From the Post Office to the Help Desk

Learn how one IT pro relied on IT certifications to gain the foundational knowledge he needed to make a career change.

From the Post Office to the Help Desk (1)The United States Postal Service (USPS) does not have an official motto. Many people, on the other hand, would probably get that wrong and say that the USPS motto goes something like this: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."*

The principle of reliability is also of critical importance in the information technology (IT) world. Computer and IT users expect, and quite often depend, on devices and software services to function smoothly and correctly in almost any circumstances, at all hours of the day and night.

So in a sense, Austin Newton was simply switching from one form of dependable delivery to another when he walked away from a steady gig as a USPS mail carrier to become a help desk analyst for Fields Consulting Group in his hometown of Peoria, Ariz. (in the Phoenix metropolitan area).

That's the kind of transition that anyone can make by getting an IT certification. Newton, 27, switched jobs after completing the CompTIA A+ certification, and then followed that up by adding CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+ to his resume. He was so pleased that he wrote a blog post on Medium about his experience with the CompTIA "trifecta."

Telling others about his own certification journey was Newton's way of giving back to the online IT certification community. "Once I got there, 'I said, all right, the past year and a half I've been nonstop reading opinions and posts and blogs. I want to put out something that I think would have helped me at that time.'"

Becoming a Computer Guy

Learning about computers and technology comes naturally for some and is less immediately engaging to others. It was a little bit of both for Newton, who used the family computer growing up, without really becoming deeply invested until his teenage years.

"Even as a kid I could tell that it was a tool that could do a lot of different things," Newton said of his childhood computer usage.

Two uncles who had computer jobs, one at Intel and the other at Sony, encouraged Newton's interest. "They always told me about their jobs, and it was always fascinating," he said. "They would always have cool computers when I would go to their homes."

What really sealed the deal, however, was a clarion call that draws the attention of many young computer users: Video games. The teenage Newton especially enjoyed the massively multiplayer online game H1Z1, a zombie apocalypse survival adventure. (After its initial launch in 2015, H1Z1 became Just Survive, before evolving into its current iteration, Z1 Battle Royale, in 2018.)

Frustrated by the gameplay limitations of more basic PCs, Newton decided, at age 17, to build his own computer. "It was interesting to me that there were all of these choices I could make that would affect the performance of my computer," he said. Newton built his new rig one piece at a time, ordering parts whenever he could afford them. "I was still in high school, so I wasn't making much money," he said.

The discovery aspect of DIY computer making solidified his interest in computers and technology. (And also locked in his love of games: Escape from Tarkov and Valorant are current favorites.) The fascination of adding new features and choosing between all of the different types of various computer parts kept Newton coming back for more, and he has since built a new computer for himself on multiple occasions.

Getting Certified

After high school, Newton got a general studies degree at Glendale Community College and settled in at the USPS. His interest in computers and technology continued to simmer, however, and a friend suggested the idea of strengthening his self-taught skills with a certification.

After poking around online, Newton found his way to the official CompTIA website and decided that CompTIA A+ would be the perfect starting point for exploring the world of IT certification. "Everybody seemed to have a good opinion of the organization, as well as of the exams," he said.

Newton was right at home with a lot of the material covered by CompTIA A+ Core 1, the first of the two exams required to earn certification. When he got into the topics addressed by Core 2, his IT horizons rapidly expanded. "That's when I started to learn a lot more,” he said.

Just like with his first foray into personal computer building, Newton did everything on his own. He consulted a variety of CompTIA A+ self-study materials, including courses available on Udemy by certification guru Mike Myers (not the comedian).

He passed the CompTIA A+ exams on his first attempt and quickly transitioned to working at Fields Consulting Group. That's where he learned that having an IT job is an excellent path to improving one's IT skills and knowledge. "I soaked up everything I could from them," he said.

After several months at his new job, Newton was ready to up his certification game, and he quickly prepared for and passed the CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+ exams. As with CompTIA A+, he passed both exams on his first attempt.

After that, he said, "things really started to open up. A lot of IT concepts started to click and I really started to see where I could go in the industry."

A Home Lab

Certification also rekindled Newton's interest in tinkering and fiddling, a time-honored means of IT self-education. After starting his new job, Newton also started assembling his own technology sandbox, to further his newfound personal and career ambitions.

Newton noticed something in the photos and videos he would see online in IT forums and chat groups. "Guys who have been in the industry a lot longer than me, they would have these racks of servers with blinking lights," he said.

Determined to create his own home lab, Newton bought a rack and began to inquire about used computer equipment at work. He asked his manager whether the company had old equipment ready to be recycled or donated.

"I said, 'If you do, let me take a look at it first. I'll probably take it off your hands,'" Newton said. True to form for the industry, there happened to be a lot of old tech lying around. Newton's first salvaged item was a 24-port Cisco switch, which ended up being the tip of the proverbial leftover technology iceberg.

He quickly added other castoffs to his rapidly growing home lab. As his stockpile of used computer hardware grew, so did his stockpile of IT skills and knowledge. "It's endless the amount of stuff that you can learn if you're willing to do the work," he said.

Onward and Upward

Also endless are the employment possibilities for motivated and certified IT professionals willing to expand their horizons. Newton has already leveled up his IT employment: He now works as an all-purpose IT support professional at Recreation Centers of Sun City in nearby Sun City, Ariz.

"We just set up a whole bunch of new servers," he said. After that, he worked on fine-tuning the payment processing system — because when you're good, it's never just one thing. Employers coping with IT challenges will use a qualified IT professional any way they can.

Newton is also preparing for the next stage of his IT certification journey, which will involve passing the CompTIA Linux+ exam. And though he has fond memories of his old USPS job, he doesn't plan on looking back. He said he loved working as a mail carrier, but now he's all in on his IT career path. "I'm totally committed at this point." he said.

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*Those exact words, a citation from The Persian Wars by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, are actually carved in stone above the entrance to the New York City Post Office on 8th Avenue in New York City. It's just not an official motto for the entire Postal Service. Herodotus, incidentally, was referring to the mounted couriers the Persians used to relay messages during the Greco-Persian Wars (499-449 B.C.E.).

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