Blue-Collar IT: working in IT without a degree

Yes, it’s possible to get a decently-paying job in IT without a degree, certifications, or even learning how to code. There are a ton of positives, but there are some downsides that come with it.

Just thought I’d outline here what it’s been like to work in IT without a degree, what I like to refer to as “blue-collar IT”. Also ~ I thought I’d share the perspective of a woman working in blue-collar IT, along with my experience working while going to school… but I decided to break it up into a few posts so I could give each topic the full amount of attention that they deserve!

BLUE-COLLAR IT | a concept

I just looked up the term “blue-collar IT” to see if I could find anything about the industry, but I couldn’t find anything that used the exact term. Just definitions of blue-collar and white-collar jobs. It’s not an established term, but I’ve used it with my coworkers and others who work in the same line of work, and it feels like an apt description of our job.

From Wikipedia, a blue-collar worker is a “working class person who does manual labour” and “blue-collar work often involves something being physically built or maintained.”.

The job description I currently have on my resume and my LinkedIn page under IBM Tier III Datacenter Technician is:

“Rack, build, cable, configure, and provision servers for customers of IBM Cloud. Troubleshoot, test,and perform quality assurance of server hardware. Create tickets within the internal ticketing system to address problems, incidents and changes of hardware, along with resolve hardware issues via the same ticketing system. Install, test, and label network cables and fiber per site protocols. Basic knowledge in Windows and Linux Operating Systems.”

This could be summed up by one sentence – “I build and maintain servers“. Put the two together and the term “blue-collar IT” suddenly makes sense.

notice the blue collar… fitting, eh?

MY EXPERIENCE WORKING FOR IBM | it’s been nearly two years

I’ve been working as a Datacenter Technician with IBM since December 2017 and I progressed up to the highest tier of DC tech rather quickly, passing the Tier III test in September of last year (within 10 months)!

It’s been a great opportunity to work at IBM, as I’ve been trained from the ground up in a career field I never previously considered for myself (datacenter technician is an entry-level job, requiring only a high school diploma or a G.E.D.) — and I’m finding that I really enjoy many aspects of working in IT, specifically the endless opportunities to learn new things.

Coming from a half-Asian household (i.e. I was raised by a tiger mom), I was strongly encouraged to go into medicine so I could have a solid, sustainable future, which is the reason I ended up studying biochemistry in university. Tiger parents just want the best for their children when they urge them to become doctors or lawyers, but I felt like I was brainwashed into thinking that the only respectable career field I could go into was medicine.



my brother is actually a medical doctor so this hits a lil’ close to home

Working at IBM, I’ve been able to see that is not the case. I make an honest living working in IT and I actually enjoy what I do. Every day, I am facing new problems and learning new ways to solve them, since the minutia of the data center is rather extensive. I’ve been fortunate to work in a safe, clean environment with respectful coworkers, and I’ve even been able to learn while at work! We are actually required by IBM to spend 40 hours learning something new each year! During my 40 hours of learning last year, I learned the basics of data science, earning the Foundations of Data Science badge through IBM.

I found myself interested in data science, enjoying learning about coding and statistics, but I was also excited by the story-telling aspect of data interpretation. I plan on continuing my education in data science via the learning opportunities provided by IBM, because I see data science as a potential bridge between my current work in IT and my area of study in university: biochemistry. Although — studying data science will come second to studying for my classes!

always studying for physical chemistry…

All of that said, I’ve been very grateful for my job at IBM, especially since I got this job without completing a college degree (yet). I always thought I would be stuck working retail jobs until I graduated, but this is actually a viable career path.

SOME DRAWBACKS OF BLUE COLLAR IT… | there’s always something

It’s nothing glamorous — I spend the majority of my work day in a noisy server room, building out servers to the specifications ordered by a customer, and ensuring that they provision properly so the customer can use them. Once that’s done, we maintain the provisioned servers in the event of any hardware failures and reclaim the servers when the customers are done with them. We work with thousands of servers, meaning this cycle of build-provision-maintain-reclaim is constantly occurring.

As I mentioned, we mainly work with the hardware. We don’t code. We have a very basic understanding of networking. We are told what projects we have, when they are due, and we work on customer-facing issues when they arise, which is often. At times, it can feel like we’re meant to learn how to work with hardware and nothing more than that. In essence, we’re like the butter-passing robot from Rick and Morty.



you build servers.” “oh my god.” “yeah, welcome to the club, pal.”

It makes sense in a way, because there is a high turnover rate for datacenter technicians, as seen in most other blue-collar jobs. While employees who understand processes at a deeper level are more valuable, most of those employees realise that and find a higher paying job elsewhere, leaving sites understaffed and struggling to quickly train new hires to fill their shoes. It seems the net result is that employees are trained how to do their job, and if they want to learn more, it’s up to them.

Another downside to this job has nothing to do with the job at all, but rather the individual. Throughout my time working at IBM, most of my friends have finished up their bachelor’s degrees and started at their first jobs. Everyone excitedly talked about their jobs and the opportunities they’ve had… while I would proudly proclaim that I work for IBM, I would try to hide the fact that I’m “just a datacenter technician” because it felt like blue-collar work. I knew I was capable of more, but the shameful fact was that I’m not underemployed. Without a degree or any marketable skills, I was just unrealised potential – a harsh reality that I disliked for some time, until I decided I was ready to make the leap and go back to school (this fall! I’m back in classes right now! 😀 ).



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Back to school… after a two year break! 😬 ⁣ ✏ More on my blog, busybree.com if you're curious why I took a break in the first place! #backtoschool #returningstudent #utdallas #20yearchallenge

A post shared by Bree Albright (@breetford) on Aug 19, 2019 at 10:04am PDT

The drawbacks of working in blue-collar IT can be boiled down to:

  1. It’s noisy and tinnitus is a real concern.

  2. The work can become monotonous.

  3. Realising that we’re meant to solely build out servers can be a bit deflating.

  4. We’re taught only how to do our job, not really why we do things a certain way.

  5. I personally feel like I am capable of learning more (working on finishing my degree! 🙂 ) and working in an environment that requires more mental work, rather than physical work.

In contrast, the benefits to working in blue-collar IT are:

  1. Higher education is not needed.

  2. The work is physical, but it’s nothing like working on an oil field. It’s clean, air-conditioned, and it can be a desk job depending on how busy the site is.

  3. There are endless opportunities for career growth and education, if you seek it out on your own.

  4. It pays well enough that you may not ever need to pursue a higher education.

  5. 24-hour coverage requirements may lend itself towards a more flexible work schedule, depending on needs of the employee.

I feel like the pros balance out the cons and I’m happy working this job for now, at least until I finish my degree. Ideally, I will continue working for IBM as a datacenter technician until I graduate college, at which point I will find a new job related to biochemistry or something else that I enjoy.

#worklifebalance #bluecollarIT #datacenter #work #bluecollar #nodegree #IT

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