PC in IT: attracting staff from outside the sector

Shortages of IT skills are attracting people into the sector from different walks of life. Guy Campos meets a former policeman...

Shortages of IT skills are attracting people into the sector from different walks of life. Guy Campos meets a former policeman who is now helping people with their computer enquiries

At the beginning of this year Paul Browning was in charge of 14 police constables. Now he works with a different kind of PC as a support analyst on a helpdesk run under contract for a household name company.

When Browning handed in his notice to the police earlier this year, colleagues were shocked as he was an active officer. He had served 12 years, the last two-and-a-half as a uniformed sergeant, and regularly appeared in newspapers and on TV.

But he had became frustrated. Browning felt he had as much ability as officers who were promoted ahead of him and thought the training lacked enough emphasis on interview skills - for dealing with intelligent suspects - and on effective self-defence.

Browning had an interest in IT and began looking into the possibility of taking it up as a career. As a first step, he paid to go on a course to learn how to build a PC in the winter of 1999. This was the A+ PC technician exam.

About the same time he began an MSc in IT for Management in his home town at Coventry University. For good measure, he put in for and was granted graduate membership of the British Computer Society as he already had a law degree.

"I thought I would have to complete the MSc before any company would consider employing me as every company insisted on at least six months experience," he says.

But in March this year Browning replied to a job advert in Computer Weekly from IT services company Pink Elephant, which was looking for people with any type of customer service experience. No IT experience was required.

Iain Wallace, spokesman at Pink Elephant UK, says, "Our philosophy is that much on the IT side can be taught but we feel the service side is more inherent. People either have it or they don't.

"The worst thing we can do is recruit someone who has preconceived ideas of how IT works. If someone has been taught wrong, it is hard to change that. In some ways it is an advantage to start with a blank slate."

Pink Elephant was the only IT company Browning applied to. He felt he had the management and customer service skills the company was looking for. "I was also impressed that all employees started as support analysts before progressing into roles of their choice," Browning says.

After two searching interviews and a lot of sleepless nights wondering if he was doing the right thing, Browning was offered a job.

Having seen other officers leave the police and return with their tails between their legs, he was determined that if he left it would be for good.

Browning also had to convince his interviewers that he would not miss the excitement of the force.

"I am not knocking the police as it was great experience but every time you jump over a wall or wrestle with a prisoner there is six or seven hours of paperwork. There are moments of sheer terror but there is also a lot of monotony," he says.

At Pink Elephant, Browning went on a two-week induction course covering ITIL (the Government-backed guidance on best practice in IT), plus helpdesk skills and company values and structure. He was then placed on one of the company's contracts with a household name company in Reading, renting a room during the week and returning to Coventry at the weekends.

"I have learned a lot about how an IT department runs and the client is very keen to follow ITIL procedure," he says.

Browning is being trained as a problem manager - the worker who tackles at source those problems that repeat themselves - as temporary cover.

Pink Elephant has a three-year training charter for new staff that includes the ITIL essentials and practitioner guidance, the Prince2 project management methodology and A+ technical training. After 18 months, trainees choose whether to specialise in advisory, technical or managerial roles.

The company pays for any exams staff sit and Browning has taken the Microsoft Networking Essentials exam, the Comptia Network+ exam and is currently studying for his Cisco CCNA exam.

So how did he convince his employer to take him on?

"Having experience dealing with people and solving their problems was a great help. Showing an interest by training myself was also important. Even though I was only part way into the MSc this impressed Pink Elephant as it showed a genuine interest in a career in IT."

Browning has now completed the first year of his MSc and received a post-graduate certificate. Even if he left now he would come away with something, although he intends to continue.

He has, in fact, been studying part-time for years, so that he would have something to fall back on if he was injured and invalided out of the force. This is the way he took his law degree through evening classes in Coventry. He could have completed it in four years, due to his police legal knowledge, but chose to study for a fifth to learn more areas of the law.

Browning says he would often put Sunday aside to catch up on his studies as it was important to make sure he did not fall behind. And his desire to learn has not waned: nowadays he is picking up the electric guitar - as a form of relaxation.

Browning says he would encourage anyone interested in the IT industry to spend their free time studying towards the type of role they are keen to follow.

In the meantime, are there any similarities between his police and IT jobs?

"There is a lot of calming people down in police work and people who have problems with their PCs can get quite irate. In some ways they share the same feelings as victims of crime."

The cost of learning

A+ technician course £600
MSc IT in Management £800+ per year
MS Networking Essentials £100
Comptia network + £60
Cisco CCNA £280

Expenses include books and in some cases exams

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