Figuring Out What You’re Worth

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Whether you’re looking for a new job or have had a long and successful career at your company, the “grass is always greener” issue can gnaw at you. Given your knowledge, skills and expertise, what are you worth? How do you make sure you’re well paid for your hard work? There are different factors that affect your value in the marketplace, different places you can go to get an idea of your value and different strategies to help you work toward your goal.

Broadly speaking, your pay is a rough measure of the value of the impact you have on the business you support. Factors that tend to influence pay include education, formal training, certifications, technical experience, business experience, geography, and simple supply and demand.

During the bubbliest portions of the dot-com era, there was a broad consensus that getting a traditional college education was no longer relevant. When people can become instant millionaires without business plans, profits or even revenues, that type of thinking might make sense.

Now that we’ve returned to the real world, it’s clear the core measures of a college education — the ability to think logically, write coherently and finish projects successfully — have not gone out of favor. If you don’t have at least an undergraduate degree, getting one might be necessary to break through some glass ceilings in your career.

You won’t find many chief information officers, chief technology officers, technical vice presidents or directors without an undergraduate degree. On the other hand, even a doctorate might not add appreciably to your value, unless it’s balanced with other factors. You might actually have to demonstrate your real-world credentials in order to avoid being labeled simply an academic.

Formal Training
In addition to traditional undergraduate and graduate work, most organizations look for people who aggressively seek out opportunities to add new knowledge and skills to their arsenals. You’ll want to mention technical conferences, instructor-led training programs, and even e-learning and Webinar experiences you’ve taken to enhance your technical prowess. As part of your negotiations when looking for a new job or doing a performance review with your company, you’ll also want to ask for specific training opportunities that directly link to the work you’re asked to do. Training dollars are often scarce and tend to go to the squeaky wheels with good justification plans for the training.

No plan for finding out your worth and maximizing it would be complete without certification. People spend large amounts of time trying to figure out which certifications they should attain. In most cases, though, your field of choice, combined with the technology choices of your employer, makes the question moot.

If your goal is to advance in your organization, and it’s standardized on Microsoft SQL Server, getting your Oracle DBA probably won’t help you very much. Starting with the Microsoft Certified Data Base Administrator (MCDBA) clearly makes more sense. But don’t limit yourself to the certification track. Specialized training in areas such as high-availability solutions or database security also might be considered a strong extra in your favor by a current or potential employer.

Likewise, although technical certifications might be your first consideration, less technical credentials that are important to your business might provide a key link to higher salaries. These include process certifications such as the ITIL Foundations or Practitioner or Project Management Professional (PMP).

Technical Experience
No amount of training, certification or formal education can replace the need for real, practical experience with technology. Many professionals start their careers at the entry level and gather experience as they grow with their organizations. Others feel limited by the scope of their job responsibilities and constantly look for ways to gain more experience. After all, setting up networks in your basement or spare bedroom can only take you so far.

There are literally thousands of organizations that need technical expertise and would be thrilled to have a “learn as you go” resource to help them. Many churches, nonprofits and community organizations would be very willing to give you a strong recommendation in exchange for a practical learning ground to help them as you gain experience with new technologies. Be creative: Ask your local school, neighborhood center or church for recommendations. You’ll be astonished how much need is out there. They might be able to help you get access to additional training, as well.

Business Experience
Most of the time, when people ask about experience, the natural response is to talk about technology. Which application software packages do you know? Which databases? Which Web application servers? There is another kind of experience that is at least as important, however — real experience in business, from the business’ point of view.

If you worked on a project, it’s critical to understand why the project was important to your business. Did you develop an application to help your organization track customer sales and orders? Do you have a record of seeing projects through to a successful conclusion so that the business gets the benefits of your labors? Perhaps the single most important skill in breaking through to a high-paying executive IT job is being able to see the business context of your work. What mission-critical business functions do you support? How do you help your organization optimize its use of technical resources to compete and win as a business? The better you are able to read business plans and understand how your work helps your organization succeed, the more valuable you will be.

When assessing your value, one of the most important factors to determine is your exact marketplace. Because the cost of living is so much higher in certain parts of the country (and the world), it shouldn’t surprise you that your salary range will differ depending on where you live. A job with a salary that would buy you a four-bedroom home in Kansas City, Mo., might only buy you a condo in San Jose, Calif., or a long commute in New York or Washington, D.C. When you look at broad statistical averages for certain job functions or certifications, take into account where you live. If your house is 20 percent more costly than the national average, you might see that reflected in the salaries paid to people who work in that area. This is very important to remember if you’re considering relocating as part of a job search. A proposed salary might look like a big step up, but if you’re moving from a very cost-effective place to live to a very expensive region, most of your raise can be eaten up by cost-of-living adjustments.

Supply and Demand
As with other parts of the economy, some technical jobs are priced on supply and demand rules. If you’re one of the first people to gain a new Microsoft or Cisco certification, it probably won’t surprise you that, for a short period of time, you will be able to charge a premium price for your services. You can afford to charge more because there simply aren’t more people like you. Likewise, the person who hires you can charge more for your services. There are high premiums on people with strong combinations of business skills and IT expertise, so certifications such as ITIL, PMP and business analysis, along with several high-end security certifications, can bring big returns in the market. These come and go, though — remember when a CNE or MCSE was a ticket to big money? Take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves but always be ready to move forward as the business and technical climate changes.

Getting the Skinny on Your Worth
You’ve done your homework, listed

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