The technology industry is, for better or worse, one of the last “critical industries” of industrialized nations that is not formally regulated by government. In the United States, you cannot practice law, medicine, and most variations of accounting without a proper license. Why is this beneficial? Many reasons, actually. It creates a fairly level playing field among those who wish to partake in these highly-skilled industries. It also generates trust between professionals and the public which enables incomes to stay high and the quality of work to be relatively similar. Is the above always true? No, and I won’t claim this to be the case, but overall such a system works to keep the bad apples out and the excellent ones in (and thriving).
Seeing that information technology is now an industry which most any modern country could not live without and is generally considered a “highly skilled” profession, why is it generally disregarded by government? I can’t answer this in any solid, succinct fashion, but the truth of the matter still stands. Our industry continues to grow in both skill and importance, yet it has no standardized baseline for what should be expected of the professionals like myself that make up the field.
What does the above have to do with IT certifications? A lot. As far as I am concerned, IT certifications fill that gap between what government has failed to regulate and what should be expected of modern day IT professionals. While a portion of IT knowledge workers believe there is no place for certifications for various reasons, I’ve got more than a few justifications for why I think certifications still matter and more importantly, why YOU should be leveraging them selectively to build a better, stronger technology business.
IT certifications build “technical perspective” in a person that is supportive of field experience in very important ways. For those that don’t have any certifications, this is a tough concept to relate to. While it may be sufficient for yourself that most relevant knowledge was gained on the job, many newcomers into the industry have no baseline to judge their starting point from. “Try, try, and try again until you succeed” is a great motto to live by – but does it necessarily summarize how a new technician should approach their first tech job? A great example of an IT cert that online forum-goers love to dump on is the CompTIA A+ certification. And it’s also not ironic how a majority of the heat comes from those with intermediate to heavy experience in the industry.
For many new techs, A+ (and it’s sister certification, Network+) allows for someone to appropriately gauge their ability to take on tasks and solve problems that may be entirely foreign. I won’t lie to the crowd and say that my A+ certification is highly relevant to my line of work today. But I will admit that when I was getting my start, it gave me a level of confidence to tackle problems that otherwise would have had to come from a purely task-based learning process.
Lower level certifications don’t necessarily exemplify content mastery, but do show that a newcomer is willing to, and can be, trained. Many professionals I have spoken with on this topic agree that someone who passes the A+ test isn’t an instant expert on the material or field of work they are entering (entry level tech support, for example). But if that candidate had the will power to learn the content well enough for a passing score, they are more than likely able to take direction and training from a higher up and “hone” their skills to real world applicable context. I’ve seen this to be the case amongst more than a few colleagues who started out with low level certs in their careers.
After attaining a trust in their own potential after passing the A+ or Network+ exams, they exponentially yearned for new knowledge and experience in their new-found field. This is both a win win for the potential employer and the technician alike. I know many readers on Technibble are business owners looking for some great young blood for their shops, and this is a great way to start a good relationship. I personally know of more than a few business owners who helped foster great budding technicians on staff by helping them pay for their exams if they got certified with passing scores.
Career commitment goes hand in hand with technical certification, especially as the specialization and difficulty rises. This point is very straightforward: why would you spend the time, money, and effort furthering yourself in an area that you have no core interest in for the long run? Of all the certifications I have taken so far, I have to say that my MCTS in Windows 7 and my certification as a Google Apps Trainer were the most mentally challenging in terms of content and time commitment.
But even those are considered intermediate exams in pale contrast to daunting exams like the CCNA or even the MCSE. If you think certifications are a laughing matter, just take a look at the pre-requisite list for becoming MCSE certified – a total of no less than 14 exams! The more grueling the exam and certification, the more likely someone is to be committed to their career path in information technology.
Certifications are excellent for boosting your personal or company image on marketing material or even for winning contracts/projects. You choose a great doctor because of their licenses & credentials, and the same goes for your lawyer, car mechanic, and financial advisor. And how do those individuals market themselves? More than likely, they are pointing out their credentials in print or online to merely get your consideration. I’m not saying any given certification is your ticket in the door, but it surely can be your boost to get to the finish line. And in many cases, for today’s competitive economy, that could be the difference between too few and too many good leads.
I’ve been inching more and more into the cloud realm, specifically for the Google Apps product, and my two Google certifications as an Apps Trainer and Deployment Specialist have given my company FireLogic quite an edge. I won’t publicly state how many direct leads I’ve gotten as a result of becoming certified in this new area, but I will say that it was well worth the time investment and I will happily be renewing them for years to come.
Learning on the job isn’t always ideal or professional. This holds especially true for higher level, advanced certifications that cover content which is difficult to master without sufficient hands on experience. Is it appropriate to use a client’s new Windows 2008 Server as the guinea pig for learning how to implement Active Directory properly? If you promoted yourself or your company as being an expert in Windows Server AD, this is even more unprofessional, and could end up costing you a great customer relationship if it goes poorly. I’m not going to say that certifications teach nearly all of the ins and outs of a given technical system by any means – but they give you the knowledge set to adequately approach a situation and make educated decisions from there. Don’t let your lack of knowledge about a technology lead to a burned relationship. Remember, your customer is hiring you because YOU are the professional (and not just filling the shoes of one).
Are all IT certifications created equal? Do they all have the same return on investment when it comes to an increased ability to charge higher rates, land better leads, and hold an edge over your competition? Of course not. DICE Learning released results from a large survey of 17,000 IT Professionals in 2010 that asked which certifications personally gave them the best ROI. Which ones came out on top? Quite a few that I actually hold, including the A+, Network+, Security+, and MCP (now called the MCTS). Other top certs were the known big boys such as the MCSE, MCSA, and the Cisco CCNA. As the IT technician market becomes more and more crowded, you have to differentiate yourself somehow. Why not use the chance to make yourself outright shine?
You can have a look at the full results of the DICE Learning “Top 10 Pay-Boosting Certifications in Tech” survey here: http://learning.dice.com/news.php?articleID=13