|Problems? Is your data what you think it is?|
A few days late, but if you're still watching this thread I thought I'd throw in how I got started. For me it was a university student job. I got a job on night shift in the main campus computer center.
"unfortunatly" you already left the traditional university, but universities have a variety of IT groups and computer related jobs. Many other companies have a 24/7 IT need as well. I eventually parlayed my student job into a full time job and started taking fewer and fewer classes untill I dropped out.
FWIW, night shift IT jobs are particularly useful because they often consist of starting and monitoring big jobs (backups, major print jobs, etc) and no one tends to care what happens during your shift as long as it is all done when you are finished at 8am. That gave me plenty of time to learn and practice a variety of skills that eventually launched my last 15 years as a never un-employed programmer.
In the "who cares" department, I've finally started back to classes after not opening a text book in over 15 years. I've never had any industry certifications (though I thought about it) and even my venture back to campus has less to do with getting certified/degreed as it does with total career change.
As many here have said, some will trash your resume just because it doesn't have the right keywords on it. Others will take interest in it specifically because it doesn't have those buzzwords. From you're perspective, there's no way to win in all cases.
Best rule I can contrive is to get certifications if the opportunity arises and you have nothing else to do and/or don't have to pay for it. But never expect it to accelerate or jump start your career. If someone dumps you for lack of certification, just move on to another.
I can't say I've ever seen any practical reasoning behind corporate hiring practices. I've been hired because of my recent (then) and extensive experience with Oracle Forms and SQL, only to be immediatly after hire assigned to a major Unix Shell script assignment (I'd never written even a single shell script before). I learned PERL becuase I got hired for a job based on my rather meager C skills. I later got a PERL job and had to write Visual Basic (I still wake up screaming about that one...).
As far as I can tell, it's damn near a lottery so the only possible win strategy is to apply and interview as often as you can. Even "worthless" interviews are good because they give you practive interviewing and help you decide what YOU want. Believe it or not, that may not be as obvious as you think.
Get a job to pay the bills, but scan the paper and any other job sources you can for something IT related. Don't do it every day because, quite frankly, it's depressing, but at least check up on them twice a week. Spend the other days doing some "fun" coding to keep up and advance your skills.
To finish off with something inspirational, I have a friend who completed a four year degree in graphic design and decided he didn't want to do that after all. He spent several years working in retail (eg. the Mall) when he decided computers where kinda cool. He downloaded Red Hat and loaded it on his old NT machine. He then set about creating an email server, web server, etc. He spent probably 3-4 months tinkering around just for the hell of it. He recently got a job (on night shift) in a company's operations group. For his "resume" he was able to submit a URL to his web server and describe the various setup he did. He spends his night shift doing his work and continuing to tinker remotely on his personal server, advancing his skills based on what he has to do for work and what he wants to do for himself.
You have to keep your hand in the technology. Patience and Persistence are your friends. And finally, a little well timed arrogance will be that final boost you'll need to kick it off...