Jobs in information technology may be growing faster than just about any type of work in our increasingly all-digital-everything economy. However, newly-minted graduates from IT-degree programs learn quickly that they can never rest on their academic laurels.
"Constant learning is a given, and your survival depends on it," warns Vishwa Hassan, director of Data and Analytics at USAA, the financial services giant. "It is not just students, but it is career professionals, too," who need to keep up to date with new trends, he adds. "Given the pace, the technology and focus are changing in IT, what is in vogue the previous month may not be in this [one]."
For example, look no further than how the COVID-19 pandemic turbocharged the trend in working-from-home. Seemingly overnight, millions of people found themselves setting up home offices in the corner of a bedroom, on their kitchen tables, or even the couch. For IT workers who once repaired those laptops from the service desk of an office, there was a new challenge: servicing hardware remotely.
At the same time, the culture of work-from-home placed a new premium on "self-management, time management, and the ability to focus and defocus," said University of Phoenix’s Kevin Wilhelmsen.
As dean of the College of Business & Information Technology, Wilhelmsen has overseen an expansion of his college’s portfolio of programs and courses. That portfolio focuses on data science, cloud computing, SaaS (software as a service), programming, mobile, and cybersecurity, some of the economy’s fastest growing sectors.
It’s essential for the school to offer new classes to keep students prepared for the jobs and opportunities of the future. The move of everything into the "cloud," for example, poses countless new opportunities for software development, as well as new threats to data security. So do the portable devices we carry around in our pockets and backpacks.
Now, even the toaster ovens, light bulbs and security cameras at an office may hook up to the internet — what’s been called "the internet of things"—which creates new threats, challenges and capabilities for networked systems. Many major companies now employ "white-hat hackers" to test the security of their networks, and it’s their job to find the weak spots before criminal hackers do.
But even though there may be more jobs than ever in these fields — the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs in cybersecurity, for example, will grow by 30 percent between 2019-2029 — those jobs are landed by the type of worker who’s constantly ready to upskill.
"It’s not about ‘what you may know, as much as it’s about your aptitude to constantly learn and have a mindset of ‘can I learn it?’" Wilhelmsen said. "That is important to success."
Kristen Johnson, who’s in her first year of the cybersecurity degree at University of Phoenix, thinks she has what it takes to make it in the field, and she has the track record of resilience to prove it.
"We see it all the time — a breach in this company or that," she said over Zoom from her home in Greeneville, Tennessee in January. "It’s all over the world with different companies, and that’s definitely why I would like to go into cybersecurity." Johnson wants to "fight the bad."
Johnson was drawn to the course of study when she saw the relevance of skills like data security in her personal life, after falling victim to some of the common traps on the internet set by mischief makers and criminals.
There was the account someone kept trying to break into 10 years ago from a department store, the scam phone call about social security from the "IRS" and, more recently, the realization that the email address she uses for everything from her electricity company to her mobile gaming accounts had been changed without her knowledge.
Cybersecurity was once the type of job people thought required a lifelong devotion to programming and a penchant for hoodies, but Johnson — who works in customer service for a student loan provider and before that worked in restaurants and factories — represents the new belief that IT is a career for everyone.
Ten years ago, sort of by chance, she discovered her love of computers. Taking classes, she remembers her six-week computer course as "the only one that [she] really seemed excited to go to and really was very passionate about and cared about." Since then, Johnson has found technology remains a passion.
According to Matthew Rosenquist, chief information security officer at Eclipz.io, which specializes in cybersecurity solutions, Johnson has tons of new opportunities — but it won’t be easy.
For cybersecurity in particular, "it is the sheer complexity of technology, behaviors, and process of an intelligent adversary that drives the innovation," adds Rosenquist. "It is a high degree of ambiguity, stress, and the possibility of being ‘defeated.’ It can be overwhelming for many."
But given Johnson’s resilience, she already has a leg up. Last year, when she set out to start her degree, the pandemic had other plans. Johnson lost her job and her babysitters, which meant she had to postpone some classes. Her car was repossessed, and she struggles to work and study from home without the internet, which is unaffordable in her area.
"We have to travel to my dad's house," she said, "because he has the internet."
Still, Johnson has faith that her love of computers will eventually get her a job — possibly doing cybersecurity for a local bank or manufacturer— in a part of the country that’s not exactly known for its tech industry.
"My town, I love it. I grew up in it," she said. "I know there's a lot of opportunities here."
When she finds those opportunities, that’s really only the first step, according to UOPX’s Wilhelmsen. "How do you continue to stay relevant and anticipate the next change or innovation?" he asked.
The answer, of course, is to never stop learning.