Taking Your Career to New Heights
There are only so many things you can do to a device. You can install it, configure it, manage it, monitor it, troubleshoot it and design larger networks that use it. Most certification families follow this path pretty reliably. Foundation-level certifications are focused on installation and basic configuration. Mid-tier certifications focus on management and troubleshooting. And advanced certifications center around design or even business-case development for a given type of solution.
Certifications provide extraordinary benefits in establishing the baseline skills required to fit certain job roles, especially at the entry-level. Foundation-level certifications like A+ and Network+, as well as the somewhat more advanced Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) do a good job of helping prospective employers assess the knowledge and skills that job candidates will bring, and help services organizations build confidence in their capabilities by requiring the certification of all of their consultants.
Mid-tier certifications like the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) help IT professionals develop their skills, often within a particular family of products, to help manage more sophisticated networks, deploy and support enterprise software applications, and identify and repair problems that arise. In many ways, they align (imperfectly) to job functions within an organization.
For example, match the following mid-tier certifications to the job roles they support. This won’t be a challenge:
A) Network Administrator 1) Oracle Certified Professional B) Systems Administrator 2) Cisco Certified Network Professional C) Security Administrator 3) Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer D) Database Administrator 4) Security+
In short, mid-tier certifications are about developing deep technical expertise in a given technology area. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing that. That said, in order to reach the top of your career ladder, you’ll want to have those types of skills, and then move beyond that level to achieve even more advanced levels of technical knowledge and ability, as well as business acumen.
The Top of the Mountain
What does an advanced certification look like? One might as well ask what an advanced IT career looks like. Here are a few hints on your way to becoming CIO: First of all, an advanced IT career is not, strictly speaking, an IT career at all. At the highest levels of an organization, IT executives first and foremost are engrossed in understanding the strategy of the business they’re in. To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean the operational needs of the business, the technologies that will support those needs or even the costs of delivering effective service—though all of these are important.
The most important part of moving to an advanced IT career is moving beyond IT in many ways. What are the strategies and goals of your organization? Who are your competitors? What are the key things the organization needs to accomplish to compete and win in the marketplace? How does your organization deliver real value to its customers? Then come the questions exploring how technology can be used to help support and achieve those goals.
Senior executives are not only responsible for meeting service levels or delivering on budget. Ultimately, they are responsible for supporting the business mission. Certification can help you along that path.
Advanced certifications are readily available to support an array of career paths. Inevitably, as the certifications become more specialized and the concurrent responsibilities become more sophisticated, the focus changes in some fundamental ways:
- The focus moves from technology to business. Far from being a technical expert, the senior IT leader must be an expert in the business first, then an expert in how to use technology to move the business forward.
- The focus moves from configuration to architecture. At the advanced level, technicians already have a solid understanding of core configuration, management and even troubleshooting for whatever types of tools they use. At the senior level, the goal is to design effective solutions to the business needs, and to own the teams that will build the solutions that deliver on those promises.
- It’s not for everybody. By definition, advanced certifications separate those candidates who earn them from the rest of the pack. Part of what makes an advanced certification advanced is that few people are able to make it all the way to the top. Pass rates are lower, the learning curve is steeper, and the expectations (and rewards) of achievement are higher.
Any discussion of advanced networking certifications has to begin with the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE). Long considered the “doctorate” of networking, CCIE has earned a higher level of respect for one primary reason: the legendary hands-on practical exam required to earn the credential. Before an era of rich technical simulations, the CCIE was the place where “paper” candidates came to their Waterloo, where only those with in-depth knowledge, well-developed skills and years of practical hands-on experience could survive. The pass rate, once rumored to be lower than 15 percent, and the resulting very exclusive club, has made CCIE the incredibly desirable certification it is today. For technical professionals looking to demonstrate the highest level of expertise in Cisco technologies (whether you choose Routing and Switching, Security, Service Provider, Storage Networking or Voice), this certification is the networking industry’s most widely recognized and respected benchmark.
There are a number of advanced certifications available from other networking vendors, including the Nortel Certified Architect (NCA), Extreme Networks Engineer (ENE, currently under development) and Enterasys Certified Internetworking Engineer (ECIE). All of these certifications may be valuable to organizations supporting these technologies, but to date no other certification has the broad appeal, market value and panache of the CCIE.
The most broadly accepted certifications in systems administration are the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and the Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE). Both provide a strong demonstration of the technical understanding to install, configure and manage their respective operating systems and some of the major business applications that run on them. However, by the nature of their broad reach and purely technical focus, both of these certifications seem to lack a real business focus that many look for in advanced certifications.
A promising new certification that may partially address this problem is the Microsoft Certified Architect program, which promises not only strong core certifications in infrastructure and solutions, but also an upcoming enterprise architect program as well. Red Hat has a similar enterprise architect program, the Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA) that also shows promise and is a strong capstone to the RHCE program.
A vendor-independent network architecture certification is much needed in the space, and would likely be well received by candidates looking to demonstrate cross-vendor network and systems solution architecture skills. The Open Group’s IT Architect Certification, developed with the support of such industry giants as IBM and Hewlett-Packard, may help fill this need.
In the Java/J2EE space, the dominant advanced certifications are the Sun Certified Architect certifications, BEA’s Enterprise Architect and IBM’s Certified Enterprise Developer. Other than the technology family, they focus on many of the