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Choosing the right path toward becoming an IT expert

Interested in becoming an IT pro? The road to expert-level status can be long and fraught, but with the proper training and dedication, success is within reach.

Becoming an IT professional can be a challenge, as it is a career path that requires time-consuming and expensive training. It can be difficult for a would-be administrator to figure out where to get started on the road to becoming an IT expert and how to get the necessary training without breaking the bank. As a college instructor in IT at a two-year technical school, I have some unique insights into this subject.

Traditionally, training was held at local offices over the course of days, or even weeks, and could cost thousands of dollars for a single course. For someone looking to get started, this was generally too expensive and the large amount of content being consumed over short periods of time could negatively affect retention. Nowadays, an IT professional education comes in a variety of flavors, is more readily accessible and is inexpensive.

Online courses can begin an IT professional education

Starting out at a two-year school and getting hands-on experience, and then finishing at a four-year school can give you the most practical experience.

One of the easiest ways to get your foot in the door is online computer-based training (CBT). I'm not referring to general sites, such as YouTube, even though they can have great content; rather, I'm talking about websites such as Plurasight or CBT Nuggets. These sites have a lot content generated by professionals. These types of sites are not free, but subscription services usually have more in-depth content than free sites with a greater focus on helping the viewer learn. Depending on which subscription you choose, you could access everything from the most basic content for beginners to the most advanced topics on the latest technologies. While this may sound ideal, online video training isn't for everyone, as it lacks interaction and hands-on application. As a result, some trainees may struggle to remain engaged with the content. This brings up a second option, college classes.

Pursuing a college degree in IT

Many people looking to become an IT expert will enroll in a two- or four-year college to earn a computer science or technology degree. You may be wondering which is better for an IT professional education: a two-year or a four-year degree. In my professional opinion, the answer is both. A two-year degree in IT generally consists of vendor-related content from companies such as Cisco, Microsoft, VMware and CompTia, while four-year degrees usually focus on theory. This is a generalization and not a representative statement about every school out there. An IT expert should work toward proficiency in both, not one or the other. Starting out at a two-year school and getting hands-on experience, and then finishing at a four-year school can give you the most practical experience. This is why many two- and four-year colleges have transfer agreements.

While going the college route is ideal for an IT novice, it can also be useful for an IT expert looking to add additional skills. Often, local college courses are the same as weeklong courses, just delivered over 16-weeks at a lower price. These types of courses can be easier for your boss to approve, especially if they're at night -- so you're not out of the office for a week -- and if they don't cost thousands. With enough courses, you could potentially get an additional degree and, as an added bonus, you might even be eligible for tuition reimbursement through your work.

Finding the right IT certification track

Now that we've discussed online subscription services and college courses, where does IT certification fit in? Is it better or worse than a college degree, and is it worth it in general? The short answer is yes and no. Certifications are an ideal addition to a college degree today. In a previous article, I discussed how companies are looking for a broad range of knowledge combined with specialized skill sets. A college degree covers the generalized knowledge base while certifications validate the specialized skill set. Although you can apply for a job with one or the other, a combination of both is ideal. It can be tricky to decide which IT certification best suits your interests, so look for the technology you want to work with, be it networking, servers, virtualization and so on.

Many of the vendors in these areas offer entry level certifications to help get you started before moving up to more advanced certifications. It also doesn't hurt to have certifications in multiple disciplines or even vendor-neutral certifications such as the CompTIA ones. IT Certifications are never easy, which is why not everyone has one. They require self-discipline, but both college and online CBT training can help you prepare for one. The key is to not be disappointed if you fail the first time. Concentrate on what you got wrong and dive back in; it's worth it in the end.

There is no shortcut to becoming an IT expert in any field. Training, certifications or a college degree take time and dedication. An IT professional education is not for everyone, but, then again, the same could be said for IT. A career in IT can be very lucrative and rewarding if you're willing to put the investment and effort into yourself.

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