Who Needs School?: Do-It-Yourself I/T

by | March 10, 2009

John Semel had never taken a computer class in his life when he decided two years ago to buy a couple of PCs, turn his apartment into a makeshift lab, and teach himself the ins and outs of computer networking.

"I woke up one morning and realized I do not want to take pictures of shoes and handbags for the rest of my life," says Semel, 31, who until that fateful morning was planning for a career in commercial photography.

Semel spent his free time buckled down with books and training manuals. With a little help from a friend, he learned to assemble a computer. And, like countless Internet pioneers before him, he took whatever odd jobs came his way, like setting up small networks and even fixing the run-down computers at his local photography lab. Lucking into some jobs and having friends in the business helped Semel gain enough experience to launch his new career setting up networks as a consultant and, most recently, teaching networking training courses.

He's living proof that the self-motivated can still teach themselves the programs and skills needed to break into the IT business. True do-it-yourselfers are becoming a rare breed due to the popularization of computer-science degree programs and the proliferation of IT training schools, certification courses, and distance-learning degrees that reach students in even the most remote corners of the world. ~

Some experts predict that in the future, the unschooled will have a tougher time landing jobs as the Internet matures and employers seek out a staff with many credentials.

While some businesses already frown upon self-learners, others aren't so picky - especially considering one IT job in every dozen will be vacant this year. Experience still matters more than pedigree. Still, the need for more formalized programs and a system of accreditation is growing, argues Bill Rosenthal, president of Kaplan College, which offers fully accredited certificate and degree programs online through its School of Information Technology.

"More people have computers than don't, and the Internet is becoming less of a wild, wild world," says Rosenthal. "In the maturing IT marketplace, with so many jobs and so many people, employers need a very rapid way to tell if someone's qualified or not."

If so, said Aaron Weiss, a technology writer, it's a shame. A Cornell University psych major who was turned on to computing when the Internet arrived, Weiss compared technologists to writers, who are judged more often on the strength of their portfolios than where they went to school or the degrees hanging on their walls.

"Since the Internet boom, technologists - especially Internet developers - have also enjoyed the equitable system of being judged on work, whether they were 16 or 66," said Weiss, also CTO of Wordsmyth.net, an online language reference guide. "But [the] corporatization of Internet concerns may break down the system."

James Cruz, vice president of IT staffing for Manhattan-based Colton Information Technology, says companies are mixed in their preferences for hiring junior-level programmers who are self-taught versus those who have a solid background at a computer science school or a degree from a prestigious university. Self-taught programmers sometimes have the advantage if they are gifted communicators and able to convince prospective employers that they have the skills and personality for success.~

"If you have developed a program using the language - you're not just testing, and/or debugging or working with a Java project someone else has developed - this shows them you really have the drilled down the depth and knowledge," Cruz says.

Andre Mendes, CIO at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in Alexandria, Va., said his natural bias is to hire self-taught technologists, or even someone with little practical experience but who oozes with enthusiasm, a good work ethic, and the potential to learn.

"I see professionalization as a very dangerous trend in the industry," says Mendes. "This is not like being an accountant, and knowing what accounts receivable is. This is about inventing new stuff. If you're out there doing what you learned from somewhere else, you're basically not innovating.

You look at the icons of this industry and what you see are people who dropped out of college."

In the Internet's commercial infancy, as little as five years ago, nearly everyone learned the trade on his or her own. Although practical courses were virtually nonexistent and training manuals didn't take up whole racks at bookstores, the technology was less complex, Weiss says.

He discovered a love for computers through video games - he and his fellow eight-year-old friends were devoted to their Atari 2600 systems. Still, he says, he never imagined a career in computers.

"Technology of that sort hadn't yet made it onto the map of professions that families talked about, like doctor, lawyer, [and] candlestick maker," says Weiss, who nonetheless took computer courses at Cornell University.~

1990 changed everything, he says. Weiss and countless computer enthusiasts on college campuses found each other online. They soaked up knowledge from books as well as from online resources and the community boards, where their ilk swapped advice on programming snafus and breakthroughs. They spent untold hours tooling around with computers, many hardly pausing to consider their money-earning potential in the emerging field.

Keeping up skills was then a matter of incremental education, he said. Weiss, the author of several JavaScript resources, from The Complete Idiot's Guide to JavaScript to Tricks with Scripts, imagines that newbies today face a steeper learning curve.

"In those days, you could literally learn everything there was to know about a machine - all of its software and hardware," he says. "That type of mastery is probably unattainable today, or at least significantly more difficult given the complexity and fragmentation in the market of computing devices."

Still, Josh Letze, a 24-year-old chemical information specialist with Cargill Dow, a Minnesota-based polymer research and development company, never felt flustered with the networking work he took over almost immediately after being hired as a chemist.

"I figured I'd pick it up," said Letze, who majored in chemistry at Concordia College in Moorehead, Minn.

Letze, now preparing to be an Oracle database administrator, is taking his first formal computer classes at Oracle University. In college, he shied away from formal training. ~

Computers were Letze's hobby. He was then known as the networking expert among college roommates, who pooled money to buy the hub needed to hook up computers for playing games.

"I didn't want to make computers work [as a career]," Letze said. "I thought I might lose interest in them. I'd get too much exposure to it and I'd hate it."

Still, when his lab needed someone to do spreadsheet work with Microsoft Excel, he volunteered. As in college, he learned what to do by analyzing how programs were written and occasionally looking things up either in reference books or through online searches. Only now that he's taken up Oracle does he see a need for more formalized training.

Letze doesn't know any other recent college grads who, like himself, landed tech jobs without taking the appropriate courses. But he figures his route was a good way to do it.

"If you really like computers and know a lot about them, get into your field and just volunteer with the computers," he suggested.

Unlike the true self-starter days - when the O'Reilly & Associates book series was among the very few available as reference - today an Internet rookie could actually get overwhelmed by the volume of how-to books on the market. In-depth programming knowledge is not even necessary for all careers because so many tools are available that simplify tasks like HTML coding.~

As some of the self-taught point out, many hit the books simply because no easy options, such as programming classes at the local computer college, were available then. That's no problem nowadays. Training schools are everywhere, including online. For example, LeapIt.com, a web site that provides Internet training self-study programs, has 78,000 members who are earning IT certifications using self-study programs and practice exams. Paula Moreira, LeapIt's editor-in-chief, said the site mainly caters to career switchers in the 35 to 50 age range.

"We're seeing a lot of job changers in the market right now because of the reported incomes of IT professionals and the abundance of jobs," Moreira said.

Just as certification programs are growing more popular, computer science programs at major research universities are getting larger as more students get turned on to the discipline through their studies in high school, or even earlier. At Cornell University, for example, the computer science program graduates about 200 students each year, up from about 75 students 10 years ago. It's now the second-most popular major, trailing only biology.

Robert Constable, Dean of Computer and Information Science at Cornell University, says people who truly want to be innovators need the computer science background.

"You have to decide if you want to be an inventor, artist, creator or scientist," says Constable. "There's economically valuable and artistically valuable things you can do if you're self-taught, but can you really make interesting discoveries?"~

Internet revolutionaries are needed now, adds Constable.

"What's holding the Internet back now are issues of reliability, adaptability, speed and security," he says. "How do you keep the computers up all the time? How do you make sure hackers aren't going to get in? People who are self-taught programmers are stopped dead in the tracks. They have no idea how to approach these problems."

John Semel, the former commercial photographer, wasn't thinking about changing the world through his computer skills. A philosophy major at Vassar College, Semel knew he wanted to earn his living doing something creative. He stumbled onto photography after picking up a camera in a thrift shop.

After a few years of eking out a living assisting more experienced photographers, he decided to follow the route of some other fellow artists living on the margins. If other art school types could learn computer skills, he decided he could do it for a living and do art photography on the side.

Semel decided on the self-teaching route after learning from friends that many employees won't hire someone simply because they've passed a certification course. He became convinced that creating a networking system and applying the skills in the books gave him the hands-on experience employers want.

"When you're a kid you can absorb a lot from reading, but when you're an adult, it turns out the best way to learn is by doing it," says Semel. "I had a friend help me build my first computer and once I saw how everything fits together, it was pretty easy."

Semel did take and pass certification exams. He doesn't think the fact that he learned on his own has gotten in the way of getting a job.

"It's a possibility that maybe when people look at my resume, they think 'he didn't go to XYZ school,'" he says. "No one has really given me any issues about the way I've learned it once they see I know what I'm talking about and they know the level I'm at." ~

For those considering his path, Semel suggests taking any and all jobs that will help further your hands-on learning. Do not even try this, he advises, if you aren't highly self-motivated.

Scott Schwartz, the self-taught IT Director of Xceed.com, advises neophytes to be prepared to get a lot wrong before getting any good at programming.

"It's like anything else, practice makes perfect," said Schwartz, who was an English, literature and rhetoric major at SUNY Binghamton. "It also helps as you are going along, and learning how to do Web stuff, to start creating a site about something you care about."

One of Schwartz's first web sites, for example, listed really cheesy bar pick-up lines.

He still considers the O'Reilly series of books among the best in the business. But starters may want to try the For Dummies or Sams Series books, he says.

Still, Schwartz says, doing it yourself no longer has the cachet it did back in the day when so few people in the mainstream understood what IT people did. Nowadays, when even second-graders are making web pages, the magic has been diluted.

"It was a point of pride for people like myself that we kind of found our own trail through the darkness," says Schwartz, a 29-year-old Manhattanite. "At the time, people kind of stared in wide-eyed amazement. IT was new and people didn't understand everything that went on to get there. It was the black box. And now it has kind of been demystified."

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