Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Nobody wants to hire a 40-year-old IT virgin.

When in a job interview, here are a few things you should avoid saying:

  1. I don't know how to type.
  2. Fax machines are amazing.
  3. My VCR has been flashing 12:00 noon for years.
  4. We have dialup at home.

It's a minefield out there! Say the wrong thing, and you can expose yourself, rightly or wrongly as being hopelessly out-of-touch with technology. To wit:

  1. I read in the paper that my TV won't work anymore when the stations go digital.
  2. I print my emails to read them.
  3. I hear most people use the Internet for gambling and looking at porn.
  4. I've got a Walkman, somewhere.

My cell phone – you've got to have a cell phone today – is not an iPhone or a Blackberry. It is a geezer phone. It doesn't have all the latest features like email, a web browser, Bluetooth, an MP-3 player... It has a large, bright screen with a few big buttons. It is easy to use. And it has several features that are really useful for me without a lot of things I'll never use. It interoperates really well with the hearing aids I have. It has a radio that I can listen to as I am walking down the street. And it can make and receive calls over Wifi networks, so I can use it even when I don't have cell-phone coverage – like at the office and at home. So, unlike an iPhone or Blackberry, this phone is well suited to my needs.

I will grant you that my choice of a geezer phone is risky. Geezers are no more employable than IT-virgins. But at least I look like a geezer who gets IT. Hopefully, those two impressions offset each other.

What are the issues with IT that employers are concerned about? They want to know if you have the IT knowledge and skills to be effective and productive in their organization without a lot of training and support. They don't want to have to spend money on you beyond your salary. They don't want to have to change their business processes or their culture to accommodate you.

A slip of the tongue can kill you at any point in the interview process. But, assuming that you can avoid inadvertent slip-ups, at some point in the process with a prospective employer, someone is going to ask you questions in order to gauge your IT knowledge. You may even have to take a skills test!

There are three topics you need to be prepared to speak intelligently about to avoid any notion that you are unqualified IT-wise for a specific job. What you should say will depend to some extent on what the job is, the organization, who you are talking to, and your IT knowledge and skills.

The right answer if you are talking to the CIO will be different from the right answer if you are talking to the CEO. A CEO might be impressed by your Blackberry. A CIO probably won't be impressed.

1.  What hardware are you accustomed to working with?

  • If I was answering this question, I'd say I have worked with all different types of hardware. I believe in using the right tool for the job. If I need to make a PowerPoint presentation somewhere I'll take a laptop and a projector. Or I'll put my presentation on a USB key and use the equipment that is there. I prefer to travel light if I can. I get more work done on airplanes using a pen and paper than I can with a big laptop. I travel coach.
  • I prefer to have a desktop PC for my primary computer. I want a large monitor; two of them if I can so I can have lots of applications open at the same time and be more productive.
    • I've taken a literal approach to this topic. Mac vs. PC is a question of operating systems, meaning software, not hardware. Laptop vs. desktop is a hardware question.

2.  What software packages are you familiar with? What level of expertise do you have with each of these packages?

  • Again, my answer would be that I am expert user of Microsoft Windows XP-Pro. I also know Microsoft local area networking, both peer-to-peer networks called work groups and client-server networks called domains. I know how to customize my desktop, add and remove applications and update and patch programs. I know how to troubleshoot and resolve computer and network problems.
    • That answer addresses the computer and networking infrastructure piece of the software pie.
  • I am an expert user of Microsoft Office 2003. I am talking about Word, Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint and Access. You may or may not need to know about Publisher, Front Page, Visio and other applications that appear in different flavors of Office.
  • I know how to create decision support systems in Excel and Access. I know how to create big documents in Word working collaboratively with a team, using tables, graphs, footnotes, a Table Contents, and consistent styles throughout. Spell-checked too. I know how to make Oscar-winning multimedia PowerPoint presentations.
  • I know how to use several other specialized business applications, too; Photoshop, QuickBooks, Microsoft Project and Visio to name a few.
  • At home, I've got Windows Vista Ultimate and Office 2007. I've gotten pretty far down the learning curve with Vista and Office 2007.
    • At some point, Vista will replace XP. Rapid change is constant in IT. Employers hate to pay for training.

3.  What do you know about the Internet? This is a big question. It is easy to get lost in the weeds. Don’t get bogged down describing the architecture, ownership or governance of the Internet. Don’t wax poetic about the convergence of voice, data and entertainment. There is not enough time for that in an interview. The essence of the issue is what do you know about email and the Web?

  • Email is the original killer application of the Internet. A network of email servers around the world store and forward each email message from the sender to the addressee. Senders and recipients use a software client like Outlook or Outlook Express or a webmail client like Horde, Hotmail or Gmail or an email appliance like Blackberry.
    • Email communication is quick, and it costs virtually nothing.
    • Email is unencrypted and can be/is read at various points on its journey. Do not assume that email communications are private.
    • Email is an essential business tool.
    • But, around 90% of all email is SPAM, which is unwanted, annoying email.
  • The World Wide Web is a network of web servers around the globe that store web pages and responds to requests for web pages from Web browsers.
    • Internet Explorer and Firefox are the two main browsers. I prefer Firefox, because it is more secure and with Ad-Block Plus, I can avoid the distractions and threats associated with online advertising.
    • By virtue of cookies and other technologies, it is possible to know what web sites individuals have visited. It is not safe to assume that one is completely anonymous when online.
  • There is an enormous amount of information on the Web which is freely available, generally speaking. Finding what you want depends on knowing where to look and knowing how to formulate queries.
    • Most Web searches start with Google.
  • The dark side of the Internet is a big problem.
    • SPAM costs businesses billions of dollars in term of expenditures for SPAM filtering software and lost productivity.
    • Malicious software, viruses and hacker attacks also cost businesses dearly in terms of anti-virus software, firewalls, recovery costs (if/when systems are damaged), public relations and lost productivity.
    • Inappropriate use of the Internet by employees can lead to computer crashes, data loss, network failures, the release of confidential information, lawsuits and criminal charges against the employees, the organization and its executives.
  • Most organizations have policies and procedures for employees to follow designed to protect the organization's data and systems from Internet threats.
    • Don't open emails from persons you don't know or which you are not expecting.
    • Don't write anything in an email message you would be uncomfortable seeing published under your byline on the home page of the WashingtonPost.com.
    • Do not install applications on your company's computer without the approval of the IT department. No iTunes, no Instant Messenger, no file sharing software...
    • Store documents or files only on the network file server where they can be backed up and searched.
    • Internet usage for personal purposes shall not be abused. No YouTube, no Desperate Housewives, no pornography, no gambling...
    • Laptops and smart phones have another layer of issues which I am not going to go into. Plan to pledge allegiance to each and every one of the IT policies and procedures of a prospective employer.

Okay, let's recap. There are three topics you need to be prepared to speak intelligently about to dispel any notion that you are a 40-year-old IT virgin.

  1. What hardware are you proficient with?
  2. What software packages do you know?
  3. Can you use the Internet?

Your answers to these questions should not be mine. You need to assess the gaps in your knowledge and skills relative to the requirements of the positions you are seeking. Easier said than done. And IT skills and knowledge cannot be acquired over night. So hopefully, there is not a lot of ground you need to make up. If there is, 'making it up' may be the only option for you, and I don't advocate that.

For most of you, everything you want or need to know can be found on the Internet. For example, there are Microsoft Office tutorials to help you with advanced features of Excel or Outlook. Wikipedia has buckets of information about the Internet. The Toastmasters web site can help you locate a club where you can perfect a 5-7 minute spiel on what a geek you are.

Are there any questions?

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