Changing Careers to Information Technology
By Brenda Ashmore
Sponsor Name: Dr. Stuart Hansen
Department of Computer Science
Abstract: This paper gives personal perspectives on how and why people switch to careers in Information Technology.
March 26, 2002
CSCI 495: Computer Science Seminar
Changing Careers to Information Technology
One Saturday 3 years ago, my older sister Amy and I were talking in her living room. Amy is a middle school English teacher in our hometown. At the time, I was teaching geometry at a high school in a nearby community. I did not consider myself a good teacher, but I chalked it up to my inexperience and lack of enthusiasm. I was not creative in my lesson planning, so my lessons come across boring. Even I was bored. When students are bored, they sometimes find mischief to occupy their time and I was not a very good disciplinarian either. I would really take problems at work home with me every night. As Amy and I sat down to talk, our conversation turned to the classroom. She started describing a great project she came up with for her eighth grade students. Her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm as she talked about how the project engaged her students and was even fun for her. At that moment, seeing the joy Amy received from teaching, a tear started rolling down my cheek. I knew that all teachers should be as excited about their work and I knew I was not. I think that day in Amys living room was when I decided it was time to find a plan B; I could not continue teaching for the rest of my working years.
I did not want to stay in a career that did not suit me, but I did not relish the thought of unemployment either. I decided to give teaching one more year and look into other options. It did not take me long to decide to pursue a degree in computer science so that I could someday work in IT (information technology). Many factors went into my decision. When considering other possibilities, I wanted to find a career with good employment prospects. There is a lot of growth in high-tech fields and I expect the demand for IT professionals to continue to be strong. I also wanted a job that would pay at least as well as my teaching position. Jobs in high-tech fields have a higher starting salary than most other professions. I was pretty sure Id have a higher salary just starting in an IT field than I would after 5 years of teaching without an advanced degree. In addition, this time I wanted a field in which I could achieve success. Two things made me think Id be successful in Information Technology. First, I was successful in my previous computer programming courses. Second, I had a friend who was a successful computer consultant who indicated that Id do well combining a math degree with a computer science degree. Taking his advice, I enrolled in an introductory computer science course at a nearby university during my summer break. The summer class went so well that I took a few night classes while I taught a third year.
At the end of my third year of teaching, I made the decision to resign and enroll in college again. While making my decision, I kept in mind that Id be making some sacrifices. I moved back into my parents home, which took some adjustment for all of us. I gave up my salary, my apartment, and my independence in order to jump on a faster track to a computer science degree and a career in IT that better suited my personality. Everyone said it would pay off and my parents were supportive. I got a part-time job filling fragrance bottles in an R&D lab for an area company just to pay tuition the first year. Even though many of my classmates are also training to change careers, I found it somewhat embarrassing to run into my former geometry students in the halls of the university and to tell friends what I was doing. It was humbling, but I had faith that the rewards would outweigh the small inconveniences I experienced. It also helped knowing that I was in good company.
I have a great advantage over many other people who change careers. I am young enough that I did not worry much about losing financial or retirement benefits from my former job. I also had just paid off my college loans and car loan. I had no real obligations, single with no children and no debt. My parents were supportive in letting me live with them for a minimum of rent. There are a few other full-time students I know who had spouses and children to consider. For his 33rd birthday, Patricks wife told him he could quit his job. They are now relying on their savings and his wifes teaching income while he finishes his last semester. Nick has a wife and 5 children; they are living off money his brothers paid him to buy his part of their family company and the money he earns working for his brothers part-time. We all planned for our various stages of unemployment, but I think I was more fortunate since I had no one else depending on me and my parents were more than willing to assist me.
In addition to the financial relief, I do not have to maintain a residence, which would chip away more of my time, leaving me with even less time for a social life. The sacrifices I have made have been few compared to those of many others who are changing their careers to IT. Pat and his wife have had to set aside a date night, so that his course work does not come between them. Nick says that his children beg him to quit school so he can spend evenings and weekends with them instead of at school in the computer science lab or the library. He told me he spends far more time on schoolwork than he ever did when he worked full-time at the family business. All of us are hopeful that the rewards of gainful, fulfilling employment in the future will be well worth the sacrifices we are making now.
Computer science has turned out to be a wonderful choice for me financially way before graduation. The career center at my college does a great job of putting students in contact with the IT departments of area companies who provide internship opportunities. After one year filling fragrance bottles, I got a wonderful internship that pays a better hourly wage than my teaching job! It amazes me still that they are paying me good money to gain valuable experiences. I did not get a penny for student teaching 5 years ago and it seemed far more difficult. I can look forward to an average starting salary of more than $40,000.
When you consider the reasons people change careers, it is clear that Information Technology is a great choice. One reason people switch careers is sheer boredom in their jobs. Two of my friends left their jobs for this reason alone. Patrick felt he had reached a plateau in his career as a social security claims representative. He says he had nothing left to learn there. Karen spent 14 years as an office supervisor and did not feel that her job was challenging her mind. She believes IT will offer her the challenge she is seeking, since it is always changing. In fact, at the company I am working for, not only does the technology change, but the company is now looking into a way to provide a rotation of jobs under the umbrella of IT. Nothing says you have to stay in the same area of IT your whole career. For people who are willing to go to school or learn new skills, the continual flux of the field is appealing.
Another reason people leave their jobs is because of downsizing. Nicks family company was not doing well financially. He saw that the company would not support three brothers and something had to change. Nick let his brothers buy him out and he admits that one of the main reasons he chose IT was the promise of plenty of jobs. Karen was working for a small company that was also struggling financially. She recognized the warning signs early enough to plan for her career change. After she got her first IT job, many people at her old company were let go. Yes, thousands of professionals at dot-com startups lost their jobs, but there is still projected growth for the number of IT jobs. Programmers and network specialists are still expected to find positions. Right now the job market is not looking as good as it did a year ago, but I would say that the economy has hurt job-seekers in most other fields worse than those in IT.
This does not mean that we did not or do not doubt our choices. Computer science is a tough discipline. Nick says he is used to being at the top of the class and now finds himself earning average grades. Patrick says he has never had to work as hard academically to be successful in school. Karen talked to me after a little more than one year at her first IT job. She says it is so different from her job as office supervisor and she still doesnt feel she has a grasp on what she is doing. Nick admits that sometimes he worries that the financial payoffs of working in IT will not be as great as he initially expected. He worries that his age and his family may put him at a disadvantage in todays job market, especially in smaller companies that hed prefer to work for. Nick, who is in his thirties with a growing family, fears that companies would prefer to hire a younger, single person who will cost less to insure. He also says that he is not sure it will be more personally satisfying than working in the family business. After her first year, Karen admits that she expected to enjoy her new job more than she has.
Even though we have doubts, we are still hopeful. Patrick says there is consolation in the fact that the professors have admitted that the curriculum is tough. He feels that some of the professors have really acted as advocates for him coming back to school, staying in the program, and working toward his goals. Although Karen does not love her job, she says she does not regret leaving her old job and is glad she earns a better salary in her new position. Karen is hopeful that her feelings about her job will change as she gains more experience and confidence on the job.
For me and for many others, IT is a very attractive field. It offers job opportunities, plenty of room for growth and change, and a chance to make a good living. I could have continued teaching geometry for thirty more years while always daydreaming of retirement. Instead, I have chosen an exciting field that will not include unruly teenagers. I think I made the right choice.
Created before October 2004