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How-To IT Career Guide: 7 Critical Strategies, From Getting Started To Semiretiring

Driven by our salary survey data, a look at make-or-break moments in a career.

Getting Started In Tech
Entry level wages decline in our annual Salary Survey.

Starting out in IT, many young people jazzed about technology want to spend as much time as they can working with it.

A better first job, however, provides more exposure to customers and employees who use technology. "Never turn down a job where you're working with end users," advises Chris Bobbitt, CIO of Health Communications, a provider of training services to the hospitality industry.

Entry-level pros must build their technology base and prove they have the chops to learn new technologies. But technology isn't what slows most of them from advancing.

"I go out recruiting for our company, and many younger people don't have a clue about how real work works," says Benjamin Story, a network administrator for Dot Foods. Story recommends that students try to get real IT experience as early as their freshman year.

The data on entry-level jobs is among the most worrisome in our salary survey. The only age category in which salaries declined compared with a year ago was for those 25 and under, where median base salaries fell to $40,000 from $45,000 for staffers and to $44,000 from $49,000 for managers.

Once in a job, young tech pros should focus on deeply understanding what drives the company's success and how IT fits into that. Look at the jobs at a company you'd like to be in within five years, then plot what's needed to get you there, recommends David Cutter, director of application delivery at Acuity Brands Lighting.

But write that five-year plan in pencil, because this is a career built on change, and you need an open mind. "There's seems to be fewer entry-level positions than the ones I was able to grab as a younger person," says Bobbitt, a 24-year veteran who started as a programmer. A recent survey of hiring managers by job site CareerBuilder .com found 82% of 200 IT employers surveyed plan to hire recent college grads this year.

Even with a degree and solid internships, grads should expect potential employers to be skeptical that they can add value. "I absolutely cannot afford to have entry-level people," says Ravi Chitturi, an IT operations manager at Wolseley, a supplier of heating and plumbing products, who wants experienced pros who'll contribute quickly.

Many veterans echo the advice of Dan Cobb, VP of the IT placement business of staffing firm Hudson: "Work your way into something you love, but the broader your skills, the more marketable you'll be."

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