Certification Paths to Support Specialized Careers

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With the proliferation of certifications that have come and gone over the past 10 years, choosing a certification path to pursue can be bewildering. Marketing programs and advertisements from many of the certification programs dramatically oversell their ability to—on their own—help you find high-paying careers with reasonable chances for further experience and advancement. So what’s a smart person like you to do? Luckily, there are strategies and alternatives for sharpening your career with well-selected “niche” certifications.

 

With the proliferation of certifications that have come and gone over the past 10 years, choosing a certification path to pursue can be bewildering. Marketing programs and advertisements from many of the certification programs dramatically oversell their ability to—on their own—help you find high-paying careers with reasonable chances for further experience and advancement. So what’s a smart person like you to do? Luckily, there are strategies and alternatives for sharpening your career with well-selected “niche” certifications.

 

Build a Foundation
Many people considering niche certifications have not yet earned one of the core certifications that are so prevalent in the industry, such as the A+ and Network+ from the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) or Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), or the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) or Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP).

 

Spending energy, time and money on a specialized certification before gaining one of these established core certifications is like landscaping before building your house. Through a combination of work experience and one of these established certifications for your particular field, you demonstrate your core areas of expertise in systems administration, networking management, systems troubleshooting, etc., to the market and to potential future employers.

 

Once you have established your foundation through certifications and experience—you’ve built your house—then it’s time to call in the specialized certifications to help outfit your résumé to ensure it’s the envy of the IT neighborhood.

 

Select a Theme
The first step in choosing a niche certification path is to look at your own interests. No matter how lucrative a particular technology segment may be at one point or another, if you hate your job, it won’t be worth it.

 

Do you love information security and testing various types of equipment to see if they are well-protected, or do you find the types of scripts often used by penetration testers boring? Wireless networks will become the norm over time, at greater and greater distances. How much do you want to know about how to manage the “radio”? Storage is a long-term growth business—files will only get larger, and there inevitably will be more and more to store and retrieve. Voice technology was once its own unique segment, with a whole different family of technologies, protocols and delivery mechanisms. With the burgeoning growth of voice over IP (VoIP), does it make sense to become an expert in managing the next generation of telecommunications infrastructure?

 

The answer to all of these questions is that each of these segments (plus several others like portal development) has a future, and large numbers of customers will need this type of work done. The future will be driven both by the evolution of the technologies, and the leading vendors who deliver them.

 

Vendor or Vendor-Neutral Certification?
One of the more challenging decisions you’ll need to make when considering specialized certifications is whether to get vendor-neutral certifications in the general technologies or vendor-specific certification in the products of the key vendors. Of course, the ideal answer is both, but time and money often force us to choose. Here are a few guidelines to help you make that decision:

 

 

  • Is the technology stable? Getting certified in a technology doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until the technology is relatively stable, ensuring that vendors will build products that use the technology and customers will be comfortable buying the technology and committing to use it for several years. Ethernet switching, for example, is now a stable technology, and studying how to install and manage Ethernet networks is an obvious choice. Ten years ago, when the Ethernet-versus-Token-Ring battle was still raging, and store-and-forward versus cut-through switching were still debates on which people took sides, making a decision to manage Ethernet-switched networks would have been quite risky. I made this mistake by offering an in-depth, everything-you-would-need-to-know-to-be-ready course in IPv6—in 1996. Needless to say, things weren’t quite as urgent then as we thought. This question now reigns in fields like wireless, where wireless LAN technology is omnipresent and certainly worth being knowledgeable in, but where one also must consider the potential impact of 3G services and WiMAX on the underlying technologies one would need to know to be an effective wireless professional.
  • Is the technology being deployed in your area? Wireless 3G services have been around for six years in many parts of the world, and 3G has been big business in places as disparate as Scandinavia, Japan, Korea and South Africa. Understandably, the key vendors have been offering training and certification in these technologies since about 1999. But if you had bet your career on 3G in the United States five years ago, you’d have been very hungry over the past few years. Having an installed base of the key technology is essential to creating demand for services from specialized, certified professionals.
  • Is there a dominant vendor? Sometimes standards don’t matter as much as they might when a particular vendor gains a dominant hold on a market. In the early days of fibre-channel storage area networks (SANs), the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) had trouble getting a vendor-independent certification off the ground, since such a large number of the early adopters had purchased EMC equipment and bought into many of EMC’s proprietary technologies. As the market matured, new players like Network Appliance began to compete vigorously for market share, and third-party tools for switching, management and other services developed, following the standards became more important for all players, and the interest in and adoption of the SNIA certification for SAN professionals became far more prevalent. For other markets, however, the dominant vendor consumes such a large share of the market that vendor-independent certification loses value. For example, it’s hard to imagine a vendor-independent certification in routing due to the dominance of Cisco hardware in that space, and the prevalence of such a strong family of certifications to support it.
  • Is this an important enough area that a company would want a specialist? The next key question in assessing your niche certification is whether companies will be interested in hiring professionals who have this type of specialized skill. For example, in today’s market, it’s pretty easy to see that security is a hot commodity and well worth pursuing. In 1992 I worked for a pharmaceutical company that had hired more people to create customized Microsoft Word templates than people to manage network security for thousands of people in a highly regulated industry. Times change. What size company will hire a SAN specialist? How many of them are in your area? Are they looking for those skills now?
  • Does the vendor have legs? Consider carefully whether the technology or vendor you choose has enough staying power to make a lasting difference, and it will make the right answer easier to find. If you support a great product from a sma
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