Have you ever heard the saying “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”?

This is one of the most frustrating things about education. You sit there for hours and hours listening to people who do little else but talk, without knowing if they truly know what they are talking about.  

For real, there are just a few schools and institutions where professors actually have real world experience doing whatever they preach. And too often when they do, it was so many years in the past that it likely doesn’t even matter anymore.

People get a big fat slap in the face when they step out into the world and try to apply what they learned. In the case of college graduates, it’s amazing how fast they go from “I’m gonna take over the world” to “man, this entry level job sucks.”

Related: Secrets to obtaining 6 figure job offers from top tech companies within 2-4 years even if you have zero experience today! 

This is nowhere truer than in the IT industry. Every year, thousands of people realize that it doesn’t matter who they are or what their diploma says. As harsh as it may be for some, the reality is that the IT industry only cares about hands-on experience.

Now, before you jump on me, the industry also cares about certs, yes. But it is not for the reasons you might think. Entry-level certs are simply a filter used to narrow down large lists of applicants.

Sure, degrees and certs can help you get your foot in the door and even land an entry level role. But, from there it is the skills you have (soft and hard) and your understanding of the big picture of IT that will determine whether you succeed or not.

Just picture this scenario in your head: you’re a hiring manager for a renowned tech company. One of your tasks is to hire people with tons of potential and motivation that can add value to the organization for many years to come.

A candidate walks into your office and talks to you about current trends, the way the industry works, and answers questions confidently –even whiteboarding complex flow charts on the spot. He or she then proceeds to hand you a stack of papers and says the following “here’s a list of tasks that I can perform flawlessly on real world equipment. If you wish, I can show you right now. Oh and by the way, I was certified in-person on all of those skills by former Cisco Systems Engineers.”

No one in their right mind will question that person’s motivation. No one will question that person’s commitment to his or her personal development and career. The most skeptical people would simply ask the candidate to perform a few of the tasks on the list. But the effect will be the same (given that there’s no bluffing involved, of course).

At that point, a hiring manager from a company that truly appreciates those traits (which are the only ones you should be considering working for anyways) won’t even care if you have a Ph.D. in computer science (ok maybe he will but you get my point)!

If you can actually perform tasks with real-world equipment and walk to an interview with a list of things that you can do, you will catch the hiring manager’s attention regardless of if you have certs and/or a degree or not.

Not only that, but if you already had hands-on experience and confidence on what you were doing, and you played your cards well, you’d be able to differentiate yourself from the pack and get promoted faster than your peers.

The good news is that there’s no need to be in the industry for a million years to get the right kind of hands-on experience. After all, it is quality and not quantity that matters.

Hiring managers want to hire people who they know are passionate, motivated and have a desire to develop as a professional. You want to show hunger! Trust me, motivation and hustle are the most important things great companies look for.

That said, here are a few things you can do to gain hands-on experience:

Do things on your own

Equipment is upgraded so often that many companies, schools and sometimes even people give it away. Start tinkering with used devices. Way too often the best way to learn is to stop contemplating and take action!

Practicing on used equipment will give you the ability to learn and develop your skill set without the fear of breaking a company’s expensive property. Once you feel conformable using your own stuff, you’ll know you’re ready to move forward.

Here are a few things you can do on your own: 

  1. Build your own PC

This used to be a complicated process that required careful selection of several delicate parts. But, nowadays it’s pretty simple. There are clear standards of compatibility, straightforward choices for performance and value, and comprehensive guides that can walk you through the entire process. Just google “how to build your own PC” and pick the one you prefer.

  1. Carry out your own full stack networking project

A lot of experienced people will tell you that getting your hands dirty on projects will help you immensely. This is true. However, specifically carrying out a full stack networking project will set you off on the path to becoming a full stack network engineer, which is what companies are looking to add to their teams. You can carry out your own full stack networking project from start to finish going through this career blueprint program.

  1. Set up your own labs

Build a lab in your house! A home lab will likely show hiring managers that you’re passionate about IT and hungry for hands-on experience. There are some hiring managers that even ask about home labs when interviewing for more experienced positions because it shows a person’s desire to continue their education. Remember, the IT profession is all about self-motivation and self-discipline!

Volunteer your services

Small businesses and charities are generally open to receiving free help. You can enhance your skills and acquire new ones by offering them a hand. But not only that, you can also make connections with people who can help you out later on. It may not be by directly employing you, but they might know someone who knows someone. And if they don’t, they could simply endorse you on LinkedIn, which could help you out a lot too.

Non-IT people are often too lazy to look up solutions to technical problems so even if you don’t know how to do something, offer your help. You can just google whatever you need and try to figure it out as you go. After all, no one will be paying you so there’s no pressure (right?).

Here are a couple of things you could help with:

  1. Wifi issues  

Internet speeds and Wi-Fi technology have improved drastically over the past few years. But regardless of all the improvements, there are always issues to be fixed. Whether it is simply moving a wireless access point to a more centralized position or away from other devices that may be interfering with its signal, these kinds of tasks could help you build the bulk of your resume.

  1. Basic security

You don’t have to be an expert to help out with basic cyber security flaws. You can help a business set up or reset their network password, check if their servers and applications are up-to-date and make sure no one is using cookies to take advantage of their data. 

Going the extra mile to gain hands-on experience and build your resume can do wonders for your career, especially in the early stages. It will show hiring managers that you’re motivated and proactive, which are some of the best traits that an IT professional can aspire to have.

Get NexGenT Full Stack Network Certified

Like I said before, entry-level certs are just a filter to get past HR.

Think about it, if a position with a decent compensation package opens at a company, 200+ people might end up applying. Going through all of them would take a long time. Instead of doing so, companies cut people who don’t have any technical certifications so they can find the best candidate faster.

But, even after doing this they have no guarantee that the people left on the list have hands-on experience. After all, anyone could earn a CCNA or Network+ without having ever touched a piece of real equipment.  

The FSNA certification is the only entry/associate-level IT certification in the market that actually tests you on real world equipment – no written testing, just doing. It’s the best way of getting a technical certification and also getting a great deal of hands-on experience. Kill two birds with one shot!

To be eligible to attend the 5-day FSNA Certification boot camp, you must first complete the Full Stack Network Engineer Tech Degree course. This course will teach you everything from networking essentials to carrying out your own full stack networking project from start to finish. And the best part is that you get one on one live mentorship from some of the best engineers in the industry!

Freelancing and Internships

These are great ways of gaining critical hands-on experience that can translate directly into a promotion or breaking into the industry for the very first time.

In the case of freelancing, you can go to platforms such as Fiverr.com and offer IT services for a very low cost. Even if you don’t know how to do something you can always look it up. Remember, non-IT people are often too lazy too look up solutions to technical problems.

Internships can be challenging to land if you don’t have any technical certifications or a degree. But if you do, they can be a great way to build a solid skill set that can propel your career in the right direction. Don’t dwell on whether the internship is paid or unpaid. The important thing here is to learn as much as you can and then leverage your experience when you’re applying for jobs.

Traditional education can be very frustrating. Way too often, instructors don’t really know what’s going on in the real world. Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to change. Instead, think about how to make yourself valuable to companies and how to differentiate yourself from the pack.

Always keep in mind that the only thing that matters to employers is your ability to get something done. Hence, getting the right kind of hands-on experience should be one of your top priorities. Sure, you can keep troubleshooting and helping with minor things, but beware that these are good things to do if you’re just starting out and need to complement your resume. 

There are plenty of opportunities to gain hands-on experience and build a solid skill set that can translate into a well-paying job. However, keep in mind that breaking into IT is only the beginning. Once you do, you must avoid getting stuck in your entry-level job. In fact, you should strive to move up as fast as possible. To do this, you must have a well-designed career plan.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to get hands-on experience?

Comment below.