Pawel
How I went from Internship to making figure salary


If you are just starting your career or you are in college, trying to figure out which path to take, this may help. My road to current salary in InfoSec was long and windy, but yours doesn’t have to be. Imagine yourself driving down the road, for the first time, hitting potholes and missing stop signs hidden behind untrimmed tree branches, going over the speed limits and getting pulled over, paying the speeding and not stopping at the stop sign tickets. Needing to repair broken suspension and flat tires. Imagine if you knew where the potholes are, where the hidden stop sign is and where is the speed trap police cruiser is hiding. Wouldn’t you want to know?? I sure as hell would. Well, I went down this road and I am willing to spill the beans and tell you about all the things I saw and endured. Let me take you on a ride, going back to 2002… strap in this will be a bumpy ride.

2002 was the year I graduated high school, a Forestry Technical High School in Poland. If you are thinking, this dude wants me to be a Forester, I’m outta here… wait! I was a network and domain administrator before I even graduated high school. After graduation, I took a job as a system administrator at local forestry management office. I managed HP Unix, mainframe type server with a bunch of dumb terminals and few PCs with emulator client on them. This job didn’t pay me well, but taught me about Unix systems, backups and this is where I had my first troubleshooting adventures.

Tips:

1. Learn as much as possible from a job, even if it’s a temporary position, contract or a side gig.

2. Observe, senior employees and learn from them. They got to the where they are not by chance, observe and learn from them.

3. Volunteer for after-hours projects, projects you know nothing about and just about anything. You stand to gain new experience, your bosses and coworkers will know you are hardworking and they can rely on you.

4. Keep a journal. Note your tasks and hours (time) spend. Not only this will allow you to see what you got done every day, but will give you a historic view of what your focus was.

I had this job for a couple of years until I moved to the United States in 2005.

Of course, my degree and experience did not qualify me to take a job in IT here in US, so I took a job at dry cleaners. This was a major detour in my IT career, but I was able to utilize this job to learn the hell out: of client interactions, customer service, employee management, scheduling, supply chain management and how to dry clean clothes (this skill is totally unusable now, oh well). ($30K)

Tips:

5. Customer service is a form of art and you won’t get good at it without practice. Knowing how to resolve issues and make customers happy will serve you well along the way. If you think of it, we solve customer service issues every day, even if the customer is your spouse, kids, your boss, coworker, client or dare I say, Yourself.

6. Make connections, networking is the best way to get a new job, and get paid more. Even if you are brilliant and hardworking individual, you won’t get far if nobody knows about it.

Next was my Internship, my first real job in IT at a real corporation, with real manager and real computers to fix. The pay was low, but I made just as much as a manager at the cleaners, so there was that! At this internship I was exposed to networking, OS builds, OS hardening, log management, imaging and mass OS deployment, VPN, databases, Linux, Oracle applications and other. Most importantly, I made connections. Many connections. My company employed just over 200 people, who became my first 200 connections on LinkedIn. One of these connections had a friend who was an IT Director, this allowed me to get an interview and eventually a job. As of this writing, it’s been 11 years since I had this job and my old boss contacted me yesterday with a potential job in InfoSec. 11 years is a long time, if you make the right impression, people will remember you. ($36K)

Six months after I started the internship, the company went through turmoil after a failed product launch and I was laid off along with 80% of the staff. Following six months was the hardest time of my life. I had no job, no place to stay and I still needed to pay for the car I just bought. This was early 2009, entire country was down in the dumps, and nobody was hiring, nobody! I went through a series of short term contracts that sometimes lasted a day. Eventually I landed a job at the place where a friend of a friend was the IT director.

Tips:

7. Contracting can be hard because you never know when the next gig will be but take advantage of the unstructured time.

8. If I had to go through it again, I’d definitely drive for Lyft when not working to make those car payments. Back in 2009, Lyft/Uber didn’t exist.

9. Make contacts at every place you contract. See tip #6. Networking is everything!

My next job was in helpdesk support. The place was pretty much as close to the movie “Office space” as it gets. Management was short sighted, employees neglected, overworked and underpaid. However, I made the best of it by applying tips 1–6. I learned more about networking, Active Directory, VMware, backup and recovery technologies, more about imaging and OS deployment and definitely more about customer service and how to make end users happy. Halfway through I also got promoted from desktop support to systems support engineer, which came with small raise, but elevated my asking price and position for my next job. ($42–47K)

Tips:

10. Always look ahead and work as if you were in your next position already. When I was in desktop support, I got myself involved in systems engineering projects.

11. Always ask your manager if there’s anything you can take off his/hers plate.

12. Ask to be involved in projects beyond your current capacity, but within your interests and roadmap.

I left this job after a recruiter contacted me over LinkedIn. Next stop, managed services provider! I highly recommend working for a MSP early in your career for few reasons. It will expose you to many more technologies and solutions than any in-house IT department could. I managed 30 clients, ranging from 2 person law firm to large international biotech company. On top of that I learned first things about project management, large client relationship management and how to deal with software vendors. I was able to apply tips 1–6 and 10–12 along the way. At the point where I realized the place was going down and there was no chance for a promotion, I started looking for a new job. At this point, I my daughter was 4 months old, so I needed something stable with good benefits, so off I went to LinkedIn and started a search. ($60–65K)

Tips:

13. Observe corporate culture to uncover any signs of decline. Get out when you see “writing on the wall”.

14. Leverage LinkedIn. Follow thought leaders in your area of interest. Maybe even write an article. LinkedIn is an amazing platform that can not only get you your new job but where you can expand your horizons and knowledge.

History likes to repeat itself. Just like last time, a recruiter contacted me via LinkedIn about a job at an insurance company, a contract no less. He called me as I was reading his email, I picked up. I politely told him I wasn’t interested in contracting because I had a 4 month old baby at home and needed health insurance. On top of that I wasn’t so sure about working for an insurance company, knowing how much of scum bags insurance companies can be. He assured me this company was one of the good ones and he’d talk them out the contract, into a full time hire. He kept his word. I was hired as a systems engineer, but quickly realized there was a void in disaster recovery space. Disaster recovery work led me to compliance and risk management, incident response and vulnerability management. I greatly expanded my knowledge since the day one. I love what I do and I can really say that I get up every morning and drive to work happy. At my current job I was able to apply all the lessons I learned along the way. ($85–100K)

Tips:

15. If your company offers training, take it! Find out what training is relevant to your current (and next) job and learn as much as you can.

16. Find out if your company sends employees to conferences. Conferences are excellent for networking and learning. You get to hear from people on top of their game in your industry. Nice bonus is that the conference organizers usually bring at least one motivational speaker from outside of the industry, think Nicole Malachowski, Lewis Pugh, Alex Hannold and others.

17. Salary negotiation is huge, and nobody is talking about it. The truth is that in order to make a big jump, 20–30%, you will have to take switch companies. Most companies will offer 10% maximum at the time of promotion, even if it’s a big promotion. Year after year salary increases usually range 2–5%.

18. I used to think you have to be in current position for 5–8 years before moving up, wrong! If you are good at it and you were following Tip#10 you will be ready for switch in 2 years.

19. Do not sell yourself short. Work with a reputable recruiter if you are seriously looking for a new job. Yes, they exist!

20. Final Tip. Read as much as you can, take training as often as possible and find a mentor if you can. Otherwise, setup one-on-one with your manager to make sure you are on track to your next job.

Good luck and have fun along the way. It took me 10 years to get from an internship to making six-figures, mileage may vary! Keep in mind that I didn’t grow up in US and English is not my native language. If you went to college here you have a leg up, if you were born here, you have another big advantage. If you read this article, you just might have saved yourself few years of working for minimum salary!!



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