Expanding Your Certified Horizons
Standing still is not an option for today’s IT professional. Continually advancing your knowledge and skills is a simple matter of self-interest. The current reality is this: Competition for desirable IT positions and contracts is fierce. If you aren’t regularly developing new skills, you probably are not a contender for those jobs. There’s also the matter of self-preservation. If you don’t stay abreast of new developments and update your skill set, you fall behind those who do. Failure of IT professionals to engage in continued learning and skill mastery is slow career suicide.
Whether you’ve recently earned your first certification or you’re a seasoned IT veteran with multiple credentials, you recognize the value of certification as an authentication of your professional skills. You’re aware of the important role it can play in your ongoing career development, helping you transition from where you are to where you want to be.
It could be that you’re thinking of leaving the position you now have for a new one. Or maybe you just want your employer to grant you more responsibility and deliver a fatter paycheck. Or you see yourself moving from your current job role into a high-demand IT specialty with corresponding lofty rewards, perhaps something like information security or business continuity.
Achieving another, or maybe more than one other, carefully considered certification can certainly bring your career vision closer to reality. But certification is best thought of as a stepping-stone, not a shortcut, to your career goals. “Certification is no magic bullet,” said Michael Solomon, a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), IT security consultant and author in Atlanta. “There are a lot of people who pass exams without any real experience. Any certification should validate what you know.”
If you’re committed to continuing professional education and you see that certification can grow your career by helping you branch out into a particular specialty or by simply making you more valuable to employers and clients, then it’s time for some introspection. Even if you’re convinced you know exactly where your career is headed and precisely what certification(s) will speed you to that destination, a little planning up front likely will save time and effort in the long run.
Among some professionals there’s a drive to obtain higher-level certifications based on the prestige those credentials carry and on the perceived financial rewards. “There’s an attitude out there that has people thinking ‘I need a new job, so I’m going to get another certification,’ ” said Michael Storm, a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) and Phoenix-based consultant and IT instructor. “Or ‘I need a raise so it’s time to get another certification.’”
Before you dive headlong once again into the certification process, here are considerations to ponder:
- Do I really want the kind of job that a particular expert-level certification would qualify me for?
- Would a broader skill set than I now possess make me more valuable to those who might hire me?
- Am I truly focused on mastering new skills, or am I preoccupied with getting a piece of paper and having a certain combination of letters after my name?
What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?
As you review options for pursuing your next certification, take a step back and look at the big picture of your IT career, advises Andrea Kay, a career consultant and author in Cincinnati. “I encourage my clients to think about not just their next move, but how that next job or role fits into their overall career plan,” she said. “Ask yourself ‘How will this help me gain more expertise? How will this experience make me more valuable?’”
That’s good advice. But what if, like most people, you don’t really have a career plan? Maybe you have in mind an ideal job you’d like to have someday, or maybe it’s a particular title you think you would like to hold, like CIO or senior project manager. Or perhaps you have mentally conjured a job description based on the particular work tasks you find most fulfilling and enjoyable. If that’s where you are now, no problem, Kay said. You can begin to put together a career plan by doing some research.
“If you think you’re interested in a particular kind of job or role, ask yourself what strengths, what different skills, talents and abilities a person in that position needs,” she said. “What would that person in that role actually do on a daily basis? If you aren’t sure, you need to read and talk to people to find out.”
As an example, Kay said, imagine you’re a developer who wants to move into project management. Clearly you’ll need more than solid code-writing skills. “Project managers work with details, they plan, they follow up on things, they gather people and build teams, they identify processes, they measure results, they motivate team members, they ensure team objectives are met,” Kay said.
Once you understand the tasks and skills a position demands, it’s time to do an inventory of your own skills and personal characteristics. Would you enjoy performing those kinds of job tasks every day? Can you actually perform the required tasks now? If not, are you willing to put in the time and effort needed to learn them? Assuming your tech skills pass muster, how about those abilities commonly referred to as soft skills?
Our imaginary developer who wants to be a project manager must ask herself, “Do I generally enjoy working with people? Am I a ‘big picture’ kind of person who would relish tracking the progress of each team member and putting it into the context of the entire project? Can I communicate about the project in plain language with people on the business side of the organization? Can I deliver an effective presentation to an audience?” And the biggest question of all, “If I don’t now possess those characteristics, am I willing to work hard enough to change so I can be that kind of person?”
If there’s a sizable gap between what’s required for the job you have in mind and your current skill set, don’t give up your dream. You can get there with effort and perseverance, said Kay. “I had a client like that, a very introverted developer who wanted to take on more of a project lead role,” she said. “He was not one to initiate conversations with people or consider how they might feel. He was a ‘let’s get it done’ kind of guy. He had to make a shift in his personal style, and it was a struggle for him. But over time he made the change. He learned he needed to do more follow-up with people and communicate in plain English.”
Go Broader? Dig Deeper? Do Both?
Part of the intrinsic value of any IT certification is its assurance that the holder possesses at least a standard skill level. A higher-level certification obviously implies a deeper level of expertise. However, an expert can be even more valuable to an employer or to clients when he possesses a broad set of skills in addition to deep knowledge in a particular area. Specialized expertise within the context of a broad skills foundation is valuable because all aspects, areas and disciplines of IT are interrelated. An understanding of how the various areas function together is critical to making sure systems perform optimally, Storm said.
“What I see happen frequently is someone picks one IT area of interest, and they learn a lot about that discipline. But they don’t understand very well how their area ties into the other disciplines,” Storm said. “If I know all about my area, but I’m unaware how it relates to what the rest of the IT department is doing, that creates problems.”
To illustrate the point, Storm described an example of a Windows administrator with responsibility to add a new service to an existing network. The admin must not only have the skills to ensure that the new service is implemented and functio