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Switch Your IT Specialty

Switch Your IT Specialty

You might think that changing your technology specialty wouldn’t be nearly as difficult as making a wholesale career change. After all, expertise in one area of IT should have some relevance in another, right?

That’s true enough, but it doesn’t mean that making a transition within IT is easy to pull off. Far from it.

Changing IT career tracks -- technical support to programming or programming to network administration, for instance -- is often much more work than many techies realize. (More typical progressions, such as from help desk to network administration or programming to project management, are another matter entirely, because they are recognized routes of advancement.)

To make the transition to a new specialty, you’ll need a record of projects showcasing your new skills and possibly additional training. Even then, expect to start at the bottom, both in terms of pay and job responsibilities.

“Is it possible?” asks Helen Campbell, chief technology officer of Daata Group. “Absolutely. Many things are possible if you really want to make them happen, but it’s not easy.”

Campbell cautions about the challenges of making a major switch within IT -- even if you’re doing so with the help of a supportive employer. Campbell recounted how one techie on her team, thanks to his logical, process-oriented mind, had a fairly easy transition from technical support to software development. But a similar transition wasn’t right for someone else, who missed the troubleshooting aspects of system administration and the level of interaction, she says.

Al Parvar, who switched from systems engineer to software development at Daata Group’s LaserShip division, says a certain amount of initiative is necessary if you want to change IT specialties. Soon after joining the company, Parvar spoke up in a meeting on a technical topic relevant to software development. His views were noticed, thus setting the stage for subsequent opportunities to work on software interfaces and applications.

Where you work matters, too. “This company gave me a lot of chances to grow and learn,” says Parvar, who became LaserShip's senior IT director and architect.

If you’re considering a change, these steps can help you make a successful transition:

Switch Internally

Try to move within your company, where a manager may give you the chance to try another area of IT. Such a move often requires leaders who see the upside in techies stepping out of the typical career trajectories. “I think you have to have an organization that’s willing to give you the space to try it,” Campbell says.

Think Small

Bigger companies may offer a broader range of opportunities, but a smaller company may give you the chance to work in a jack-of-all-trades capacity to develop skills outside your area of expertise. Also at smaller companies, technical job roles may be more flexible, thus allowing you to gain exposure to other domains.

Make Your Mark with Projects

Wherever you make the transition, be sure you can demonstrate your ability in your new specialty. Additional training or certifications may help, but to really prove yourself, develop a portfolio of self-directed IT projects.

These projects might include open-source contributions, volunteer work or Web projects technologies such as LAMP. “Personal projects are the way to go,” says Dave Messinger, chief architect at TopCoder, an online spot for programming competitions. “At TopCoder, we have seen people move from MIS to development positions within a company based on gaining experience at TopCoder and proving they can create enterprise software.”

Leverage Industry Knowledge

Expertise in a certain industry can also punch your ticket to a transition. A company developing industry-specific software may be willing to hire someone with years of experience in that industry, Campbell says. But the bar is high for such a transition, so don’t count on the company training you. You must demonstrate your skills with your own projects or consulting work.

Think It Through from the Start

For techies starting their careers, there’s a lesson here. When you decide to work as a programmer or network administrator, say, you’re choosing to develop one area of expertise. Changing gears won’t be easy once you’ve developed your technical credentials. Better to think through your choices at the start, rather than regretting them -- and needing to backtrack -- several years later.

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