4 ways to jumpstart your career for less than $1,000

Flickr/David Blackwell

Is there anything better than putting on a jacket you haven’t worn in a while and discovering $20 in the pocket? Well, we’ve pushed that small pleasure up a notch and added a twist: If you suddenly had a spare $1,000, and wanted to put it toward furthering your professional aspirations, what would you spend it on?

We asked consultants, recruiters and IT professionals for advice on the best investments for reaching your career goals.

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1. Get yourself some technology

If you’d like to learn a new technology, don’t wait around for the right class; Matthew Moran, business/career coach, speaker and author of Building Your IT Career, suggests investing in an at-home technology environment that enables you to take a do-it-yourself approach.

This might include a laptop with a virtual environment for a server, a copy of Symantec system restore, and a few large external drives for saving your virtual environments and system images so you can play with technology safely. “It would all go toward boots-on-the-ground, work-with-tools, solve-actual-problems stuff,” he says. “You can download code, create an environment on your PC and learn new technologies,” he says.

Whether you choose to learn a mobile development toolkit, or a new language or framework, Moran suggests perusing the Web for related tutorials, communities and forums. YouTube is Moran’s go-to place when he’s trying out any new skill, including working on his car. “I’ve changed the alternator, done my brakes and replaced the fuel pump,” he says. “I had never worked on a car, but I just watched a video and jumped in and did it.”

Going a step further, he says, IT professionals could test out their newfound skills by finding a small business, nonprofit or volunteer organization that needs a project done. “Provide them with a tool that solves a small problem they’re having so you can use the technology in a tangible way,” he says. Getting that experience can help with future employment. “As powerful as a resume is, this would allow you to write up a few paragraphs on projects you’ve worked on, with the e-mails of people you worked with,” he says.

Certificates and classroom learning have their place, he says, but they’re often not enough. If you have a class that meets twice a week, plus a couple of hours of homework, that’s just six to eight hours of learning, while to really learn about something, it could take 20 hours a week. “The best technologists are those who geek out on stuff,” Moran says.

With prices for laptops, storage and restore software all coming down, it’s relatively easy to get set up for less than $1,000. Other low-cost options for building up your at-home environment include Chromebooks, virtual machines and open source software.

2. Take a business communications course

You may have great ideas, but if you’ve never had a formal business communications course, you may not realize that the way you convey them is holding you back. That’s why Debra Gesimondo, senior vice-president of strategy and architecture at NBCUniversal, recommends spending any extra career funds on learning to write and speak effectively. “In a world where people send three-letter acronyms through their cell phones, they may not realize that in business communications, proper grammar and correct sentence structures do matter,” she says.

Verbal communication skills include being situationally aware – understanding your audience, anticipating how they’re going to process information and tailoring your message accordingly – and knowing how to establish a connection with people through active listening. A good business communication course, Gismondo says, would highlight all those aspects.

Gismondo herself took a course as an undergraduate at Harvard. “It’s funny how foundational that was,” she says. “As I furthered my career, I needed to communicate with a variety of people – my boss, peers and even the CFO.” Particularly at the higher levels of the corporate hierarchy, Gismondo believes your ideas will go further when you communicate them efficiently. “It’s about having an executive presence – exhibiting maturity and confidence when you engage with certain stakeholders,” she says.

For example, a three-credit course at a community college could run anywhere from $300 to $900.

3. Take a public speaking course

Another way to boost your communication skills is through a public speaking course, such as Dale Carnegie, the National Speakers Association or Toastmasters, suggests Ken Piddington, CIO at MRE Consulting. “As technologists, our strength is not always communications,” he says. “We’re good at solving problems and making technology work, but we’re not always able to communicate, either to IT or other parts of the organization.” Likewise, he says, IT professionals are not always confident about speaking in front of an audience, whether it’s two people or 200.

Such courses not only help you communicate better, he says, but they can also boost your confidence and presence. Piddington took a Dale Carnegie course on presentations when he began reaching the CIO level of his career, which led to more courses on building your personal brand and others. “I knew I’d be out in front more, talking to the board, speaking at events and presenting my ideas,” he says.

Even for lower level positions, he says, these courses can help IT professionals improve one-to-one communications by learning to listen and effectively conveying the information that needs to be heard. “If you want to progress in your career, you need to get good at these things,” he says.

A three-hour Dale Carnegie course starts at $299. And joining Toastmasters runs $100 per year in membership fees.

4. Choose a certification or online class

There is always a place for certifications and classes; the trick, of course, is choosing wisely. The best choice depends on where you are in your career and your specialization. For instance, says Tyler Mikkelson, team lead at technology talent recruiter Mondo in Chicago, Salesforce.com certification is looked upon very highly by employers. “Companies are moving to Salesforce at a rapid pace, and they will need developers, administrators and architects,” he says. “If you’re already working with Salesforce and also have certification, it will push you to the front of the line.”  

If you’re more focused on networks, network security or have an infrastructure background, he says, Cisco certifications can give you a competitive edge, especially at the higher levels of certification. Others include a current PMP certification from Project Management Institute and Microsoft’s certifications, including SharePoint.

Obtaining any of these certifications shows you’re devoted to your work and want to expand your knowledge base. Even if you don’t get a pay increase, it will give you more leverage for positions that open up down the line.

As for online courses, Mikkelson suggests looking into mobile development, whether for IOS or Android. “Demand is so high, and supply is so low, these professionals have a lot of flexibility in what projects they’ll work on and where they work,” he says. Places to start include Codecademy and General Academy. Hot areas include data science, mobile development, user experience and information architecture, he says.

Certification tests cost between $200 and $600. If you choose to take a prep course, that could run you anywhere from $300 to $1,200.

One area that sources nix for career investment is resume writing. “Someone in your network should be able to help you with that,” Mikkelson says, “for free.”

Brandel is a freelance writer. She can be reached at marybrandel@verizon.net.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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