Top Four IT Certification Categories

Thursday Sep 28th 2006 by James Maguire
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Should you earn a certification? If so, what types of certifications are the most profitable?

When it comes to deciding whether to earn an IT certification, many tech professionals have decidedly mixed feelings. Some just groan and say no.

Their options are considerable – from Microsoft’s MCP to Novell’s CLP – but so is the workload. Certification takes plenty of time and effort, and sometimes plenty of money. The long exams are as enjoyable as a rousing session of root canal.

Consequently, many tech staffers wonder: is it worth it?

That’s a good question, especially considering that a certification guarantees neither a job nor a salary boost. Some techies grumble that, while a given certification opened doors earlier in their career, it ceased to matter later on. Others point out that employers scan a resume for experience, placing far more weight on hands-on knowledge than classroom hours.

Yet while it’s true that certifications offer no guarantees, they continue to be worthwhile – in fact highly valuable – for IT job seekers.

Earning a certification is “part of the process of bettering your IT career,” says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology.

Certainly there are instances where tech staffers are over-educated and under-employed. “Just a certification – or just a couple of certifications – isn’t going to get you a job in IT,” she tells Datamation. Job experience continues to be absolutely essential for job seekers.

However, even those who don’t know COBOL from FORTRAN know that technology is ever changing. By one estimate it reinvents itself every nine months. "Getting a job in IT is a process, not an event, and keeping a job in IT and progressing in your career is a process, not an event,” Lee says. Continual learning is not optional.

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To those IT pros who dismiss certifications because they earned one earlier in their career, but now say its benefit has faded, she notes: “You don’t stop with one certification and quit – your best IT professionals are into ongoing education.”

A Little Soul Searching

Still, as valuable as earning ongoing certifications can be, tech workers need to ask themselves a few questions before committing to a new class.

1) Is your employer willing to pay for the certification, even partially? Or are they willing to open up access to an online program?

2) What exactly are your career goals in IT, and to what extent will a given certification help you attain them?

There’s not, of course, a “one size fits all,” answer to these questions. “It depends on your company, what you want, and what technologies you’re specializing in,” Lee notes.

But there are plenty of situations where the answer is yes, get the certification.

“If your job is rolling out operating system upgrades, and the only certification you have is Windows NT, now that most companies are going to a terminal environment – and may in the future go to Vista – you may limit your career potential by not investing in new technologies.”

The point is to keep your overall career in mind. Certifications “are valuable as long as they are part of a process,” Lee says. “It’s a little bit like learning how to swim. You can learn how to hold your breath. But If you don’t learn how to kick your feet, you’re not going to go anywhere,”

“As long as it’s approached from a perspective of ‘Hey, this is a part of my career, part of the investment in my career,’ then I think they’re outstanding.”

Page Two: Online vs. Real World, Plus: Extra Benefits

Page Three; Top Four IT Certification Categories

Online Vs. Real World Classes

There are plenty of certification providers that offer online classes, while many other providers offer actual classroom courses.

A minor controversy rages about these two approaches. Some observers say the online classes can be suspect – they may be too easy. Online, who knows who’s actually answering the exam questions?

Yet some industry experts wholeheartedly support online certification. They note that busy IT workers have little or no time to drive to classes twice a week.

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In Lee’s experience, there’s value in combining both approaches. She sees many workers very effectively do all the preliminary study online. Among the advantages: “There are online systems where you can actually be assigned a mentor and take practice tests.”

Then these same students take the final exam in an actual classroom, “so you get that good mix of the two.”

On the other hand, she’s seen many efficient certification programs that are either entirely online, or entirely in a physical classroom. Many of today’s top certification centers – she points to New Horizons as an example – offer a combination of both.

“They understand that most people are trying to get these certifications while they’re gainfully employed.”

Secondary Benefit to Getting Certified

Inarguably, there’s a financial benefit to adding to your array of tech skill sets. Look at many of the job titles in this IT Salary Guide and you’ll see that tech pros get a salary bump for knowing a broad palette of skills past their core competency.

But beyond the financial incentive (and the knowledge gained), there’s a secondary benefit to earning certifications, Lee says.

“It shows your employer that you’re interested in bettering your career, in providing more input into the organization.” An individual who shows this motivation is more likely to be promoted or otherwise recognized within the enterprise.

“Employers look at certifications not just for what people are learning technically, but they also look at them and say, ‘This person’s a go-getter, they’re a self-starter, they’re getting themselves certified.'"

Next page: Top Four IT Certification Categories

Top Four IT Certification Categories

Robert Half Technology asked CIOs across the country: What are the top skill sets you need in your organization right now? Their answers are listed below by how in-demand they are, along with the related certifications:

1) Windows Administration

Clearly of value for this position would be an MCSC certification, but also valuable would be a Linux/RedHat certification or some type of Unix certification, whether that be Sun Solaris or a related certification, Lee says.

Having this mix of certifications “would cover not just Windows administration on the Microsoft side but certification from a sysadmin’s perspective overall.”

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2) Networking

Many of the networking skills that employers are looking for revolve around the security space. Consequently, Lee recommends something that certifies Check Point expertise, VPN product knowledge, and/or some type of Cisco education.

3) Database Management

Because of the increased demand for Oracle-based skill sets, the Oracle certifications are a good choice, she says.

Additionally, “I think the certifications in the Business Intelligence space, whether that be Crystal Reports or Business Objects, are also valuable right now.”

4) Wireless

Employers are looking for employees with a background that spans both PDAs (Treos, Blackberrys, etc.) and the traditional IT environment.

Among the relevant certifications are the Certified Wireless Networking Professional (CWNP), AreTec Certified Wireless Professional (AceWP) and the Wireless System Installers Certification, offered by he National Association of Radio and Telecommunications Engineers (NARTE).

Naturally, since Cisco is a top WLAN vendor, it offers a number of valuable wireless certifications: Cisco Wireless LAN Design Specialist, the Cisco Wireless LAN Support Specialist, and the Cisco Wireless LAN Sales Specialist.

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