The IT business is a good source of employment. When times are good, companies are all trying to develop new, exciting ways to reach the mass market, and when times are bad, companies are trying to cut costs by automating. Either way, the technology needs people to create and operate it.

It’s no wonder then that there are a lot of people who start out in other professions and realize that they want to migrate from just being a user to becoming a technologist. So one of the most frequent questions I get asked by people who are studying technology at home is, “What should I learn first?”

My answer to this is: be bilingual first. That way, you’ll at least be able to compete in the current glutted job-seeker market. Once you have the bilingual skills, I guess the choice is up to your personality. If you are the creative but detail-oriented type, then obviously software development is a good direction to take. There are lots of software languages to learn, but there is a never-ending demand for Java, SQL (in its many variants), and Visual Basic/Visual C. The only problem is that learning languages at home means you don’t learn the core skills of a trained developer, and so you’ll probably wind up with a lot of bad habits that become hard to kick in a structured development environment.

If you’re creative but not so detail-oriented, there is a big need for Lotus Notes developers and Excel/Notes scripting people. Important here is that you learn the business vertical of the companies you’re trying to enter, and then the IT skills will come into natural demand.

If you’re a gadget-head, then networking is the way to go. The obvious first step up the ladder is to get your Microsoft MCP, and then the MCSE. After that you can go for the more advanced (and much more difficult) CISCO CCNA, CCNP, and CCNE certifications. If your Japanese reading/writing skills are good, you can also go for Japanese government qualifications, however, I’ve yet to meet a foreign company that really cares about these. I would also note that just getting certifications on paper without technical experience really doesn’t go over too well with employers. So if you’re a beginner, get yourself into any job that’s IT related while you study for your MCSE.

And if you’re not really technical but just dig the idea of helping people out and playing with cool PC toys, then a simple MCP rating coupled with a decent amount of Call Center experience should get you into the support team for most SI companies. Or you can take a more creative route and do Web site development, where the key technologies are HTML, Perl/PHP, JavaScript, Flash, and a few other bits and pieces.

Lastly, one good way to prove your skills while you are NOT with an SI company is to volunteer your skills and help maintain the system, software, or web site of a local (well known) community or club. I have personally hired people from outside the industry because they had the initiative to do something like this.