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?

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