Breaking In: Success Stories from New MCSEs

Maybe you have an MCSE, or maybe you're working on the title. But equally important (if not more so) is experience. How do you get it?

Dave Kyle is nervous. After 20 years working for Newport News Ship Builders in Virginia, Kyle has decided to change careers. He, like thousands of others, is trading what he’s done for a living thus far for a career as an information technology guru. Who can blame him? With the flood of technology news, gadgets, and reports of 18-year-old millionaires, it’s hard to resist heading into the technology sector.

When Kyle began this journey, he knew it wouldn’t be easy. “When I first started studying, I thought I was brain-dead. The last time I studied anything was in college. This is a whole different world—a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

“I started with Networking Essentials and it threw me for a curve at first, because I hadn’t had any practical experience in the field,” Kyle explains. “But I stuck with it and kept going with the material. I just kept studying; I waited until I was ready and got a 933 on that exam.”

Kyle starts his day at 3 a.m. for a few hours of studying NT Server before heading off to the shipyard. Lunch and breaks are occupied with protocols and Server Manager. After work, well, it’s back to the books. His wife has been very understanding of his decision. “She’s very supportive—considering I have to divide my time with work and study. My family is important to me.”

What’s Kyle so nervous about? He’s 43, has a job he loathes, and is on his way to join the ranks of MCSEs. “You can read articles and they make it sound like the sky is the limit,” Kyle explains. But here’s the question that comes to my mind: Is the market saturated? Or will it be saturated soon? Will employers be very selective and look for certification plus a number of years of experience? Are guys like me, well, are we out of luck?”

Sound familiar? Are you like Dave Kyle? You wake up only to realize it’s Monday; time to invest another week of your life in something that you don’t really want to do? Spend every spare moment hunkered down with self-study material? Trade vacations at the beach for MCSE classes? You try to explain to your kids, your friends, your ever-loving spouse, that things will be better once you’ve earned that MCSE. And then you secretly wonder if you’re trying to convince them—or yourself.

If that’s you, read on. You’ll find three encouraging stories of those who dared to go for it—and made it.

Moving Out of the Military

Randy Hinders, systems administrator and computer trainer, was once eligible for food stamps. He’s now an MCSE working for Donet ISP in Dayton, Ohio, and things have changed for the better for this former military police officer.

After high school, Hinders decided college wasn’t for him. He followed in his dad and brother’s footsteps and entered the military. He got involved with satellite and microwave communications—a good foundation for networking—and later plunged in on his own with computers.

Two years in Korea, a stint in Germany, a wife, and a baby later, Hinders found himself re-enlisting as a military police officer. But his plans didn’t stop there. “I knew then that I wanted to get involved with computers in a big way. I started getting my records straight, made sure things were in order so I could show prospective employers that I had some experience with computers.

“I kept imagining an interview where they’d say, ‘You played with guns in the Army, not computers.’ So I made certain that they could see I did have some experience. And then I started in on my MCSE.”

“When I had six months left in the Army, I started sending out both traditional and online résumés. I probably submitted about 1,000 [of them] before I found the company that was right for me. When I got back on U.S. soil, I had two interviews lined up the next day.”

And his family? “They weren’t surprised that I went into computers; they were surprised that I gave up 8.5 years towards retirement, especially my dad. He thinks I still should have toughed it out; but we look at my career now and it’s a different story.”

“Nervous.” That’s how Hinders sums up his first day working as an IT professional. “I was used to yes sir, no sir. This is what you’re going to wear and where you’re going to be. Now I had to make the decisions myself. I had to dig in the closet and dig out the suit. In the Army, everything was green—it all matched.”

In addition to his role as an administrator at Donet, Hinders helps other professionals on their way to an MCSE in his role as a Microsoft Certified Trainer. “I tell my students to focus on what they want their primary job to be. If they want to be an Exchange administrator, they have to know it all—know the nuggets others won’t.

“They’re going to go into an interview and the interviewer is going to ask those difficult, real-world scenarios, and they have to know the answer.”

Hinders offers this advice for those seeking to change careers: “Don’t be afraid; be weary, but don’t be afraid.”

An Internet Consultant

Mary Polley-Berte was down in the mouth for 10 years—as an orthodontic assistant. “I did like the job,” explains Polley-Berte, “but you get to a point where you question where to go from here—and the answer is nowhere.”

Polley-Berte recalls that as the years progressed, her fondness for the job started to sour. “Your days are filled with hating your job and thinking, this is it? This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my working career? And the answer was no—this is not enough. And that’s when I decided I needed to explore other career opportunities.”

Polley-Berte decided to enroll in community college classes and from there returned to school at Boston University for her technical training. “My husband was very supportive. He knew I wasn’t happy and was bored with my career; but I knew that if I really wanted to make a go of this, I needed to get some type of training.”

She continues, “Boston University called us career enhancers rather than career changers. And it’s true. I’ve had years as a working professional and I didn’t want to just discard all that experience—for what it was worth.”

What did prospective employers think of Polley-Berte’s experience, or lack thereof? “They knew what my background was, and I didn’t try to hide it. A headhunter called and said that they had a need for someone who had a programming background—mainly an entry-level position. It involved working with the Internet, and the salary was good, and I could work at home two days a week—which was a real value for me and my family.”

Although Polley-Berte hasn’t achieved her MCSE, it’s in her plans. She believes that just getting into the field and getting experience coupled with her own studying makes her more valuable to her employer and increases her self-worth. She offers this advice to other “career enhancers” on the verge of making the transition: Move now. Don’t wait, or you may regret it.

Polley-Berte sums up her current status: “I made a big change. I made a good decision. I’m earning more than I did previously, and I’m in a career field that offers more growth and improves my personal life. If you can feel fulfilled with the career choice you’ve made, what more can you ask for? If you can find that balance, to me, that’s success.”

Hands-on of a Different Flavor

Greg Frederick had a very cool job—in Antarctica. “I worked in warehousing for about three years and production control after that. Pretty basic stuff: moving boxes, receiving, pulling orders, doing inventory. It didn’t really have a future. You could only go so far—not to mention the learning curve was non-existent.”

A Denver-based government contractor had an opportunity for Frederick to do similar work in Antarctica. He spent a summer there and contemplated his future. “Pretty cold summer. When I was doing production control, I had some database experience. From that, I knew I wanted to get more into technology.”

When Frederick returned to the U.S., he enrolled in community college classes but wasn’t moving as quickly as he wanted to toward an MCSE. “I went into a six-month program with Ameriteach; their program is designed for folks who don’t have any, or very little, computer experience.”

Students are led through the core classes of the MCSE track, with two electives. The course also includes hands-on labs, building and designing a network, and support from the trainers and fellow students. “In class there were 16 people; half were in their 40s or so. There were people who had a full career and now wanted something different. We had people in sales, business, from traditional office environments without much computer experience. I think it was good to have a mixed class like this because everyone brought a different perspective into each situation. That alone helped my learning experience.”

As part of the program, students were ramped into internships with local businesses. Students thus got the hands-on, real-world experience employers crave, and the local businesses got educated, proven students to use at their discretion in IT departments.

Frederick’s internship, with Compnet, evolved into his present employment. By then Frederick had completed his MCSE, but things still were challenging, “I think it was kind of humbling. You passed the exams and then step into the real environment. There’s so much stuff out there. It keeps you involved; it keeps you learning.”

What advice does Greg Frederick offer to others contemplating this move? “The best way to get experience is get in there and just do it.” Sound familiar?

The Brutally Honest Stuff

They did it—can you? Of course, you can. But are your concerns the same as Dave Kyle’s? Is the market saturated? Are you out of luck as an MCSE with no experience? The answer is a resounding no—there’s always room at the top.

  1. First things first. Take inventory of your personal skills. What do you have that others don’t? Whether it’s years of financial analysis, years as a bank teller, or a human resources officer, your working past counts. Take that experience, combine it with your MCSE status, and leverage that package as an asset. It works.
  2. Next, get over the stigma of entry-level. Everyone has to start somewhere. Try this: commit yourself to excellence in that entry-level job. Learn all you can, can all you learn, and then move up or quit. That’s right. Get better, get smarter, then get gone.
  3. Then do it again and again and again—until you’re happy with the job you have. Quit whining, dig in, and get moving.

The big picture here is supply and demand. So here’s something to pack into your career arsenal: Learn something different. Learn something that others don’t know. Make it your niche, your goal to know more about a product than anyone around you wants to, and you’ll win in the long run.

In the Meantime

As you work towards your MCSE and while you’re still slaving away at your regular job, find ways to get experience now. Seek out the decision-makers for non-profit groups and volunteer your time as a computer guru. Tell your neighbors and friends if they have trouble with their computers, you’d be happy to help—in other words, get your hands dirty.

Press the flesh. Seek out user groups in your area and introduce yourself to as many people as you can. Listen to what they have to say, collect business cards, and then stay in touch with them. They’ll be able to tell you what their company is looking for—it might be someone just like you.

Form study groups with others who are moving toward their MCSE at the same time. (You have set a goal with a deadline, right?) Keep each other moving to pass the exams in tandem. Use peer pressure and a competitive drive to your benefit.

Everyone lives by selling something—and you’re now selling yourself, so act like a salesperson. Believe in the product; have confidence when presenting its benefits; and don’t give it away.

For all the Dave Kyles in the world, press on, regardless. If we can do it, so can you. See you at the top.

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