The Intrinsic Value of Certification
A career is similar to a long voyage. The problem we face as we chart the course of our career is that we cannot see over the horizon. We can make informed decisions based on what we know today and hope that these career choices will adequately prepare us for whatever conditions lie ahead, fair weather or foul. The intrinsic value of IT certification—and managing that value—can help ensure a successful career voyage.
IT certification assists us in making important connections in a career. We see an ad for a job opening. The ad specifies certifications we hold or describes skills contained in our certifications. We make the connection that there is a possibility of filling that job. We make connections with headhunters in the same way. We make decisions regarding lifelong learning based on the certificates we have and those that we seek. We use the credibility of certification to connect with business opportunities. Certifications, in other words, intrinsically provide the link between where we are now and where we want to go.
The Concept of Portability
The term “portability” when applied to IT certifications means that a certificate can easily be applied across different companies and applications. Using this definition, the more portable a certification, the higher the potential value to the individual, who feels confident to go pretty much anywhere and earn a living. People naturally want high-value certifications and discuss their relative portability. High portability relies nearly 100 percent on name recognition and demand for the certification at any given moment in time.
When a career is measured in decades, the relevance of any one certification or certification track diminishes. The hot certification today will not be hot in 10 years. How do we make sure the certifications we have today continue to connect—serve as the link—with tomorrow?
Let’s take the concept of portability to another level and look at it in the context of a decade-long career. In this long-term view, the definition of portability becomes the ability to create value or claim value from a certification. This long-term definition focuses on the person, not necessarily the name of the certification. This means that the higher the portability, the more value a prospective employer or client perceives you have to offer. By this definition, it is incumbent on us to communicate the unique value we offer based on our certifications and not to rely solely on the fact that we hold a specific certification.
The more we can learn to communicate value, the more flexible our careers become. Through the concept of portability—creating or communicating value—we begin to take charge of our careers much more positively than if we simply tried to stay ahead of certification’s fashion curve by acquiring the most popular certification of the moment.
Different Approaches to Communicating Value
When IT managers review a resume, they decide very quickly if the person is a generalist or a specialist. They see the generalist as the all-around person who has earned certifications in a number of different areas. The generalist, their experience tells them, can perform well in a number of different areas. They see the specialist as the person who can delve deeply into one or two areas and solve complex problems in short order. Managers need both, and they use these general categories as a quick sorting tool. It is important to consider your resume in this light and to anticipate the first impression the manager will have of your capabilities.
If your background is more general, emphasize in your cover letter, resume and interview the value you offer in terms of flexibility and versatility. Be clear in letting prospective employers know you have mastered industry standards and can work successfully with a number of different vendor’s products. Describe how you selected specific certifications. Emphasize how these have helped to elevate your knowledge to current industry standards in order to improve your productivity and effectiveness. Describe your reasons for choosing to be a generalist. Managers respect those who have a solid rationale for pursuing a particular discipline. Clearly communicate the benefits you offer an employer.
Don’t make the assumption that hiring managers are going to know the ins and outs of each of your certifications simply by name. In all likelihood, they won’t. Be specific on a few key details of the certification and relate how those make you more productive as a generalist. When you do this, you describe the intrinsic value of the certification and make the important connection between the employer’s or client’s need and your ability to meet that need.
Don’t simply rely on the name of the certification to carry the day. It’s the productivity and problem-solving abilities that you’ve demonstrated that are important. It is your mastery of industry standards that says you are the person to get the job done.
Just because you are a generalist doesn’t mean you can’t have one or two areas where you have made the effort to acquire extra expertise. High portability can be established through the ability to integrate different systems, such as servers and routers or databases and security. You know what you like to do and what interests you. Select one or two certifications that validate those skills you want to emphasize. This gives the generalist an edge.
Hiring managers also immediately identify the specialist. The specialist’s certifications are typically focused in one area or on a specific supplier. Managers use specialists for the tougher, more specific problems, those requiring focused training and certification. You must convince a prospective employer of your productivity in working with these specialized, mission-critical systems. Be specific on the knowledge and standards you’ve mastered. Make it clear why you made this career choice.
Specialists are generally not in a quandary about selecting their next certification. They know what’s hot now. The specialist, however, has given up some flexibility. You don’t want to become so specialized that if the environment changes, your skills become obsolete. On the flip side, should your specialty be in demand, your skills may be rare and thus command a high salary or fee.
It is a good idea for you to have foundation-level certifications, as well as certifications that connect you to important applications outside of your specialty. An example of this today is the security field. Demonstrate to the employer that you know we live in a multi-vendor world and that you have prepared yourself to make sure you can integrate and network a number of different systems. Claim extra value by mastering industry standards that link your specialty to the rest of the world. Do your homework and look for certifications that tie your specialty into open standards. Being able to integrate differing technologies will also tend to play in your favor.
Manage Your Certifications Like a Stock Portfolio
Treat your certificates, academic transcripts and records of completed training courses as important documents. Resist the temptation to file them haphazardly. Buying a fireproof document box would be a sound investment. Keep a written record of all qualifications, separate from the certificates. If you’ve misplaced a document, don’t hesitate to contact the certification sponsor. The leaders in the industry know how important these records are and will help you replace them.
When you move or change jobs, be sure to send a change of address to the certification sponsors. You want to be kept apprised of developments and keep current. It is also a good idea to regularly visit the certification sponsor’s Web site. You may be amazed to see how all the changes not only in the technology, but also in th