The ability to think critically and learn quickly are important to success in almost any field.

But in information technology (IT), hands-on experience is particularly vital. When things go haywire with a server or a software glitch halts business across an enterprise, your past encounters with problem-solving are often the best predictor of your ability to solve the current issue.

Employers like to hire workers with education and experience. So how do you get the experience that will set you apart from others in the field? It starts with the right setup, says Capella Information Technology faculty member David Teneyuca. To land the kind of experience you need and want, consider these tips.

Showcase your soft skills.

Technology changes rapidly, so learning the latest programming language or following the hottest development trend may indeed give you a short-term edge. In the long term, however, your success will likely hinge on your ability to lead a team, hire top talent, and communicate clearly with busy executives. This is where soft skills come into play.

“If you want to advance your career, you have to show that you’re more than just a zeros and 1s, bits and bytes kind of person,” Teneyuca says. “You need to show that you have a grasp of the company’s work as a whole. You need to be able to explain IT problems and priorities to coworkers who don’t necessarily know much about IT.”

Look for opportunities everywhere.

“There’s no substitute for hands-on experience,” Teneyuca says. He suggests finding IT work and internship opportunities by joining associations and organizations that are respected in your industry. Spread the word that you’re looking to participate in real-world IT projects and follow up on any leads you get—no matter how tenuous. If the current opportunity isn’t a good fit, maybe the next one will be.

“Keep your ears and eyes open,” Teneyuca says. “Most people get jobs not because they found them online but because of word of mouth.”

Locate school-related opportunities.

You may not have to look very far to find IT experience. Your school or university may have opportunities. Who runs the IT department? Are there special projects that students could do for individual departments? Is someone on leave, resulting in a need for more hands on deck?

“While you’re a student, investigate opportunities within school itself,” Teneyuca says. If you find something that interests you, lobby to get the job. “You’ve got to put your marketing hat on and sell yourself,” Teneyuca adds.

Find a mentor or a sponsor.

Finding a mentor can take some time. But cultivating connections in the ranks above your station will increase your odds of landing a solid experiential gig. Find someone at a high management level that can help promote you and can speak on your behalf.

“Your sponsor can go to bat for you when you need something,” Teneyuca says. “They may also have relationships across the organization that could help you cross over into another department and find opportunities.”

Learn more about Capella’s online information technology programs.

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