In the Breaking into Tech series of posts I will weigh the pros and cons of the three basic means of preparing yourself for a career in tech: certification, formal education, and experience. For each category I’ll give separate advice for those seeking a corporate career versus those seeking to start their own computer business. Drawing from my own experiences, as well as my observations of other successful people, I hope to give a realistic look at what it takes to break into tech.
Often those who are planning on beginning a career in IT, either finishing school or changing careers, will wonder if paying money to get certified is worth it. The reason this question is asked over and over again is that there is no one right answer. One person can point at their own experience as an independent technician and say that all it took for them to be successful was proper experience, while another might say the only way they were able to compete in the job market was with a certification or two under their belt. There are a myriad of experiences and no two are alike.
Earning an IT certification is the most focused and least time consuming of the three categories I’ll be covering. There are numerous industry standard certification’s out there ranging from the basic PC comprehension shown by passing CompTIA’s A+ to elite advanced certifications like Cisco’s new Certified Architect program. Whatever your specialty, there’s a certification you can earn to prove your understanding of it. Lets take a look at how certification can help you in a corporate career versus a consulting career.
Certifications look good on paper. On your resume, they give you an advantage over someone with similar background and no certification. For an entry level IT position, many employers look for basic competency demonstrated by certifications like CompTIA A+. As you rise through your career and focus your specialties, there’s no quicker way to prove your understanding of a topic like passing a certification exam. If you intend to branch out into a specific area of IT, I recommend getting certified first. You will not only prove to yourself that you understand the technical skills required of you, but you prove to your employer that you’re serious about it.
A small disclaimer: I DID NOT posses any certifications when I was hired in my first entry level IT position. There are many other factors that led to my hiring (military experience being the main one) and my situation was unique. Since I’ve been in the corporate world, however, I have earned some certifications, mostly based on the needs of the company I’m working for. Most beginner certification exams are fairly cheap, and worth the investment if you feel they will help make up for lack of experience.
Certifications make little to no difference for someone looking to start their own computer consulting business. Residential customers don’t know an MCDST from a hole in the wall. All they care about is finding someone who can fix their computer right the first time. However, if you want to support medium to large businesses or if you’re looking to become an expert in a particular IT discipline, certifications play a more important role.
For those in the residential or small business service side, simply going through the training material/books associated with certifications is a good way to brush up and keep your skills current. I’ll periodically check on the version of A+, Network+, and Microsoft Certification to see if any new material was added. Then I’ll simply read up on those newer topics. Going through the process of actually getting certified by paying money for an exam is probably not necessary.
The Bottom Line
Certifications are not the golden ticket into an IT profession that many people believe they are. Some people may say that certifications prove nothing more than your ability to study and pass a test, that they prove no real skill. While there is some truth to this, I still feel earning a certification, especially early on in your career, is an easy way to show you’re serious about your profession and you posses basic understanding of the position. Following a focused certification track can also lead you more easily through the career path of your choice and provides a good barometer of your readiness to advance.
As for those of you looking to start your own independent computer consulting company, certifications are basically useless. It’s a good idea to study and become familiar with the material tested by these certification exams because they do cover some practical stuff. But paying money to take the exam is not necessary. Look for study guides or forums online dedicated to the particular certification you’re interested in and use those to learn the material. Then, if you ever decide to apply for an IT job in the future, you can pass the exam and add that certification to your resume.
For your convenience, here’s a short list of some of the basic and respected entry-level certifications and to what disciplines they can help prove mastery:
A+ – Basic computer hardware and software knowledge.
MCDST – Basic Windows workstation understanding and troubleshooting (requires two exams).
Network+ – Basic computer network understanding and troubleshooting.
CCENT – Get introduced to Cisco Network certifications with this entry level exam. Cisco then provides certification tracks for more focused networking disciplines like voice and wireless.
Security+ – Provides a good foundation for those interested in the IT security world.
MCSE – Comprehensive Windows Server certification designed for people who want to build and implement server-based systems (requires seven exams).
Next article I’ll be looking at the myth of the college degree and in what situations it helps you and when it may actually hurt you.
I know there are many of you who have opinions and experience with these topics, so please feel free to add your perspective below in the comments section!