Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Outsourcing is a hot topic on both sides of the workforce. Should the larger labor pool offered by outsourcing affect your career choice? In a word: no. There's something much more important.

What do you think about all the talk of outsourcing, hazy future for IT and programmers, etc. -- is it really as bad as people are forecasting? Should only the super smart math and science geeks pursue degrees and careers in computer science (or related fields) while the rest of us look to other career options? I'm seriously struggling with this. I have a bachelor's degree (but in a liberal arts), not in anything related to computer science. I have a few IT certifications under my belt, but the jobs are hard to find. And so I wonder if I should even be investing in a career with poor options for people like me who didn't major in computer science or math, or if I should move onto something different? I am very much interested in learning all I can about computers, and love tinkering around with them (too bad I only found out after graduating how cool computers are), but I don't know if I have the aptitude for it, plus if I have to compete against all those who did study it, and who are also having trouble finding jobs, maybe I should seriously consider a different career? Any help or advice would be immensely appreciated.

There are a bunch of variations on my philosophy, but it tends to boil down to the old adage: Do what you love, and the money will follow.

It sounds very trite, and unrealistic, but in my experience it's true.

In fact, in a way, it's how I came to find computer programming myself, and later, it was what I looked for in people I was interviewing as potential hires.

It's all about passion.

When I entered the University of Washington, I was placed in the College of Electrical Engineering, simply because I had expressed an interest in electronics on my university application. (The college raised their entrance standards shortly thereafter - it wasn't enough to just "express an interest".) One of the required courses my second year was an introduction to programming (ENGR 141: Introduction to Fortran, to be exact). I'd never touched a computer before, and I aced that class and helped a couple of others through as well.

I'd found my passion.

I'd be working with computers even if I weren't paid. The fact that I was ("You mean people will pay me to do this? Cool!") was an added bonus that allowed me to focus on what I really enjoyed: computer programming and related endeavors.

"Do what you love, and the money will follow."

The fact is, when I retired from Microsoft a few years ago, I fully expected to no longer get paid for practicing my passion. And yet, opportunities arose - opportunities that I took advantage of such that once again I'm earning a comfortable living, doing what I love.

How you get there isn't nearly as important as that you get there.

By that, I really mean that your knowledge and abilities, and your passion and willingness to learn, are much more important than your education. If you can code up the deep internals of some complex operating system device driver I don't care that you started in cooking school. Now, granted, you're not likely to get operating system design instruction in cooking school, which is why a Computer Science degree is the "normal" way to get there. But ultimately if you get there, it shouldn't really matter how.

It shouldn't matter. The problem is that for many businesses it does.

When faced with a ton of resumes to look at each day, many large companies simply filter on the easy: no degree in Computer Science? Not worth looking at. And from a large company point of view, it makes sense. With many people competing for the same job(s), they have to prioritize where they invest their time examining candidates. And yes, statistically speaking, they're more likely to find a good computer programmer by looking at those with C.S. degrees than those with Culinary Arts papers.

Besides avoiding the large companies that take that approach, this is also where your passion can guide you - because beyond education comes experience.

Start doing the work. If it really is your passion, just start doing it. Do it for yourself, for your church or donate your efforts to some other organization. Get a job at that silly start-up that is totally clueless, won't make it and doesn't pay enough, but will let you build exactly the skills and experience you need and want.

Build a track record. By yourself if you have to. Show that you can do the job by doing the job.

That's passion.

And as your experience, track record, passion and confidence all grow, so will the opportunities in front of you.

But what about outsourcing?

Outsourcing just means that the talent pool got bigger. Technology has allowed certain types of work to be done remotely. So what?

There's always been competition. Always. And the cream always rises to the top.

As with any competition, the winners are those who differentiate themselves with skills, abilities and characteristics that others cannot. Be better at what you do, be more literate, more reliable, more accessible, more innovative ... whatever. In any field there are always ways to make yourself more valuable than the competition.

And it doesn't matter if the competition is next door, or quite literally half a world away.

I keep coming back to passion, because I firmly believe that if you have the passion to do the work, you'll naturally achieve this. And you'll have fun doing it!

But what about aptitude?

I think it's rare that people enjoy doing things that they're not already fundamentally good at, have an aptitude for, or have the potential to become good at. We enjoy doing some things because it "clicks" - it calls to something inside that we resonate with.

We like it.

I'm guessing that because you said "I am very much interested in learning all I can about computers, and love tinkering around with them..." that you're well on your way. The next step is quite simple - keep pressing forward. Take more classes, do the work, learn all you can, try the projects and you'll see soon enough if it's coming together for you.

It'll be work - a lot of work. But it won't feel like it.

You'll feel it in your gut.

And, you're right ... if you keep hitting your head against the wall, and find yourself saying "this doesn't make sense" - it may not be the career for you. But from what you've said so far, I'd be quite surprised.

Why are so many not getting hired?

It's hard to make blanket statements, but I'll throw out a few ideas:

  • They're looking for a "job". By that I mean, they're looking for something they can do from 9 to 5 each and then forget about. In an environment where there are a lot of people looking for work, you can bet that employers are looking for those that love to do the work, and can't wait to get into it - not those that can't wait for quitting time.

  • They're aiming too high too soon. Graduating college, for example, is a major, major accomplishment, I don't mean to belittle it. But it's not a free ride to a high paying job. Many graduates believe that their abilities warrant a higher level, higher paying job, so that's all they're willing to look for. And they're often disappointed.

  • They're applying for the wrong job. The fact that your passion and expertise is in, for example, writing HTML, or perhaps generating cool semi-complex interactive web pages will not get you a job as a systems programmer where the expertise is more about much more intricate and low-level programming. My favorite example from years ago were individuals who built up expertise writing programs in Visual Basic, and then didn't understand why Microsoft wouldn't hire them to work on Visual Basic. It's an entirely different kind of skillset.

  • They just aren't that good. Many people don't get hired because they're just not as good as they think they are when compared to the requirements of the job. Sometimes it's because of any of the previous points, but it's also those who've "just scraped by" in school who just don't compare favorably to the others who are available for the same job.

There are obviously lots of reasons why people don't get hired, but those, to me, are the biggies that really seem to get in the way of people making progress within their careers.

At the risk of beating the word to death: it's all about passion.

If you find something that you truly love to do, you'll be self inspired to learn more, do more and do it better. In fact, that passion will set up a virtuous circle of learning, doing, and improving that will continually make you more valuable at what you do every day.

If you don't enjoy what you're doing, if what you're looking at doesn't speak to you, doesn't make you want to stay up late and get up early just so you can do it more, it might be time to re-assess.

I know it's not always practical to just pick it all up and refocus, but in the long run, work that you feel passionate about can only reward you, and in many, many ways.

Article C2731 - July 23, 2006 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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1 Comment
Al Kubeluis
July 24, 2006 5:24 AM

Hi Leo,
I too am a retired computer guy and marvel at how I was so well-paid for having fun. I get up early, power up my dual-core AMD PC, and continue having fun after 42 years as a computer guy. Your article is right on target - do what you love to do, do it well, persist.

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