Salary Survey Extra: The most effective way to prepare for a career in IT
Posted on
August 24, 2023

Salary Survey Extra is a series of periodic dispatches that give added insight into the findings of our most recent Salary Survey. These posts contain previously unpublished Salary Survey data.


There are different ways to prepare for a career in IT. Which one is best?

Several centuries before Robert Frost debated which path to follow at a forest crossing, the Scottish folk song "The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond" envisioned a similar dilemma. A romantic ballad, "Bonnie Banks" expresses the viewpoint of a strapping Scottish highlander who challenges a comrade, "O, ye'll take the high road, and I'll take the low road, and I'll be in Scotland afore ye."

The image of a high road and a low road both leading to the beloved shores of Loch Lomond has so thoroughly outlasted the song's origins β€” tradition links it to the 1745 rebellion of Charles Edward Stuart, a.k.a. "Bonnie Prince Charlie," against the English crown β€” that many modern listeners picture a setting essentially akin to that of Frost's "The Road Not Taken."

Most period scholarship agrees, however, that the singer and his friend are captured soldiers, one to be executed and one to be set free. The "low road" refers to the fate of the prisoner scheduled to die, while the "high road" metaphorically expresses the homeward odyssey of the freed companion.

It's sort of the same way with professional IT careers. Not in the sense that some IT professionals are executed while others are set free, of course. No, we're back to thinking about the modern reading of the song that envisions multiple routes leading to a common destination. No two IT career paths are identical, in other words.

There is no one ideal mold from which every successful IT career must be (or, indeed, has been) struck. Most people end up hitting a lot of the same benchmarks on the path to professional success, but there are no rules that everyone, without exception, must follow.

If there's no one magic formula, however, there are likely some career preparation and career building options that will provide a more effective foundation of IT knowledge and skills than others. We asked that question of the thousands of certified IT professionals who participated in our annual Salary Survey, to find out which methods of job preparation they would recommend.

Each survey respondent rated the effectiveness, based on personal experience, of five primary means of preparing to work full-time in IT. The number indicates the percentage of all individuals surveyed who ranked each mode of learning and development at each given level of effectiveness. Here's what we learned:

Q: How effective were the following methods at preparing you to succeed in a professional IT job role?

College education
Extremely effective β€” 17.2 percent
Very effective β€” 25.2 percent
Effective β€” 29 percent
Somewhat effective β€” 15.5 percent
Not very effective β€” 8.5 percent
Does Not Apply β€” 4.6 percent

Extremely effective β€” 23.1 percent
Very effective β€” 35.5 percent
Effective β€” 26.2 percent
Somewhat effective β€” 10.3 percent
Not very effective β€” 3.4 percent
Does Not Apply β€” 1.5 percent

Self-instruction/Learn by doing
Extremely effective β€” 35.2 percent
Very effective β€” 30.7 percent
Effective β€” 19.7 percent
Somewhat effective β€” 9.3 percent
Not very effective β€” 3.6 percent
Does Not Apply β€” 1.6 percent

Specialized technical training provider
Extremely effective β€” 19.8 percent
Very effective β€” 32.1 percent
Effective β€” 24.7 percent
Somewhat effective β€” 12.3 percent
Not very effective β€” 4.1 percent
Does Not Apply β€” 7 percent

Workplace training
Extremely effective β€” 23 percent
Very effective β€” 32.1 percent
Effective β€” 24.1 percent
Somewhat effectiveβ€” 12.5 percent
Not very effective β€” 5.1 percent
Does Not Apply β€” 3.2 percent

One key observation about this data is that nearly everyone who participated in the survey has firsthand experience with each of these approaches to preparing for a career in IT. The highest mark for "Does Not Apply" is the 7 percent of those surveyed who have no experience with courses or other instruction from a "specialized technical training provider." Most certified IT professionals, in other words, try at least a little bit of everything.

The lowest score for both "extremely effective" and "very effective" belongs to getting a college education. So there's definitely some side-eye when it come to rating the importance of attending college and pursuing a degree. On the other hand, roughly 88 percent of all survey participants hold some level of college degree. So maybe don't take this to mean that you can or should forego the higher education realm altogether.

Certification has strong numbers more or less across the board, which is what you might expect from a survey of IT professionals who all have at least one current IT certification.

The strongest recommendation is given to the "I figured this stuff out myself" approach. If you think the best way to prepare for a career in IT is to either learn by doing or dig through self-study materials like books and videos, then you agree with the Salary Survey crowd. Even direct workplace training doesn't get as much overall approval as self-study/learn by doing.

Each of the categories has its true believers, of course. So if something seems like it would be extremely effective for you, then that solution probably will, in fact, serve you well. Just remember not to get too fixated on a single method. If one approach isn't working for you, try something else β€” almost everyone who took the survey has tried more than just one thing.


About the Author

Certification Magazine was launched in 1999 and remained in print until mid-2008. Publication was restarted on a quarterly basis in February 2014. Subscribe to CertMag here.

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