SAN MATEO (07/24/2000) - Thank you very much for the informative and entertaining Test Center Rx. I am a network manager and I've found your advice to be helpful and educational even when I disagreed with it. Now I am making a job change and I thought you might be able to help me.
I have been a networking guru for about 10 years. I started with IPX on coax Ethernet and NetWare servers, and these days, of course, I do a lot with IP and Windows NT. It's been a good career, but I am getting tired of it. I am thinking that I would like to do more work with application development, specifically databases. But I don't really know where to start or how to make the change. I make a good salary now, and I do not want to start over as an entry-level Visual Basic programmer.
Is there some middle ground? Can you recommend technologies that I should be learning, preferably [while I'm] still under the "network manager" umbrella?
Brooks: Well, that's a very big question, and I can tell you with confidence that I'm certainly the last person who should be giving anyone HR-esque career advice. But maybe I can help you with regard to the actual technologies and how you can morph your current job into one with a focus on an application development.
You're right, you don't want to start over as an entry-level programmer. That would be pretty terrible, both from a salary and an influence point of view. In my opinion, your best bet is to focus on bringing application development skills to your current job. You already have an advantage in your search for a new field: You're in the enviable position of understanding the low-level protocols and how computers and networks operate.
Very few applications these days are stand-alone, workstation-based applications. Everything is networked. This means that everything uses various protocols, from Ethernet to IP, on up the stack to object brokers such as CORBA or application-specific protocols. You're very well-prepared to start studying those.
From an actual development standpoint, databases are probably the place to start. I was a network manager in my previous life, and I know that there are all sorts of things that could benefit from a well-organized database.
From IP address assignments to patch-panel configurations, I'm willing to bet that you've got a bunch of stuff that exists either only on paper or is not documented at all. Start with that. Build an application and database and expand and care for it like any developer would.
Once you get some experience, you'll likely have to consider changing jobs, since I've found that "once a network manager, always a network manager" is the typical response in an organization. But when you do switch, you can emphasize your development skills and, I hope, make a lateral move into your newfound love.
Lori: Making a career change generally requires some additional training or experience, and the best place to gain that experience is in your current position.
Brooks makes a good suggestion about creating a database that is related to your current responsibilities. It is always easier to learn something when you have a compelling interest in the subject; a real-life situation makes the lesson easier to understand.
Depending on the kind of development you have in mind or the resources available to you, there are many technologies that may interest you. These include Java, XML, and Active Server Pages. Take advantage of whatever is available to you -- whether your real interests lie in SQL database or Web application development.
There are many training options over the Internet that you can choose at your convenience. During a recent study, I came across many useful sites that offer training specifically for IT professionals (see the Test Center Analysis on Web-based training).
Some of these training sites offer good-looking database development and programming courses; have a look at KnowledgeNet (www.knowledgenet.com) or DigitalThink (www.digitalthink.com). The cost for these courses can range from as little as US$50, from sites such as Headlight (www.headlight.com), to courses that cost into the thousands of dollars.
Depending on your budget, there is a course available to help you in your career change. By signing up for one of these self-paced courses, you will be able to apply what you learn directly to your current job and begin to strengthen those new skills. Good luck!
Brooks Talley is senior business and technology architect for InfoWorld.com.
Lori Mitchell is a senior analyst in the Test Center. Send your questions for them to email@example.com.