Certification Navigation: Five Strategies for Success

Certification Navigation: Five Strategies for Success

January 2005 – Jonathan Thatcher

Information technology was, is and will remain a great career choice. IT salaries are still higher than average, even in the worst economic times, and every industry from finance to health care needs talented IT staffers. As organizations strive to use IT to improve productivity and communication with customers and suppliers, and to comply with government regulations, the need for skilled IT professionals will increase.

This is not to say that the employment path is easy to navigate. Knowing what direction to take and the obstacles to avoid requires expertise and a steady hand on the compass to guide your career. Over the past few years, IT has made the transition from a young, rapidly expanding employment sector to a mature one. In this mature market, the need for trained personnel is high, but the growth in the number of new jobs remains low. Organizations have fewer openings, and managers are being extremely selective about who they hire to fill those positions.

New adaptation strategies are called for in this mature phase of the IT employment/career environment. Think of the following five strategies as general guidelines to be used as appropriate, depending on where you are in your career.

Strategy One: Use Certification as a Validation of Skills

When you are starting out in this industry, it’s extremely important to train, obtain as much hands-on experience as possible and earn foundational certifications such as CompTIA A+ and Network+, the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician (MCDST) and others. Academic certificates and degrees are important as well. With this demonstration of competence and dedication, you should be able to land a ground-floor job. This is as true now as it was in the roaring 1990s. The only difference is that today you may have to hunt harder for your first break and knock on more doors than you would have a few years ago. You might have to relocate. But the jobs are there because of the constant turnover on the ground floor.

When going beyond the entry-level job, however, today’s career path diverges from the tried and true, and new career-mapping skills are needed. This is made evident by work now being accomplished through the National IT Apprenticeship System (NITAS), www.nitas.us.

In the NITAS program, certifications are used to assess that a set of skills has been mastered. This is a subtle, but very important difference from the way certifications traditionally have been used. In the NITAS program, the apprentice receives classroom training and over a period of time performs a set of tasks on the job. During that time, the apprentice receives coaching from a mentor with extensive experience. The apprentice must demonstrate a comprehensive set of skills to the mentor’s satisfaction at each stage of the apprenticeship.

At the end of a given stage, the apprentice objectively verifies skills and standards mastery by earning an appropriate certification. This is the reverse of the common process of training, certifying and then demonstrating skills mastery on the job. Rather than coming at the end of the process, certification becomes a vital mid-point validation.

Employer feedback from NITAS pilot installations indicates that a combination of training, success on the job and certification most effectively identifies the IT personnel who meet an employer’s needs. Employers believe these men and women are the professionals they want to hire and, if already hired, to promote.

The message here is that employers in this mature IT market want to see the certificate and want greater assurance not only that the candidate has trained and become certified, but also that he or she can solve on-the-job problems.

What does this mean for the IT professional who is mapping a career beyond the entry-level position? Fundamentally, it means that resumes, cover letters, interviews and references must document hands-on experience in tandem with a certification. Position your certification as the objective assessment of knowledge mastery of industry standards and as the culmination of practical, hands-on experience. This shows your abilities are both current and relevant.

If you are looking for a job, this means gaining as many hours of experience as possible in labs and/or doing volunteer work. Build a system in your basement, host a Web site for a nonprofit organization—roll up your sleeves and do the work of IT. Along the way, be sure to document your efforts.

If you are already employed and want to move up or into a new area, do as much as you can in that area and then certify. Training, practicing, and certifying is a powerful way of assuring employers that you can jump into a job, come up to speed quickly with little or no handholding and solve problems.

Strategy Two: Use Value to Identify Career Direction

Up to this point, this article has been describing a process—the process of training, gaining experience and using certification as an assessment. This process, however, does not help the individual choose the direction to take in developing a career. This is where the strategy of examining your values becomes essential to mapping your career path. Sometimes the simplest questions are overlooked—not seeing the forest for the trees. One of these questions is, “What am I passionate about?” Others are: “What are my interests?” “How do I like to spend my time?” “What working environment do I thrive in?” “What situations make me want to move on as quickly as possible?” All of these questions are fundamentally about what we value.

This self-analysis is the starting point for planning. It also is important to remind yourself that at various stages in your life, you will value different things. Take time at important career junctures to go through the “What do I value now and why?” exercise. You may find yourself pointed in a new direction.

Begin to identify organizations in the public and private sectors that align with your interests. Do you enjoy the outdoors? Cities, counties, states and the federal government manage parks and nature areas, and you can be sure there are IT systems at the infrastructure level. Is travel in your blood? Airlines have immense IT needs, as do U.S. companies and government agencies with operations outside the country. Interested in movies, games, cars, making things, helping people solve problems, or fighting crime or fires? There are organizations involved in each of these areas, and all have IT needs.

The great thing about IT and IT certification is that the skills and certificates are portable. Certifications are of as much relevance and value to a manufacturer as they are to a health-care provider. Let your values direct and motivate you to find employment opportunities.

This also applies to the technical focus of your career. If you prefer hands-on work and don’t want to sit behind a desk all day, then consider servicing and installing office equipment, an industry that needs technicians trained in networking and computer basics. If department-level networking doesn’t give you the people interaction that you crave, consider starting your own consulting business. If you are interested in electronics, consider home integration as a profession. There are a million ways to let your interests assist in mapping your career. Once you open your mind to the possibilities, the world comes alive. Along each of these paths, there are certifications to assess your competence and assist you on your journey.

Strategy Three: Certify on Multiple Fronts 

Traveling through your IT career, it is vital to apply the “train, practice and certify” process not solely in one area but on multiple fronts. In a mature employment market, a successful career depends on your ability to offer more to employers than someone else can. This is because employers generally are looking for professionals who can fulfill a number of job functions. A strategy for gaining a range of skills is to certify on multiple fronts.

Of course, most of your development effort should be placed on a core career path that builds capabilities in your primary area of pursuit. Proceed along the core path while looking for opportunities to integrate certifications into cohesive skills, demonstrating increasing levels of expertise.

At the same time, investigate and pursue side specialties that complement your core competency. For example, if you are moving upward in system administration, consider training, gaining experience and earning a certification in security, Linux, servers or storage. Use a similar process to become adept at project management, business administration, leadership and communication. Progressing through a career along multiple fronts–one core and several flanking–can set you up as the ideal candidate, one who offers more.

The multi-front strategy also gives the individual career flexibility. If jobs suddenly become scarce along a core path, a flanking capability can potentially save the employment day. One of the keys to making the multi-front strategy successful is finding the right synergies between core and flanking skills. These have to mirror typical job functions. This is a way of showing the employer you can wear multiple hats and that each of the hats fits well.

Strategy Four: Stay on Top of Trends
Staying aware of technology, economic and government trends helps the IT professional progress toward opportunities and avoid dead ends. Try to read as much as possible about the bigger issues—issues that eventually may affect IT.

Compliance with government regulation, for example, is having a major impact on IT and will continue to do so. Experts describe the Sarbanes-Oxley Act as the single most important piece of legislation affecting corporate governance, financial disclosure and the practice of public accounting since the securities laws of the early 1930s. Chief information officers and their teams are putting in an enormous effort to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) has had IT managers at medical facilities scrambling to comply for several years. Just as Y2K spurred a huge demand for IT services, compliance is opening similar doors. Y2K was an event, but compliance is an ongoing trend. Those IT professionals who are knowledgeable about trends in regulations and prepare for them will be ahead of the pack.
Keep abreast of security compliance issues in particular. Most professionals in IT know that security is a hot job area, but they may not realize that compliance with future government regulations could open up even more jobs than those currently envisioned.

Economic trends are another key area to watch. The growing importance of the economies in the European Union, China and India, for example, will require new technology linkages. Companies in the United States will be doing everything possible not only to sell products and services in these areas, but also to manufacture and partner within these markets. Each of these endeavors will involve tightly integrated information systems and new information-sharing strategies. IT professionals with specialized skills will be in high demand. Spotting trends can be very beneficial to those who are successful at it and detrimental to those who are not.

The most visible trend in technology is the continued automation of IT functions. It might have taken three professionals to maintain a mid-sized server farm a few years ago. Today, one person probably can handle the job. The impact of automation on employment is not new. Manufacturing workers have grappled with this for centuries. It just feels new to us. The fact to keep in mind about automation is that the automated tasks in any industry are generally the tasks that are repetitive and routine. Yes, there are fewer people needed when automation kicks in, but at the same time, whole new areas of work often open up, which require higher-level skills to perform. Typically, work in these new areas is more interesting and more highly paid. The key point to be made about automation is that it does not stand still. You should progress diligently toward becoming a more and more skilled and certified professional.

Technology has a profound impact on society and vice versa. Cell phones are an example of technology and society interacting. Ten years ago, cell phones might have appeared to be a niche industry, of value only to business people. Other professions soon joined the mix. Then, social forces took over. Family members needed to be able to stay connected, and it became cool to have the latest phone. In the developing world, cell phones meet an incredible economic need because landlines can’t be built fast enough to sustain growth. As a result of society embracing this new technology, a whole infrastructure grew up virtually overnight to support it, including design and manufacturing facilities, call centers, databases, computer networks and specialized software. Jobs for people skilled in these areas opened up. Cell phones are just one example of how changing social needs and perceptions can open up career opportunities.

Strategy Five: Be Prepared for Career Crossroads 

You’ve assessed your interests and values to chart your path. Training, experience and certifications have made you attractive to employers. Watching the trends has kept you moving in tune with the environment. And then, out of the blue, you are faced with a dilemma—a crossroads decision. This could be a new job offer or a career crisis—perhaps your company is being sold. Do you continue straight ahead along the career path you’ve chosen, or do you turn onto a new path?

There are some guidelines to keep in mind when making tough decisions. Typically, the arc of a career is toward greater specialization in your area of expertise. At a crossroad, you have to ask yourself if your specialty is as valued now as it once was. Are younger people at a lower pay grade able to do what you are doing? Are there fewer opportunities than there once were? If the days of continuing opportunity in your specialty seem to be numbered, then consider a new path—one that builds your knowledge and experience. For example, trade your specialist’s cap for a manager’s hat. The person who successfully makes a seamless transition from specialist to manager has prepared for that day through the multi-front process of acquiring business, project management, leadership and communication skills. Becoming a consultant, trainer or sales rep is also a possibility when a career path looks like it is leading to a dead end. You need to prepare for a change in direction prior to arriving at the crossroads, however, by keeping your options open using the multi-front strategy.
A New Horizon

These last few years have been hard for many IT professionals. People failed to recognize that IT was in a period of transition from a young to a mature employment industry. The situation has clarified. We know now that we are in a new environment, and we have a better idea of the terrain. We also have a set of path-finding strategies that can serve the IT professional in good stead as he or she charts a career.
Jonathan Thatcher, MBA, A+, Network+, IT Project+, i-Net+, e-Biz+, Server+, CNA, CNE, Master CNE, is director of business integration for certification at CompTIA (www.comptia.org), which provides leadership in all areas of IT workforce development, including certification. He welcomes your correspondence at jthatcher@comptia.org.

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