How many times have I heard this question: “Mr. C., what IT position pays the most?” The answer is more times than I can remember. Whether for the high school kids I taught for 12 years at Holmes High School in San Antonio, Texas, or for adults furthering their education or planning a career, IT salary is a driving motivator.
It’s a question I can understand, because it’s the same question that I asked almost 30 years ago when I decided to change the direction of my life. I wanted to be sure I was choosing a career path that was going to allow me to provide for my family, as well as make me feel like all my hard work meant something.
The beginning of any person’s journey into the IT field is both exciting and scary. Everyone wants to know the answers to the same basic questions: Am I making the right choice by entering this field? Will I be able to learn the skills needed to be successful?
When I was a teacher, reassuring students that they were both worthy and capable of forging a successful IT career was actually 75 percent of the job. I used to tell new teachers, “Show the students your passion and love for the subject matter, and it will become contagious.” When their instructor is passionate, students think, “How do I get some of that?” and “I want to feel that way.”
Once my students felt that confidence from me, the other 25 percent of my job was to get out of the way and let them realize they could learn, and that they were worthy to become a part of this wonderful field.
Mr. C’s IT pendulum
What I used to always drill into my students’ minds was, “You need to find your place.” My students would always say, “What does that mean Mr. C.?” And this is what I would tell them. In my opinion, there has never been a better time to enter the amazing (and expanding) IT ecosystem. No matter what your skills and aptitudes are, there is a place for you.
The amount of job roles and the range of different skill sets that now fall under the IT umbrella means there is a place in IT for everyone. I like to use a pendulum as an analogy for the span of choices. At the more right-brained end of the pendulum’s arc is the more creative and artistic side of IT. Designing web sites, photo editing, audio and video production, and technical writing all fall into this area.
The need for creatives in IT has never been higher. I remember when I first started visiting the internet: It was a sea of flat message boards with little or no images. Those days are long gone. Today, websites run the gamut from bare-bones minimalism to full-on multimedia heart attacks.
Current studies show that if your website can’t generate interest within 15 seconds, then the average person will leave. All major companies know this, which is why the need to find creative people who can drive engagement among website visitors is so important.
As our figurative pendulum swings toward the middle of its arc, we are getting more technical. The first more technical domain in my opinion is where you find administrators. The job titles here include system administrator and network administrator, network architect, telecommunications specialist, and more. These are people who are designing, implementing, and managing the infrastructure of a network.
The skills needed to succeed in this realm include the ability to design and implement anything from a small startup network to a large enterprise network. This area is very certification focused. Certifications from CompTIA, Cisco, Red Hat, Microsoft, and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are prevalent in this group.
As the pendulum swings a little more toward the left-brained end of its arc, we start to encounter cybersecurity roles. The job titles here will include security analyst, penetration tester, security engineer, security architect, and more. These individuals are responsible for keeping a network safe. They do this by constantly probing the network, looking for vulnerabilities, and making sure an organization’s staff is properly trained.
The work done by many individuals in these roles is often misunderstood. Many people think cybersecurity professionals focus mainly on hardening a network. In reality, however, most of their time is spent scanning networks for software or hardware vulnerabilities, which are then reported to administrators, who then implement the needed changes.
Moving a little deeper into the left-brained range of IT roles, we find database professionals. Job titles here include database developer, systems analyst, database administrator, SQL database administrator, data engineer, database architect, and more.
Many people don’t even consider database roles because they think that working with data sounds boring. That perception couldn’t be further from the truth. This sector of the IT world has become so important because of the analytics being generated from collecting massive amounts of data, which drives business decisions and customer retention.
If you ask any CEO what their company’s greatest asset is, most are likely to put their business and consumer data at the top of the list. Database professionals are the ones in charge of storing and organizing this invaluable asset, and also the ones who turn it into highly prized business intelligence.
Last — but not least — as our pendulum swings to it most technical extreme, are the coders. Job titles here include computer programmer, software engineer, application developer, software architect, programmer analyst, web developer, and more. These folks are responsible for designing and building software solutions for an organization and its customers.
Individuals who work in these roles are also constantly testing and maintaining software applications to make sure they stay secure and work properly. They are the ones who create new computer programs, customer interfaces, web APIs, operating systems, and computer games. They work closely with all the other job roles I’ve mentioned.
The IT ecosystem is growing
The placement of these roles on the arc of the IT pendulum is my personal opinion — this is what makes sense to me. (Your mileage may vary.) And to be honest, there are many job roles I haven’t included: There are opportunities for IT professionals in education, sales, project management, and more.
My advice is to really do your homework. What interests you? Where would you like to work? There is probably an IT job role that fits your individual parameters, and new job roles are constantly being developed. In fact, just the other day, I saw a job opening for a “user experience architect.” I’m not sure how long that title has been around, but it was new to me.
It’s also important to bear in mind that if you work in IT long enough, then your career will almost certainly encompass multiple job roles. I am a perfect example. I started my career as a manufacturing engineer, moved on to become a network administrator, moved on to become a high school IT instructor, and now I’m an IT curriculum designer at TestOut.
Did I plan for all these moves at the beginning of my career? No, I didn’t. In fact, most of my shifts from one job to the next have been unplanned. An opportunity would be presented to me, and I would make the jump.
One thing, however, has been consistent: I have never once in my 29-year career hated going to work.
Find your passion
It is now time to get back to the original question, “Mr. C., what IT position pays the most?” This issue of Certification Magazine is the highly anticipated Salary Survey issue. I think this issue is an important one, because knowing average pay rates for certified IT professionals is a useful guidepost.
Salary data can help a person who is new to the IT realm make an informed decision about their career path. Salary data can help an experienced IT professional determine whether his or her current salary is in line with other people’s compensation. So here is my official answer to the original question.
Instead of asking what IT position pays the most, and making decisions based solely on potential earning power, it’s important to take a broader view. What any aspiring or current IT professional should really ask is what job role is going to be the best fit for his or her passion.
Let me be clear: I have nothing against any person wanting to make a lot of money. Money is important, especially if you have a family to support. My only issue with making a lot of money is whether you are doing it in a job role you don’t much like, or even worse, one that you hate.
I have worked in IT a long time, and I have had countless conversations with people who do very well monetarily but hate going to work every day. And I will ask them, “Why don’t you make a change?” Their answer is almost always the same: “But the money is so good.”
What these people often don’t think clearly about is how this situation may be affecting their health, their happiness, and their overall well-being. No amount of money is worth waking up in the morning dreading your job, or any of the unfortunate impacts that follow along with that sense of drudgery.
So here is my final advice. Find your place in this amazing IT field based on your passion and what makes you happy. I promise you, the money will come. If you are good at what you do, and do your work with joy and passion, it will most certainly come. Be patient. That way, someday when you are looking back at a 29-year career, you will be able to say, “I never once hated going to work.”