It’s been a while since I looked at the state of IT certifications.
I used to work for a company that encouraged the technical staff to further their training through certifications, even tying promotions and raises to specific certifications. I spent a good part of my time managing a staff of technicians whose future at the company was loosely tied to earning various certifications, which put a lot of pressure on each technician.
My job was to research the certifications and attach them to job levels. To reach the next level, the technician would have to earn certifications as well as pass a peer review, neither of which were trivial.
On the plus side, the company paid for study materials, provided on-the-clock study time and paid the cost to take the exam. To their credit, upper management recognized the value of continual training and provided opportunities to those who were dedicated to earning certifications.
Sometimes we would lose a skilled employee after investing a lot of time and money into their training. But that was rare. Most times, we were able to provide more responsibility and career advancement to those who wanted to stay with the company. That’s often the best case scenario for the company and the employee.
With that in mind, I want to take a closer look at the IT certification climate today and see where certifications might play a role in your career advancement.
Early Career Certifications
If you’re new to the technical field, the number of available certifications can be overwhelming. I’ve found that a good rule of thumb is to do a little research on the position or person in the job you’re after.
Let’s say you’re working in desktop support but dream of becoming a network engineer. The best action to take would be to speak directly with the network engineer, if that’s possible. Ask this person what training and certifications helped land the position. Try to get your hands on a job description which should detail what certifications are required for the job. I’ve found that while some jobs list them as “required” many managers will allow you to work towards them while on the job, especially if you’ve shown that you’re a capable employee.
The certifications that matter most at this point in your career are those that help you land the job you want, which means they will vary based on position, company, and geographic location. I found that Microsoft certifications carried more weight in Utah than they did in the state of Washington, at least for those positions for which I applied. A little research will help you determine this.
In my experience, entry level certifications matter most to those applicants who are switching careers. I once interviewed a former mortgage broker who wanted to work at Microsoft. He had basically zero technical experience, but had proven his dedication by earning several MCPs before his interview with me. That showed me he possessed the capacity to learn technical topics. I hired him and he went on to earn an MCSE over the next year or so. Without those MCPs on his resume, I might have skipped right over his resume.
If you are looking to break into a technical career and have little or no technical experience, you should consider earning CompTIA’s A+ and/or Net+ that cover basic hardware, software and networking concepts.
You might find that while the certifications themselves don’t carry a lot of weight, the fact that you dedicated time to earn them will impress your interviewer and help land the job. The key is to find the certifications that will provide value to the position being hired for.
I’ve found the CompTIA certifications to be excellent stepping stones into more advanced positions because they are well respected and adept at optimizing their curriculum to the skills companies need today. They also do a good job of preparing you for exams by providing practice exams and additional study aids. This is the place I would start if I were interested in an IT career today, but didn’t possess a lot of experience in my field.
You might find that earning a few entry level certifications provides you with similar benefits that come from earning a college degree. I graduated with a B.A. in German, but having my degree opened doors that might have been otherwise closed.
I broke into the technology field by moving to Seattle and interviewing with a local ISP. Although I had little technical background, my degree allowed me to explain to the hiring manager how my education had taught me to write well. She needed someone who could document technical procedures, and I ended up landing the job by focusing on what I could do well.
Certifications carry a similar impression – they show hiring managers that you are serious about improving your skills, even when those skills are seemingly outside the position. Being teachable is a valuable trait to possess, regardless of your age or experience.
You may already be in a position that challenges you, at a company you enjoy. But maybe you’re eyeing a position with more responsibility and better pay. This could be where earning intermediate certifications come in handy. This is also a good time to have a discussion with your manager about your career path to determine if additional certifications will help you achieve your goals. When experienced employees came to me in search of career advice, I was happy to help them understand exactly what they needed accomplish in order to advance to the next level. Many times that was additional training and certifications.
They key here is communication. Don’t assume that earning additional certification, even those that will help you do your job more effectively, will result in a promotion or raise.
I had an employee who earned an advanced Cisco networking certification before he came to me demanding a promotion during a downturn in business in 2008. As much as I would have liked to promote him, the company had placed a freeze on pay increases and promotions through the end of the year. He didn’t stick around long enough to see the uptick in business the following year, and I always felt bad that he hadn’t come to me first before investing so much time and money on the certification.
If the conversation with your manager leaves you with the impression that you have a good future with the them, earning intermediate certifications may play well into your career advancement. Ask your manager what certifications will result in the best future with the company. Be specific. What you want to hear is something similar to, “Earning your MCSA will put you on track for a promotion,” instead of, “Take a few MCP exams and get back to me.”
Make sure you are clear with your manager on exactly which certifications will help advance your career at the company. You might find that taking a course outside your designated area could have an unexpected impact.
I once worked for a start-up that gave immediate $10,000 salary increases to anyone who earned their PMP. Earning your PMP can take years of preparation in addition to passing exams and maintaining copious amounts of documentation. But the PMP one of those certifications that helps people become better managers regardless of department or industry.
Microsoft tends to dominate the intermediate exam market with certifications that cover Server, Desktop, Applications, Database and Developer areas of study. Microsoft has been in the education and certification business for a long time, and it shows. Last year I interviewed Veronica Sopher from the Microsoft Learning Group, and she provided insight into which exams are most popular.
Microsoft isn’t the only player, though. Red Hat provides some of the most admired training in the industry with certifications that cover the data center, cloud, applications and enterprise application development. Certifications such as the RHCA (Red Hat Certified Architect) and RHCE (Red Hat Certified Engineer) are two of the most challenging certifications you can earn. And for that reason, they carry a lot of weight within the industry.
Cisco is also known around the industry to provide some of the most challenging and comprehensive training focused primarily on networking and security. Over the last few years, Cisco has branched out to provide training in many other areas such as wireless, data center and collaboration. Cisco’s entry level certifications are the CCENT (Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician) and the CCT (Cisco Certified Technician), although they are better known for their very challenging CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) and CCNP (Cisco Certified Network Professional) exams.
Unless you have significant industry experience, it would be wise to avoid taking the Cisco or Red Hat certifications. They are very difficult exams and even people with significant industry experience don’t pass the exams on the first try. These are advanced certifications that require a lot of study and commitment, but their rewards can be significant. Again, check with your manager to see how an advanced certification can help advance your career. Having your employer on board to assist with training costs and and study time can be a huge advantage.
As you can see from the chart below, median salaries for those positions requiring a CCNA are quite high.
Certifications can play an important role in your career, and earning advanced certifications can greatly enhance your earning potential. Don’t be surprised if, upon earning a certification, you find yourself searching for opportunities outside your company. We all hope the companies we work for will recognize our commitment to additional learning and skill enhancement, but that isn’t always the case. You may need to look for opportunities outside your company to put the value of your certification to work.