Career Keys: Certification, Education & Experience
What is the most important thing you can accomplish for yourself when it comes to getting a good job in the IT field: a college degree, IT certifications or practical, hands-on experience? This is, by far, one of the most common questions asked by both students getting ready to launch their careers, as well as consultants who are already established. The answer is not simple, and no single overarching algorithm exists for the prospective IT job candidate. Each of these career preparation paths has its own advantages and disadvantages in equipping you with the skills required to make you a marketable and desirable IT employee or manager. Certification, education and job experience all factor into finding lasting, satisfying and rewarding employment in the IT field.
Naturally, you can earn as many college degrees and IT certifications as your heart desires, provided you have the willingness, time and financial means to make that happen. However, if you do not have the skills necessary to actually carry out the job tasks associated with your chosen IT career, then let me assure you that “the truth will out,” as Shakespeare so aptly wrote in “The Merchant of Venice.” That is to say, your lack of practical skills soon will become readily apparent to your boss, colleagues and the users you support. At that point, you’ll have two options: increase your practical knowledge of IT immediately, or begin searching for another job post-haste.
Some IT managers hold a degree of prejudice against so-called “paper systems engineers” who may have, on paper anyway, an admirable skill set, but are largely unable to physically discharge these duties in a live production environment. Conseqently, it is critically important that you amass as much hands-on experience with your chosen technologies as possible. This
is not a task to begin in the days immediately prior to starting your job hunt. This should be an ongoing process—one that receives as much attention as any other aspect of your career-building activities.
If you genuinely enjoy IT, then building a wealth of practical, hands-on experience should be a snap. You will be more fulfilled if IT is a hobby and passion of yours—in addition to being the formal livelihood that puts food on the dinner table. Do you have a home network that you use to boost your skills or just to play around with? If so, you’re already on the right track.
In hopes that this is preaching to the choir, you should spend as much time as you can getting your hands dirty with your chosen technologies. If you want to be a videogame programmer, you should be working on new ideas and programs in your spare time. If you’re interested in working in information security, you likely spend your off-hours learning about new viruses and hacking techniques. What’s more, you find this activity to be fun! After all, why would you want to enter into a career that you do not find fundamentally enjoyable?
If you find that you can’t land a job in your chosen area due to your lack of practical experience, you might consider offering your services on a volunteer basis at some local nonprofit. For example, your local schools might be in need of a security upgrade. Providing your help is a good way to boost your experience level, while doing some good for the people around you.
What’s more, you’ll be able to refer to this experience on your resume, upping your chances of getting your foot in the door for that elusive job interview.
If you’re employed in the IT field, but want to move beyond your current position, another option is to volunteer your help on extra projects. For example, if you’re stuck doing tech support, but you’re really interested in database management, you should go to your manager and ask if there are any projects in database management that need a little extra manpower. One caveat though: You must make it clear to your boss that you intend to take on this extra work in addition to completing your regular workload. No one’s likely to offer you a leg up if it means they’re losing a valuable employee’s time.
It happens far too often: Folks are eager to enter information technology because of its promises of high salaries and job security, but these same people eventually leave the field because they discover that they cannot stand actually doing the work. IT is not a career choice for people who feel that they need to be in it, but IT is a career path for those who honestly want to embrace all of the challenges that this field of endeavor has to offer.
There are other professional positions where you can earn a comparably high salary and not have to wear an on-call pager like so many IT professionals must. Ask yourself before you commit to entering IT: Will you still love your job when you are called in to work at 2 a.m. to resolve a catastrophic mail server crash? Will the money and prestige be worth it then?
Technical/Vocational Schools: Do Your Homework
Technical and vocational schools are institutions that offer one- to two-year programs in a variety of technology-related disciplines. One thing that sets technical schools such as ITT Technical Institute and DeVry University apart from other two- and four-year colleges and universities is that technical schools tend to place more focus on practical skills application rather than “pie in the sky” theory in their IT programs. For instance, ITT offers courses in Web design, Microsoft Windows network engineering and database administration.
There are some critically important caveats that you should be aware of concerning technical/vocational schools. For one thing, many of these schools are not accredited as fully as, say, a community college or four-year university. After all, by their own admission, some technical and vocational schools are for-profit businesses whose marketable commodity is education.
The focus for some of these schools is, frankly, more on puffing up admissions (and consequently, revenue) rather than educating individuals. Therefore, be sure to research your desired vocational or technical school fully, determine where its accreditation is sourced from and examine how much weight that accreditation carries in the field.
Speaking candidly—and having worked part-time as an adjunct instructor for a technical school—the academic and curricular requirements for these schools (and, accordingly, their entrance requirements) tend to be on the low side. This may work to your advantage if you have a less-than-stellar high school transcript. On the other hand, many hiring managers consider certificates earned from so called “voke schools” to be of inferior reputation than a two- or four-year degree earned from a public or private university. Again, you must do the necessary research on the institution, interview alumni, audit a class or two and so forth. You need to know at the outset if you feel that your time and monetary investment is going to result in a worthwhile, marketable degree or program completion certificate and an appreciable amount of hands-on experience that you can apply on your first or next IT position.
A final note concerning vocational or technical schools: Many of these institutions offer only a certificate of completion rather than a full-fledged academic degree such as an associate’s degree. However, in recent years (most likely due to pressure from hiring managers in the marketplace and complaints from students) many technical schools now offer two-year associate’s degree programs in IT. In my experience, hiring managers tend to prefer an associate’s degree from a credible, accredited institution rather than a certificate of completion issued by the school and authenticated solely by the school’s own administration.
Taking all of this into account, if your past academic records aren’t good