Certification is more than just a career gateway

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This feature first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

Certification can provide a gateway to a prosperous IT career. There are plenty of reasons to keep certifying, however, once you're off and running.Aspiring IT professionals recognize that technical certifications are an excellent way to break into a new career where they lack employment experience. But what about skilled professionals seeking to advance their careers? Does job experience render certifications irrelevant? After all, don’t hiring managers consider demonstrated experience more important than the ability to pass an exam?

It’s certainly true that experienced technologists will not likely land a senior position based upon certifications alone. There’s no matching algorithm that unlocks secret doors when you assemble a combination of professional credentials. There are still many good reasons to earn IT certifications, however, as you progress through your career. Let’s take a look at a few.

Advanced expertise

While entry-level IT certifications are extremely popular and wellknown, there are also a wealth of advanced certifications available for those seeking to move to more senior rungs on the career ladder. These certifications require demonstrating expert-level skills and, in many cases, providing evidence of work experience. They also may unlock the doors to salaries well north of the six-figure mark.

Networking professionals may wish to pursue the elite Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) certification. This notoriously difficult certification requires passing a lengthy written exam and successfully completing an in-person hands-on lab under the watchful eyes of Cisco experts.

Similarly, those in the cybersecurity world know that the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification is a requirement for many senior-level positions. Earning this credential requires passing an exam covering a wide breadth of information. You’ll need to know about everything from firewall rule management to fire extinguishers.

Once you pass the CISSP exam, you also need to prove that you have five years of direct experience in cybersecurity before you can add those five letters to your business card.

Educational guidance

Certifications provide a structured path to branch into new fields and specializations. Technology is a rapidly changing field and most IT professionals move through several different specializations over the course of their careers. Some of these moves come as old technologies are phased out, while others come from natural curiosity and desire to learn.

Certification can provide a gateway to a prosperous IT career. There are plenty of reasons to keep certifying, however, once you're off and running.Whatever the reason, if you’re considering moving into a new IT specialization, certifications provide a structured path for learning new skills and demonstrating your knowledge. For example, you might be an IT professional with deep technical expertise in database administration seeking to make a career change into project management.

Perhaps you’ve managed some projects in your current role, but you don’t have the strong background in the discipline sought by hiring managers. Earning the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification will provide you with a structured path to learn the field’s common body of knowledge and may serve as the gateway to a new role.

Certification required

Some positions have hard-and-fast certification requirements. You might not have a choice but to earn advanced certifications if you wish to progress in your career. The most direct example of this is the Department of Defense (DoD) Information Assurance certification program. Individuals employed in cybersecurity positions with DoD or defense contractors must earn different certifications to maintain their employment and move to more advanced positions.

Want to become a cybersecurity auditor? You’ll need to hold the Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA), Cybersecurity Analyst+ (CySA+) or a similar certification. Want to move into a management role? You’ll need the Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) or CISSP certifications.

Don’t get boxed out

Certifications remain a screening criterion for many jobs. The employment landscape is intensely competitive, and firms receive hundreds of applications for every job they post. Hiring managers turn to Human Resources departments and professional recruiters to help them sort through this onslaught of candidates and select the handful who will proceed on to phone screening and in-person interviews.

These HR specialists often don’t have expertise in technology and often find themselves relying upon matching line items in a job description with resumes to help quickly narrow the pool of candidates. What often appears in information technology job descriptions?

You guessed it – certifications. Take a look through a representative sample of job postings and you’ll see that this is the case, even for mid-level and executive positions. Here are a couple of examples:

A Network Operations Center management position at a health care firm in Texas listed Cisco’s Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) as a job requirement and included the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) certifications as “a plus.”

The Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) job description for a Chicago-based Fortune 500 company included the language, “At least one of the following industry-recognized information security management certifications is preferred: Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) or Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC).”

It didn’t take long to find those. They were the first two IT management job descriptions that I looked at. Candidates without those keywords on their resumes may have a difficult time making it through initial screening, even if they are highly qualified.

Money matters

Certified individuals command higher salaries than their non-certified counterparts. Countless surveys have shown that individuals holding, for example, cybersecurity certifications earn more than their non-certified counterparts. And those who hold more advanced certifications earn more than those who stopped with entry-level credentials.

For example, Certification Magazine conducts an annual Salary Survey (you can go participate right now, in fact) that looks at the salaries commanded by individuals who hold various credentials from a pool of more than 900 IT certifications. Security certifications dominated the top of that list in 2018. Here are a few of the chart-toppers:

CISSP with Engineering specialization — $145,940

CISSP with Architecture specialization — $144,700

CheckPoint Certified Security Administrator — $144,580

ISACA Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control — $143,810

The most popular entry-level security certification is CompTIA’s Security+ credential. The average salary for individuals holding that credential was $107,330. That’s not shabby itself, but it’s a significant step lower than the more advanced credentials.

Now, of course you’re not going to receive an immediate $40,000 salary increase simply because you moved from a Security+ certification to one of these more senior certifications, but you’re putting yourself on the path to greater success when you continue to improve your professional credentials.

In IT for the long haul

Technical certifications do more than demonstrate that you hold specific expertise. They also send a signal to current and future employers that you are naturally curious and committed to professional development and advancing your knowledge.

Even just maintaining your existing certifications usually requires completing professional development requirements and shows that you remain active in your field. This commitment to continued professional development is an incredibly important characteristic in a field that is constantly evolving.

Certification can provide a gateway to a prosperous IT career. There are plenty of reasons to keep certifying, however, once you're off and running.Employers want to recruit and retain staff who have a passion for their chosen profession and the fact that you spend your own time continuing to advance your skills shows that you’re the type of person who will go above and beyond on the job.

Stay in IT with certification

Professional certifications are not just for entry-level positions, but entry-level certifications aren’t likely to help you land an advanced position. As you progress in your career, you should upgrade your certifications to match your current skill and experience level. A small investment of time may yield significant benefits over the course of your career.

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Mike Chapple

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Chapple is Senior Director for IT Service Delivery at the University of Notre Dame. Mike is CISSP certified and holds bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in computer science and engineering from Notre Dame, with a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Idaho and an MBA from Auburn University.

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