Monday, July 24, 2006

Beating the Catch-22 of Aspiring Digitheads(and a site update)

Note: I know that the site has been slow with updates. I apologize for that - I have a lot going on right now. I will start updating it again soon.

New, fresh-faced IT students, affectionately known by me as "aspiring digitheads" face the inevitable catch-22 once they finish their studies and are ready to tackle the "real world" (gosh, I hate that term!). The catch-22 is "you can't get a job without experience, and you can't get experience without a job".

Before I get into detail on beating the catch-22, allow me to share a situation that recently happened to me. One of my closest friends since college called me asking for my help. Her brother has been out of school (college) for about 2 years, and he still can't find a job in the IT field. She asked for my help with finding somewhere that will hire him. I wanted to talk to him first to get an idea of what he knows how to do. So, I talked to him as if I was a potential employer. Here is a snippet of the conversation between me and my friend's brother, who is aspiring to be a web developer.

Me: So, in your programming classes, did your instructors give you a lot of programming exercises to do?
Friend's Brother: Yes, we had a ton!
Me: Okay, that's good. Do you have your own web site that has a portfolio of your projects or the work that you have done?
FB: Websites cost too much money, and besides, I don't really have a lot of time to design a web site and keep it up.
Me: Okay. Do you participate or have you participated in any open-source development projects? Did you program, or test, or do any documentation, or anything like that?
FB: No. I don't know of any open source projects that are out there. Nobody told me about that.
Me: Okay. Did you ever do voluteer work with your IT skills, such as develop a web site for your church or a friend or some friend's small business?
FB: No. Nobody ever asked me to do anything like that for them. Besides, I don't have time to volunteer.
Me: Okay. Would you be willing to do another IT job to get your foot in the door, like a help desk technician or a different kind of developer?
FB: Eww, no! I want to be a web programmer because that's what I like to do.
Me: Okay. Did you do any internships while you were in school?
FB: Not really. The only internships that were available were ones that didn't pay, and I don't have time to work for free.
Me: Okay. Are you willing to relocated to get a job?
FB: I don't really want to, but if I have to, I will.
Me: That's good. Do you have money saved to start freelancing?
FB: A little bit, but I don't want to chase after business.

You have probably spotted throughout this conversation that my friend's brother is doing everything possible to REMAIN in the catch-22! If he keeps doing what he's been doing, he'll continue to toil at the dead-end job that he's currently working in and he'll never get a chance to use his education.

Believe it or not, it is easy for an aspiring digithead to break the catch-22. So how do you do it? Basically it all sums up to "make your own opportunities". Here are some ideas on making your own opportunities:

  • Get involved with internships in your field while you are in school: As a mentor of mine once said when I was talking about a colleague who got really good grades, "You are a student with a 3.5 GPA and two years experience with internships. Colleague has a 4.0 GPA and no industry experience except her classwork. Guess who employers are going to hire? I'll give you a hint - not Colleague!" My mentor was right - I was able to get a job immediately after graduating during a time when the country was in a recession while many of my fellow graduates (including Colleague) were still toiling in dead-end jobs while looking for jobs in the industry.
    To find out about internships (paid and unpaid), see your careers counselor, or check out your school newspaper's classified section, or check out the careers section for your local technology organization's web site. Note that it is more difficult to get a paid internship versus an unpaid internship. Paid internships usually have stricter requirements, such as a high grade point average (3.5 GPA or above) or a legal ability to work in the United States (US Citizenship, legal resident or "green card", or an H-1B Visa). Even if your financial situation makes it difficult for you to accept an unpaid internship, find one that will fit in with your school and work schedule and consider it like a "class".

  • Volunteer for organizations: Volunteer work, especially performing the type of work related to the IT industry, counts as experience. Volunteer to do work for your religious organization or other non-profit organizations, such as: develop a web site, set up their network, or write a program. Not only does this give you more experience, you are also performing a good service for organizations that need your help.
    You don't have to limit the organization to a non-profit. You can even volunteer your time for a small start-up corporation that has very little funds. This could get you a position with the company when they grow, or it could get you a partnership.

  • Make your own web site: In today's technology age, this is the easiest way to create a portfolio of your work, and it is the most accessible way for potential employers to see what you can actually do. You can either have your web site on a free hosting site, or you can pay a small amount of money (approximately $75-150 USD/year) to get your own domain name and rent space from a hosting company. You do NOT need a dedicated server (which is somewhat expensive) unless you expect a lot of traffic and a lot of bandwidth usage.
    In my opinion, your best bet is to get your own domain name and rent space from a hosting company. Many hosting companies offer great deals that include: free databases; free e-mail accounts that can be used with your Outlook Express or other e-mail tools; free tools, such as forums and chat rooms; a sizeable amount of disk space and bandwidth usage; and free 24x7 technical support. The one that I use is Host For Web ( Host For Web offers many hosting options, as well as domain name ordering services. There are other good hosting sites that charge reasonable fees, such as Go Daddy and Yahoo!. Find out what you need for your web site, and do some research to find out which site offers the best for the price.

  • Participate in open source projects: In my friend's brother's defense, this is a little more difficult to do because many of the projects require a specific skill set and a very high technical level. If you fit this requirement, then this is a fantastic opportunity for you. For example, an intern that worked with me at a company had an impressive background in open source contribution. He was contributing code to Red Hat Linux since he was 14 years old!
    The best thing to do is research open source projects and find out what they are looking for in contributors. Note that it does not necessarily have to be development. You can contribute in other ways, such as testing and documentation.
    You don't necessarily have to participate in an existing open source project. You can make an open source project on your own by creating a general application for users. There are many sites that host open source projects, such as SourceForge (, the Open Source Initiative (, FreshMeat (, and Open Source for Apple ( If you have your own web site, you can host the project yourself!

  • Start freelancing: Again, in my friend's brother's defense, this is easier said than done because this does require a certain personality type to be able to do this. In order to garner freelance work, you do need to knock on businesses' doors, and you do require the "sales person's personality" (lots of moxie, "some will, some won't, so what? next!" mentality). I can relate - I don't have the "sales person's personality" myself.
    However, you can form a partnership with a colleague or friend who DOES have the "sales person's personality". That person can gather the business and you can do the technical work. Who knows? Maybe you and your friend can be the next Microsoft?

Sunday, July 2, 2006

Choosing the Right School

Note: This post focuses on the post-secondary education system in the United States.


Most positions in the information technology field require some sort of advanced degree and, in some cases, additional industry certification. For example, the minimum requirements for an entry level PC technician is industry certifications, while the minimum requirements for an entry level software engineer is a Master's degree. In nearly all cases, post-secondary education is required.

In the US, there are many post-secondary schools available, and it can be very confusing as to which school to choose. The objective of this post is to help you make a decision on choosing the right school by:

  • Showing you the differences between a "for-profit" and "non-profit" institution

  • Showing you the pros and cons of each institution

  • Giving you some advice on the best option to take

For-Profit Institution

For-profit institutions are sometimes called "proprietary" or "private" institutions, but these are not to be confused with private non-profit colleges and universities. For-profit institutions are corporates that provide education services to either assist its customers with obtaining industry certifications or to grant its customers a degree upon completion of the program. One of the selling points of the for-profit institution is the "job placement" program, which actually provides job leads to the students. Some for-profit institutions are nationally known (ITT Technical Institute, University of Phoenix, DeVry University), while others are locally or regionally known (Pittsburgh Institute of Technology). These institutions are usually accredited by the ACICS (Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools). Since these institutions are for-profit corporations, the primary source of funding is from tuition paid by the customers (students).

Pros and Cons of a For-Profit Institution

  • The education that you'll receive from these institutions is relevant to the degree or certification that you are pursuing. For example, if you are pursuing an Associates degree in network administration, you will probably take networking classes, a communications class, a writing class, math classes, and a programming class. You won't have to take "The Analytical Comparisons of the Roman Architecture and Greek Architecture".

  • You will get your degree or certification much faster than you would if you attend a traditional college or university. For example, the programs are set up to allow the student to complete a Bachelor's degree in three years (if the school offers this degree). Traditional colleges and universities are set up to allow the student to complete a Bachelor's degree in four years.

  • Enrollment requirements are not as strict as for a traditional university. In most cases, the only requirements are a high-school diploma or GED and to pass a writing and math skills test.


  • Since it is a for-profit institution, the bottom line is to get you in the door. The recruiters may not have your best interests at heart because they need your enrollment, so they may guide you into a program that may not interest you, or may be beyond your abilities. Note: while a school can lose accreditation and lose the ability to accept federal student loans for tuition payment if the school gives recruiters a commission based on the students they enroll, schools can fire recruiters if they don't make their quota (the number of students they have to get enrolled per enrollment period).

  • For-profit institutions are very expensive, compared to most traditional colleges and universities. For example, it costs approximately $35,000 plus additional costs to obtain a two-year degree from ITT Technical Institution. It costs about $8,000 to obtain a two-year degree from the Community College of Allegheny County.

  • There is a limited transferability of credits. For example, if you decide, after one year, that you no longer want to attend a particular for-profit institution, and you want to attend a traditional college or university, you may find that very little to none of your credits will transfer, and you will have to start all over again.

  • In order to attend these schools, you have to sign up for an entire program. For example, if you are only interested in taking Linux classes, you cannot take a Linux class (unless you were a previous student at the school). You would be required to sign up for the Network Administration program.

Non-Profit Institution

Non-profit institutions are your traditional colleges or universities. The college or university can fall under one of three categories:

  • State-owned institutions are colleges and universities that are owned by the state in which they are located. For example, Penn State University and UCLA are state-owned universities.

  • Private institutions are colleges and universities that are owned by an organization, usually a religious group. For example, Harvard University and Notre Dame University are private institutions.

  • Community Colleges are colleges owned by the county in which they are located. Community colleges offer industry certifications and Associates degrees.

These institutions are usually accredited by a regional accreditation agency that specializes in not only accrediting colleges and universities, but it also accredites the school systems (elementary and high school) in the region. Since these institutions are non-profit corporations, they receive other funding sources besides the students' tuition, such as donations from alumni and organizations, and federal and state grants.

Pros and Cons of a Non-Profit Institution

  • Credits are transferable throughout most institutions. For example, if you go to Pitt, and you decide that you would rather go to Duquesne University, your credits will transfer.

  • Your degree will hold more prestige and be more recognized in the industry than a degree from a for-profit institution. The main reason is because there are stricter guidelines on accreditation for a non-profit institution than there are for a for-profit institution. If you decide to pursue an advanced degree, you have a bigger selection of schools at your disposal if you received a degree from a traditional college or university. If you received a bachelor's degree from a for-profit institution, and you decide to pursue a Master's degree, you would be limited to choosing only for-profit institutions for your advanced degree because most traditional institutions do not recognize degrees from for-profit institutions.

  • You do not have to sign up for a degree program. If you are only interested in taking a Linux class, you are allowed to take only a Linux class at a school without pursuing a degree.

  • The tuition for community colleges and state-run institutions is considerably cheaper than a for-profit institution. For example, for the same price that you would pay at ITT Technical Institute for an Associates degree, you can get a Bachelors degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

  • Community colleges have open enrollment, which means the only requirement is you have a high school diploma or a GED in order to sign up for their degree or industry certification programs.


  • For state-run and private institutions, the admissions process is very selective. You may have the best grades and the best SAT/ACT scores, but the program may accept only so many new students per year, or they may use other judging criteria for who has a better shot at getting admitted, such as alumni programs and community service that the potential students have performed. You may end up either turned down for their program or put on a waiting list.

  • Most classes at universities are very large, especially at the freshman and sophomore level. You may end up in a class with 200 (yes, two hundred) other people.

  • Some classes at a university are not taught by a professor. Rather, the class is taught by either a research assistant or a graduate student. This happens more often in state-run universities.

  • In order to get your degree, you will be required to take course that have absolutely nothing to do with your career or you will not get your degree.

Best Option to Take

Before choosing your school, research all of the schools that you are interested in attending. Ask the following questions:

  1. What is the tuition?

  2. What is the refund policy if I decide to drop a class?

  3. Are there additional costs, like lab fees?

  4. What is the attrition ("dropout") rate?

  5. For a for-profit institution: What is your job placement rate, and of those jobs placed, what percentage are in positions for which the student was actually trained?

  6. For a non-profit institution: What percentage of the classes are actually taught by a research assistant or graduate student?

  7. What is your average student-teacher ratio in the classes?

  8. When was the last time you had a tuition hike?

  9. Are my credits and/or degree transferable to any school?

  10. For a for-profit institution: when was the last time the school lost its accreditation?

  11. What is the crime rate for the campus?

  12. Do you offer tutoring services for the students?

  13. Do you offer scholarships or tuition discounts?

  14. If you are disabled: Does the institution offer special services or amendments for disabled students?

The best option, in my opinion, is to attend a community college for your industry certification or your degree for the following reasons:

  • Community colleges have open enrollment, which means that you won't be turned down from the degree program unless you do not have your high-school diploma or GED.

  • Community colleges are the cheapest option. If you decide that IT is not for you after 1 or 2 semesters, you are only "out" a small amount of money.

  • The degrees are transferrable should you decide to pursue your Bachelor's degree. Plus, the non-profit colleges and universities offer discount programs or scholarships for community college graduates.

  • The credits are transferrable should you decide to attend another college or university.

  • You can pursue the degree or certification at your own pace. You're not required to take X amount of classes per semester.