Switching to IT from a different career

November 2005

Man receiving information through computer screenThe main problem faced by anyone attempting to move into IT is the difficulty of convincing potential employers that they can do the job. This task is even harder for applicants with no formal IT qualifications.

Nick Dunn explains how to get around the problem, having himself managed to land himself a job into IT as an intranet developer with Britannia after seven years as a lab technician with a chemicals company.

Qualifications show commitment

If you have no experience and no qualifications you will encounter difficulties convincing potential employers that you can contribute effectively. Gaining some additional qualifications will demonstrate both your ability and enthusiasm. Employers will look favourably on you if you have gone out of your way to learn in your spare time, either at a local college or via distance learning courses.

If you are unable to take up full-time education you have the option of short evening courses at a local college, a part-time degree at a local university or via the Open University. The latter has a wide range of courses covering topics from the basics of computer science to more advanced topics in software development, databases and artificial intelligence.

You can make manageable monthly payments for Open University courses and it’s possible to get undergraduate diplomas in computing and in information technology on the way to your final qualification.

If you feel confident enough to give up your existing job completely, you can move into full-time education to do a BSc or MSc in computer studies or a similar subject. This route has the advantage of often including industrial placements, providing hands-on work experience.

Get experience through placements or voluntary work

A work placement is one way around the catch-22 situation of not being able to get a job without experience and vice versa. A BSc or MSc in computer studies generally includes a one-year industrial placement, which will boost your CV. Some students will even be invited back to take up full-time employment at the end of the course.

Another way of gaining experience is through voluntary work, if you have the confidence and skills to use your abilities in a real-life setting. If you have experience but no qualifications or you have a qualification but only limited experience then iT4Communities puts volunteers with IT skills in touch with charities who need IT help. The IT 4 Communities website allows users to search for projects on location and type of project (web, database, support). There are plenty of options.

You'll also find your interpersonal skills improving as you deal with various people in different organizations and the work can be extremely rewarding.

Showcase skills on own website

Do not overlook the obvious if you're seeking a web development position and have no URLs to show anyone. Many ISPs offer space for you to create a website, so you could provide the URL to a website of your own. If this shows effective design and coding skills it can greatly improve your chances of getting a position.

Opt for the functional CV if lacking experience

For someone with little or no experience the functional CV can present skills in a more effective way than the chronological CV. There are no hard and fast rules for what  on the layout of a CV e, but for someone who has skills but no experience it is best to start with a summary of IT skills as a bulleted list of programming languages, databases, operating systems, methodologies, and so on.

The career history section of the CV should give details of more transferable skills such as time management, planning and organization and interpersonal skills.

While you may find yourself up against more experienced applicants a good CV can improve your chances of being selected for interview. If you've followed the advice above then you should certainly come across as being enthusiastic and dedicated and will be in with a chance of landing the position.

The way I went about it

When I initially decided to move into IT I opted to stay in my existing job while doing a BSc through the Open University (OU) in my spare time. I had several months before the OU courses started, so I enrolled on two City and Guilds courses with a distance-learning organization to occupy my time and provide some skills and qualifications in the intervening period. The two courses were computer programming and applications programming, the first being much easier than the second.

Part way through my first year with the OU I got several job interviews, losing out at the last hurdle to someone with more experience.

Fortunately for me, the IT skills shortages crisis of the late 1990s, brought on by Y2K compliance activities and the rapid growth of the internet, presented openings for candidates with no commercial experience. Several large organizations were attempting to fill vacancies by putting applicants with no industry experience through a series of aptitude tests. They then sent the successful recruits on training courses before placing them in the IT department.

This was how I got a job but it was an exceptional time; it's much less common for such opportunities to come along now.

Nick Dunn wrote this article in November 2005.