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Dear CertMag: After graduating college, I started on handling IT services at the city offices in my hometown. I like network management and I have a couple of ground-level networking certs (Network+, Network Pro, CCNA). I want to move up in that field, and I’m fairly open as far as what direction I take. What are the best networking certs to go after from here? Salary is not my top consideration, but I’d definitely like to move up the ladder.
— Kelly, Sioux City, Iowa
Kelly, while the vendor landscape has changed in the last few years, shaped by acquisitions, a tough economy, and the emergence of managed devices from new vendors, the area of certification has not evolved necessarily as rapidly. Cisco is still one of the most substantial, mature and accepted credentials in the networking space. Your likely best target is to continue to build your knowledge and experience, working toward a Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) in the set of technologies that make the most sense for your career.
While the certification picture seems quite clear, I would caution you in managing your expectations of how important the certification will be in “moving up the ladder.” As important as a technical certification can be in demonstrating that you have the ability to work at the next level, practical experience and business capability are also critical factors in ensuring that you are positioned well the next time that a promotion or new role comes up.
You mention graduating college: Depending on what your degree is in you may want to seek opportunities to brush up on any context you already have for project management, or network design. The next level of opportunity may require extended skills in network security, network design, business management, or project management — depending on where your interest lies. Most mid-sized and large organizations will typically have one of two paths for a network administrator to grow — you can either work toward become a network architect, or aim to be a manager of the networking function.
Spend some time on career sites searching for the job role that you are most interested in. Remember to include searches for similar titles that may be the same job, listed with different words. What are the keys skills in those jobs? Are you doing any of those things today? (Remember to be honest — if you are perhaps over-enthusiastic in weighing your past experience, then the only person you hurt is yourself.) Look for opportunities at work to expand in some of the areas where you perhaps would like to show a stronger capability to the next promotion board or employer.
Examples could include volunteering for additional responsibilities, seeking out mentors at work who are involved in those roles today, participating in business projects that have representatives from your area of the IT department, or getting involved with outside organizations (like local user groups) to give presentations that show thought leadership
Finally, as a step to consider — each organization may present its own risks in doing this — you may want to start a career conversation with your employer about what the “next step” is for you, and how they see you getting there. Understanding what that step is, any timeline they may have in mind, the kinds of experiences that they are looking for you to build to get there, and other criteria can be a leap forward in helping to achieve that next promotion. Not all organizations have a well-established career progression, so you may need to gently and diplomatically raise the question. Pose it in a low-pressure way, and then provide some time to revisit it later to get a good answer. Only you can judge the ramifications of trying this approach at your workplace.
If you are uncomfortable with the risk of starting the discussion, then focus more on yourself as a candidate. Think about your willingness to pursue that next step of your career with a new employer, instead of settling for a potentially open-ended experience at your current one.