Certification is an excellent way to enhance your skills and employability, but although everyone wants to move ahead, many lack direction. Which certifications should be pursued to achieve the best return on your investment in time and money?
Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), Project Management Professional (PMP), Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA), Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and Sun’s Java certifications are in high demand, said Lisa Spieth, president of LSRCS, a human resource and recruitment services firm.
“The current IT market shows great demands for qualified applicants with at least one certification in their given field,” Spieth said.
She emphasized higher-level certifications but also stressed that certifications should be balanced with adequate experience.
“Higher-tier certs are in greatest demand, and employers look for those who can demonstrate the intense specialized knowledge a higher-level cert conveys and the dedication required to move up through the certification tiers,” she said. “However, high-level certs are of little value without commensurate experience.”
Below is a brief overview for each certification, the steps required for achievement and the types of positions certified individuals can expect to hold. Use this as a quick reference but keep in mind that industry demand should not be the sole reason for choosing a certification — choose a cert that is on the career path you desire.
The MCSE is considered Microsoft’s flagship certification — it has the strongest brand identity and has been in high demand for many years. The MCSE is one of the few IT credentials widely recognized outside the IT sector, and it is one of the top in-demand certifications in today’s job market.
The MCSE is focused on Microsoft Windows server design, implementation and support. To obtain the MCSE, you must pass four core server exams (70-290, 70-291, 70-293, 70-294), one client exam (70-210 on Windows 2000 Professional, 70-270 on Windows XP or 70-620 on Windows Vista), one design exam (70-297 or 70-298) and one elective exam for a total of seven exams.
The MCSE is a long-term certification goal — most people take one year to two years to achieve it. Microsoft’s modular exam structure allows you to complete exams of different levels to certify foundation knowledge before moving on to more advanced skills such as design.
MCSEs will find themselves adequately suited for a variety of positions in network administration, engineering or architecture. Each step from administration toward architecture generally requires more refined skills in design and planning.
In smaller companies, MCSEs might be the sole administrator or part of a small team. The MCSE is often a maestro to an orchestra of Windows computer systems.
In larger companies, MCSEs might specialize in certain technologies such as Microsoft Exchange, ISA Server, remote access or system deployment. More-experienced MCSEs might work with numerous system topologies and will be part of many teams, departments or projects, lending their experience wherever it is needed.
At this level, soft skills and a good business sense become more important, as engineers will need to be able to understand business needs and how their solutions satisfy those needs. They also must have the ability to sell proposed changes to management and deal with issues calmly and efficiently as they arise.
Although not a true IT certification, the PMP has become very important for IT professionals in a team-lead or managerial role — companies are looking for experienced IT professionals who have the clear ability to understand the scope of a project and how to apply the right mix of timing of talent to a project. A project manager usually will be called upon to manage systems development, deployment, integration and similar projects.
The largest demand for PMPs is in application development. The marketplace is not nearly as accepting as it used to be of promised release dates continually being pushed back. To meet objectives on time and within budget, IT professionals need to have good project planning, administration and other skills the PMP certification measures.
To sit for the PMP’s four-hour exam, candidates must have spent 7,500 hours in a leadership role and have 60 months of project management experience. Additionally, they must also have completed 35 credit hours of project management education.
There are many career opportunities for PMPs, depending on your experience, and the certification is especially valuable when coupled with another in-demand certification. MCSEs with a PMP would find themselves managing deployment efforts or migrations. Sun-certified developers would be responsible for a development team.
One thing to note, though, is that achieving the PMP will not propel you into a leadership position because leadership experience is a requirement for the credential. The PMP can, however, solidify a leadership or managerial position and help move you up the managerial ladder.
The MCDBA is Microsoft’s database certification on Microsoft SQL Server 2000. The need for the MCDBA stems mainly from increased demand for database solutions and the increase in market share of Microsoft SQL Server.
“The 2006 Gartner RAS Core Research Note” lists Microsoft’s SQL Server as having 46.8 percent of the Windows relational database management system (RDBMS) market.
Microsoft databases are becoming more commonplace in smaller businesses as the back end to applications and as an integrated part of many Microsoft applications such as Systems Management Server (SMS), SharePoint and Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM).
In the enterprise environment, Microsoft SQL Server increasingly is being deployed because of its improved reporting and analytical services.
Such databases are powering a variety of systems from e-commerce to data warehousing.
Given this growth, the need is great for qualified labor to deploy and maintain these systems.
MCDBAs and MCITP: Database Administrators will find opportunities as database analysts or database administrators depending on their experience. Database positions typically involve installation, maintenance and optimization, with special attention to database security, integrity and backups. Because there is so much confusion surrounding Microsoft’s new database certification, make a point to highlight your database experience with specific references to the products in use by the company such as SQL Server 2005.
If you have the MCITP, apply for MCDBA jobs but make sure to explain in your cover letter how your MCITP is significant and relevant for the position.
Cisco is a leader in corporate America for Internet protocol (IP) and telecommunications equipment — it wields a power in the IP communications industry similar to Microsoft’s in the operating system market. Cisco’s large presence in the industry has created great demand for Cisco-certified professionals.
The CCNA certification is Cisco’s introductory certification and the one in greatest demand. Cisco products often are the first thought when choosing network infrastructure equipment, and they are immensely prevalent, creating a vast need for professionals who are capable of managing them.
The CCNA can be obtained by passing a single exam, 640-801, or two shorter exams: 640-821, Intro, and 640-811, Interconnecting Cisco Network Devices (ICND). The single-exam approach is simpler, but some prefer to take two separate tests so they can break up the material and focus more on each part.
Some common CCNA professions are local area network/wireless area network (LAN/WAN) technicians, network analysts or network support specialists. CCNAs with more experience might be suited for a position as a network engineer specializing in network device configuration and troubleshooting.
This usually requires a bit more knowledge in Ethernet, transmission control protocol (TCP), IP, frame relay, asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), bridges, routers, hubs and experience with the logical and physical functional, operational and technical architecture of large, complex information systems.
The CISSP certification is well-known in the security industry as a valuable credential.
Corporate interest in security and the demand for security practitioners have grown dramatically over the last few years in industries across the board.
Government and law enforcement agencies frequently hire CISSPs, however, their opportunities are not restricted to government jobs — CISSPs can make a home in many corporate IT departments and policy groups.
The CISSP is divided into the following domains: access control, application security, business-continuity and disaster-recovery planning, cryptography, information security and risk management, legal, regulations, compliance and investigations, operations security, physical security, security architecture and design, telecommunication and network security.
The International Information Systems Security Certifications Consortium [(ISC)2], the CISSP certification body, has done such a good job promoting the CISSP, the domains often are used in other security texts to distinguish security zones.
There are three possible CISSP specializations: Information Systems Security Architecture Professional (ISSAP), Information Systems Security Engineering Professional (ISSEP) and Information Systems Security Management Professional (ISSMP). Each specialization allows CISSPs to further concentrate on their respective job roles.
CISSP candidates must have four years of professional information security experience or three years’ experience combined with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in information security. Additionally, professional experience must be validated by a current CISSP. Candidates must then pass the CISSP exam with a score of 700 or better.
Once the CISSP is obtained, continuing education credits must be earned for renewal. These credits are earned by taking or teaching information security classes, volunteering services or publishing in information security.
Some common positions CISSPs might have are information security specialist, information assurance engineer, computer forensics specialist and technical security engineer.
CISSPs often are called upon to design and manage an organization’s security infrastructure. This includes selecting hardware such as firewalls, intrusion-detection systems and access control devices, server hardening and risk analysis, as well as staying up to date on security vulnerabilities or the latest exploit. If you are interested in working in the government sector, a security clearance is highly recommended.
The last area seeing large growth is Java. There is a huge demand in IT for Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition (J2EE) experience, but most employers do not explicitly list a Sun certification as a requirement. Still, a Sun Java certification will highlight both your interest in Java and your dedication to the language.
The Sun Java certification program begins with its entry-level Sun Certified Java Associate (SCJA) and culminates with the Sun Certified Enterprise Architect (SCEA) certification.
In between are the Sun Certified Java Programmer (SCJP) and four specializations: Java developer, Web component developer, Web services developer and mobile application developer.
As individuals follow the course of Sun’s certification track, they will gain a wider range of experience and a deeper understanding of application development and enterprise architecture.
The world of Java can open up a variety of career opportunities, including software development, programming, systems analysis, software engineering and architecture. The role of a Java developer is essentially a software engineer.
Sun Java certifications can help you get your foot in the door to a very rewarding position. These credentials are also very useful in moving up in a position you already hold.
Making In-Demand Certs Work for You
The best advice for IT professionals is to find a place in IT where you are happy and then work on gaining credentials and experience within that area. Market demand changes quickly, and no employer wants an employee who jumps ship to chase the latest technology.
Resumes with a scattered, unfocused set of certifications and experience give human resources the impression that you lack loyalty and direction. This is why it is best to obtain certifications that are in line with your career objectives.
Introduced here were certifications suited for network administrators, technicians, database administrators, security professionals, programmers and managers. It is likely you fit into one of those categories.
If so, now is the time to step up and get certified. As a job seeker, you can significantly demonstrate your worth and career commitment by taking steps to validate learned skills and experiences with a certification.
Eric Vanderburg is the senior network engineer at JurInnov Ltd. and an adjunct professor of computer information systems at Lorain County Community College. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.