administer local area networks. The MCSD qualifies you to develop software. The CCNA qualifies you to work with Cisco routers in wide area networks. If you have more than one of these certifications, you further increase your marketability.

The certifications all require passing a number of difficult, highly technical exams. You can prepare for the exams either through formal courses or by self-study. Be forewarned that if you choose the latter, you'll need to set up a practice network at home to work with (this is a good idea even if you take classes, but absolutely essential if you have no school lab where you can "break and fix" the hardware and software as part of the learning process).

If you choose to take formal classes, check into several different training programs. There can be thousands of dollars difference in the cost, and it doesn't necessarily reflect the quality of the program. Beware of "boot camp" programs that promise to teach you the entire MCSE track in two weeks (usually for $10,000 or more). These were originally designed for people with years of work experience in networking, who need a "refresher" to pass the certification exams. Some of the operators of these programs won't let you in without that experience, but others are greedy and will take anybody's money, even though there is no way you can truly learn all that material in such a short time.

Talk to former students from the schools you're considering. Find out how many of them are actually working in the industry. Talk to the instructors. Find out whether they strive to teach you only to pass the exams, or to teach you what you need to know to do the job afterward. Ask to see the computer labs. Find out how much hands-on time you get to actually use the equipment. Ask if there are open lab times when you can come in and practice outside of class hours. Be sure there are enough computers for each student to have his/her own; some facilities share a machine between two students.

3. Once you've passed the exams - or better yet, while you're in the process of studying - get some experience. You'll hear about "paper MCSEs" and "paper CNEs." This scornful moniker is applied to people who read a bunch of books, memorize practice test answers, and pass the vendor certification exams without having ever worked with the products. Experience doesn't *have* to be paid experience - you can set up a network at home if you have the money; you can volunteer to do network troubleshooting for your church or your child's school or some civic organization. One way or another, get real-life experience. If there is one key to who gets a job and who doesn't after graduating from the training programs, that's it.

4. Be prepared to start at the bottom. Yes, we know one reason (hopefully not the only or even the main one) you want to switch to the computer field is to make big money. And there's a lot of it to be made - but you have to prove yourself first. You *might* walk out of the program and immediately get a $65k/year job - we've had students who did it - but don't count on it. More often, you'll have to start at the low end, maybe even a lower salary than you're making now, to get your foot in the door. The nice thing about this business, though, is that for those who are smart and work hard, promotions and raises come amazingly fast. I've known numerous "newbies" to the field who doubled or tripled their starting salaries within six months. I also know a few who never got hired at all, because they were unwilling to take one of those "low paying" jobs that the others started out in.

If you like people, like computers, and (especially) love learning, the Information Technology field is waiting for you. That last qualification is most important, because in this business, everything is changing all the time. You can never know it all; it's a constant challenge to keep up with new developments, new hardware, new software, whole new ways of doing things. And that's what makes it so much fun.


Debra Littlejohn Shinder is a writer, editor, community college instructor, and part-time computer consultant who lives in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area with her husband, Tom, and her teenage son.

Email Debra at: or

Addendum: Deb Shinder regrets that this will be her last regular column for Moondance. She has enjoyed all of her time working with Moondance since January 1997. She began the columns section with her first column in the spring of 1997. We are grateful for her excellent work and camradarie at Moondance and wish her all the best in her new endeavours.

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