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Acquiring IT Skills and Knowledge - College / University degree - Formal Education

For the IT professional, knowledge is a necessity not an option. The true IT professional is a knowledge worker. Information Technology is nothing without knowledge. The question is always: how should you acquire tech knowledge and skills that you need in the IT profession?


Though a vast array of opportunities exist, this piece will look at the formal education route. Whichever option you choose, the first thing to do is an honest self-assessment. Identify your knowledge/skills gaps. Do you already have some professional IT skills and knowledge, maybe acquired through work experience or self-study? What is available to help you close the gaps? What are your career objectives? Review trends in the job market, technology trends and your future needs.

Again Review your knowledge / skills status. Choosing your learning option is an integral part of career planning (http://www.jidaw.com/careerplan.html).


There are many educational routes for growing IT careers, including certificate courses, degree programs, certification programs, work experience, a host of web/computer-based programs and Self-Learning or what I call “Do-IT-Yourself”.

Whichever option you choose, be ready to invest resources - Time, Money and Effort. Invest with your career goals in mind. Having the right mindset will help you. You're investing for future career benefits. Don't look at your investment simply in terms of money you're spending now, or immediate results.


What should you consider to achieve your IT education in a traditional college/university setting? 


Formal Education

Traditionally those interested in developing IT careers have benefited greatly by investing in college / university degree education. Often the exact name of the degree varies greatly from institution to institution. However, the traditional degree programs useful for the Information Technology field involves adaptations on any of the following:

Computer Science, Information Technology, Electrical/Electronic Engineering, Information Systems, Telecommunications and Computer Engineering.

Formal education broadens the mind and exposes you to a wide spectrum of concepts -theoretical and practical. It focuses on the chosen subject by providing in-depth education on a broad range of materials. When you acquire knowledge from an academic environment such as a polytechnic, college or university, you are challenged with academic theories, experimentation, research and a broad knowledge of technology. 



For many jobs a degree can be an initial requirement. Degrees from reputable higher institutions are valid and well recognized. Quite a few employers still prefer to hire persons with some formal higher education.  Some employers may not even consider you at all without a formal education. Others also offer Graduate entry schemes, which as the name implies are only open to degree holders.

Commonly such arrangements are done to limit the number of applicants for a particular job.  So do you need a degree to get jobs in IT? You need to realize that just as there is opportunity in IT, there is also intense competition. However, not all IT jobs require such a formal education background. There are many people working in the IT industry who don't have university degrees. A degree may confer advantage on the holder, but it isn't essential for all technical positions.

A lot depends upon the type of position you are seeking, your background and the nature of the organization. There is no general rule. No two organizations are the same. The perceptions and requirements of company A will differ from those of company B. For example, opportunities in an organization might require a degree as well as specific interpersonal skills. Also for certain entry-level jobs, companies, especially small organizations, tend to value specific experience and skills over a university degree.

You must understand what university degree can and cannot do. University education should be seen for what it is. A relevant qualification will always give you a boost in job situations. A degree demonstrates your ability to learn diverse information, as well as your general learning ability. A degree on its own is of little value without the ability to market and package yourself. And though your degree may help you with jobs, it is your performance and attitude that will determine if you will keep the jobs and advance.

Though a degree isn't essential for all entry-level jobs, it is often a requirement for high-level opportunities. If the position is for a high-level consultant, manager or above, the requirement for, and the value of, a degree goes up significantly.

The reality is that solid technical experience will give you opportunities, but a lack of a formal education may hinder your opportunities for growth and high-level attainment. This is true of most professions.

Also you should expect, that as more people get degrees and experience, there will be increased competition for jobs and career opportunities.

I always advise that, if you have no university education and even if you have no immediate plans for university education, you should consider it as you grow in IT.


Academic Performance

Furthermore, when you invest in academics to assist you in your career, make sure you work hard to get good grades. Excellent academic performance is a very powerful asset that works for you after graduation.


Non tech Opportunities - Networking

But degrees aren't just about good grades and passing exams. The great advantage of formal education is the huge opportunity for personal networking. To grow your career as an IT professional, you should have a personal network of friends, colleagues and contacts. While you're a student networking opportunities abound simply because you interact with fellow students, college staff and lecturers on campus on a daily basis. You should therefore adopt the right attitude by networking right from college.

Don't burn bridges you may need tomorrow. Build bridges with your fellow students, as well as lecturers. With the intense competition for opportunity in the IT industry, a reliable network will certainly come in handy. Formal education enables to gradually build your own personal network of individuals that you can rely on for advice, job leads, technical assistance and other helpful forms of support in future.

In addition to networking, academic programs also allow you to develop your verbal and written communications skills as well as organizational skills. Of course such soft skills are critical for growth in the IT field. And the university learning arrangement is certainly fertile ground for growing such skills.


Creative Solutions

Do you have the time, money and background to embark on a lengthy academic program? Most academic programs are run full time. Such courses therefore leave you with little time for work and other activities. This is a problem for individuals who need to work for a living. Such individuals need to work to fund their education. Also flexibility in terms of venue for studies can be a problem. Do you need, are you ready, to relocate?

Many institutions have however become more flexible by organizing part time degree programs with evening and or weekend classes for workers. E-learning degree programs on the Internet are also becoming more commonplace.

Funding is another problem encountered by some who want to use the formal education route to acquire IT knowledge. Creative solutions are required on your part. If you can get on a part time degree program, a job in computing could fund a university education.

For example, if you're able to get a job through certification, training and your personal efforts, you can then progress with your degree program on a part time basis. Creativity is key as there are no silver bullets. Focus on open doors. What opportunities and resources are available to you?



Is formal education perfect? Formal education is meant to give you a foundation for future opportunities in the academic/research environment, as well as industry - the business setting. However, it is worrying that while many academic programs give you a good grounding in academics and research, the programs lack a solid workplace / business focus. This is okay if your interest in IT is research. But many students who will work in industry are left unprepared to deal with the needs of the business environment -commercial, social or educational. Most organizations want people who are ready to work from day one.

Universities and other similar institutions attempt to address this deficiency by building industrial programs and internships into their degree programs. During such periods of internship, students get exposed to working life and experience, where they gain some hands-on skills. The result is a better perspective of what to expect in the workplace after graduation.

But it is arguable whether such IT attachment programs are enough. Students should therefore not be complacent by continually waiting to be spoon-fed. As a student, in addition to attachment programs organized by your institution, you need to make your own arrangements for practical work experiences. You can always create opportunities to get work experience through vacation jobs, volunteering or hands-on training during holiday periods. Go the extra mile to look for opportunity. Creativity may cost you. But be creative! Sacrifice if you have to and be ready to accept the conditions that often come with opportunity.


Certification, Lifelong, etc

Which should I chose certification or degree? Certification is a different animal entirely. Although degrees are said to have much longer-term value than certifications, comparing degrees with certifications is like comparing oranges with apples. They are both valid routes for acquiring IT education, but with different focus and concepts. Read more about Certification here (http://www.jidaw.com/certfaq.html).

And please don't be fooled by the “longer term” value of degrees. To become the IT powerhouse you need to embrace lifelong learning. It is impossible for a degree program to sustain you throughout your working career. The fact that you have a degree does not eliminate the need for training, certification, or self-study. Before, During and After your degree - review trends and your career needs.

I have just looked at one of the ways of acquiring an IT education. Other routes are Certification, Training, Hands-On Experience and Self-Learning. Degrees work, so do these other options. Knowledge drives the revolution! Formal or informal education? The key is in taking informed decisions about what best suits your need and situation.

All the best in your IT Career,

  Jide Awe


Jide Awe is the Founder of Jidaw.com (http://www.jidaw.com) 

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