Balancing Your Career
Making yourself marketable in today’s economy is “priority one” when it comes to you and your career. Many times we become stagnant in our positions and skills, or on the other side of the spectrum, we never had the skills and are trying either to break into or to advance in the Information Technology (IT) field. Either way, you have to focus on marketability, and that is the focus of this article—how to make yourself marketable.
Not long ago, it was not uncommon for new IT candidates with a mere Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification to ask for (and get) a $60,000-a-year job. This was also with, at most, one to two years of experience. Some people who were leaving training centers with very little experience and their MCSE landed $40,000 salaries just for being “trainable.” This was a time of massive growth, and the supply of knowledgeable people was low.
We are living in a different world now, and the landscape of IT has changed. What road map should you follow to get ahead in such a turbulent field? How can you make yourself highly marketable so that you can set yourself apart from the crowd?
This article will discuss the “three-legged stool,” a term taken from the finance world that represents a way to balance your savings properly. This analogy is meant to show support for yourself if you balance your money properly. In the IT world, certification, college and experience are all separate parts of a whole foundation that you should strive to build in order to get ahead. As a job candidate, your focus should be on making yourself and your resume noticeable to hiring managers. As an IT pro who has become stagnant or unmarketable, your focus should be on making yourself a possible contender for advancement. Focusing on experience, a degree and vendor certifications together can make that possible.
Before We Start
First, let’s meet our guides on the journey, the stagnant professional and the hopeful candidate:
- Erika is a network engineer. Erika has mastered her tasks at work and has become complacent because she knows the network so well. Erika would like to make a move into management, but she doesn’t know if she can because she only has 30 college credits, four years of experience and a Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) certification.
- John is looking for a job as a network engineer. John has just finished a course at a local boot camp, earning his Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification. John has one year of experience as an electrician just out of high school.
Let’s take a look at how they built their stools for total support.
Certification is the first leg of the stool and is a key avenue for you to get into IT or get ahead in your IT career. Professional certification has been around for many years in many different disciplines. In the past, certification was almost all you needed to get a job or advance your career. Today, certification is still very important, but the emphasis on it has changed. In today’s job market, you may want to focus on either the most common certification for your specific area of knowledge or an obscure certification that will bring more value to your skill set and show you are well-rounded.
For instance, Erika wants to go into management, but she has no credible management experience. She has a CCNP, which is a mid-range Cisco certification, but this shows very little in the way of management experience since this certification is all about technical concepts. Erika should focus on a management type of certification to boost her marketability and her chances for advancement. Erika should start building the first leg of her stool with a new certification, such as a project management credential.
Since Erika offered no focus on what type of management position she was looking for (security, engineering, architecture, etc.), it’s imperative that she standardize. A good project management certification could help by showing that she is focused on the technical end of her work, as well as time, budget and other key aspects of project completion. Erika could move into a project lead position very easily while building her stool. Certification is important in this aspect because passing an exam like CompTIA’s IT Project+ would require a certain amount of time to study and then be tested on that knowledge.
John needs to break into the IT field. This poses a significant challenge in today’s market because there are many technicians in the same boat: very little (if any) experience, no degree and one certification (if any). Because of the complexity of today’s systems and networks, many hiring managers are unable to hire technicians with very little experience, so how does John get a break? With certification, John took the first step, and it was the right one.
My only complaint with John’s effort is that he focused only on certification, which he thought would bring him the highest dollar amount out of school. Instead of focusing on gaining some experience, getting a foot in the door and working his way up in a position to get some valuable experience, John only worked on one leg of the stool. John should focus on getting some experience and earning certifications that will help him find a position more in line with what is available in the job market.
My advice to John would be to study for parallel certifications (build his stool) and earn the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) as well as the CCNP. This would increase his marketability, and he may find himself in a position where his employer will decide after seeing his work ethic that he would make a perfect fit in the engineering department. Here, if John plays his cards right and builds his stool, he will be able to navigate into an entry-level job, as well as provide himself a promotion path within the organization.
As networks become more complex, companies need smart individuals who have excellent communication and writing skills and can get their point across. They need self-motivated team leaders with basic management experience. They need clear thinkers and good speakers. Most of these skills are not taught in a training center or boot camp.
In the past, there was a large rush of certified individuals making their way into the IT field, many with no college degree. If you are a technician with no college degree, you may want to earn a project management certification and focus on a two-year degree in business management. Keep your existing skills current, but go to college at night (or on weekends) to start advancing your other IT skills. Self- and time-management skills are also becoming a hot commodity in today’s multitasking business environment.
The corporate culture today is looking for dynamic people, and a college degree can round out your potential with these needed skills. The college degree will offer you a new level of credibility when you are searching for work or trying to advance in a job.
It’s important to consider a degree as part of your three-legged stool. Although you can earn your degree in a great many areas, you need to focus on the area you like best. What is most interesting to you? What can you use? You don’t necessarily need a college degree in IT (although it may help, especially with programming jobs, which often require a four-year degree in computer science). This should really be based on your preference and your career plan.
Erika, for example, is a prime example of someone who needs to finish her degree for promotion or advancement. Since Erika is so close already, it would be a crime if she did not finish her degree to make herself more marketable. Many people have a few credits in college, but no degree. Since Erika wants to be in management, she should focus on the project management certification and pursue a degree