The Pros/Cons of IT Certification
If you are reading this article, you might be considering a career in IT and wondering if IT certification will help you get that first foot on the career ladder. You might already be working in an IT position and be looking at IT to improve your skills or gain a promotion. This article will help explain some of the benefits of IT certification and will also offer you some related career advice.
Benefits of IT Certification
Training companies often over-sell the value of IT certification and at the other end of the scale you will probably come across people on various forums that say IT certification is completely worthless. I believe IT certification is a very valuable addition to your CV and it definily enhances your job prospects. Most companies will value experience more than qualifications though and it can be tough to get your first foot on the ladder. You might find it impossible to get a job in IT unless you have something to offer an employer in the way of qualifications or experience. Some companies looking for a candidate with 1-2 years experience might be willing to take a chance on a candidate with a relevant IT certification but with little or no real world experience.
For newcomers into the IT industry, IT certification can help you get that first foot on the career ladder. For experienced IT professionals, IT certification can lead to promotion and higher salaries. As well as improving your CV, IT certification forces you to learn new things, some of which might be useful to your employer and others will make you a more well-rounded IT professional. You might find that much of the knowledge gained via certification can be applied to your job and helps you improve in your current role. It's also likely that you will need to learn things that are not applicable to your current role - this is not necessarily a bad thing as these skills might make it easier for you to transition to another company or a different position within your current company.
Problems with IT Certification
IT Certifications almost always have a limited shelf life. Cisco certifications are normally valid for a set period of time (3 years), while Microsoft certifications typically expire based on Microsoft's release schedule for new software. Updating your skills on a regular basis to keep up with new technology is simply a fact of life when you are working in IT. If you have IT certifications then a certain amount of additional effort will be required for you to keep your certifications up-to-date.
IT Certifications are often closely matched to typical job specifications, but they are not a substitute for real world experience. Also, IT Certifications are typically based around the product of one company but more often than not, your day to day job will involve working with products from many different companies. As an example your IT Certification course might be teaching you about how the Windows backup program works, but your employer might be using products from a 3rd party company like Backup Exec. Also, a network administrator might need to work in a heterogeneous environment consisting of Microsoft Windows, Linux, Unix and Apple Mac computers. It's not just 3rd party software to consider as most exams will simply focus on a particular version of a product. For example, a MCITP qualification might be focused on Windows 2008 Server, but you also have to manage previous versions of Microsoft Windows.
Often exams are based around multiple choice questions which poses a few problems. As a test taker you might be frustrated by the wording of a question or the limited choices you are allowed to make as your answer. Sometimes there is more than one solution to a particular problem and if you have a bit of experience you might find that your answer differs from any of the available options. Also, there a a number of people using brain-dump sites to memorize answers to questions they expect to see on the tests rather than learning the training material. The concern is that this will cheapen the value of the exams for people that have put the effort in to study for them properly. I'm not too concerned about this as people relying on brain dumps are unlikely to pass an interview or their probationary period. Also, Microsoft have changed their exams over the last few years to make it more and more difficult for people to brain-dump.
Alternatives to Certification
More traditional qualifications such as a University degree/diploma are an alternative to certification. Many University courses in the UK now include a placement year which is a very valuable opportunity for you to gain experience. As mentioned before, IT certifications often have a limited shelf life in comparison to more traditional qualifications. Although IT certifications might have a limited shelf life, they can be more relevant to specific job roles than a degree. If you already have a University degree then you might still want to consider IT certification in addition to your existing qualifications as it's probably best to have a mixture of academic and professional qualifications. Some research into your local job market should give you an idea as to which qualifications are a best match for your career objectives.
The first thing you need to decide on before enrolling on any IT certification courses is your career objectives. You should ideally pick a career that you find interesting, as one of the unfortunate facts of life is that you spend most of your time at work! It's very difficult to have a successful career if you dislike your job or find your job boring. Some people might be tempted into a career in IT with the prospect of high salaries and will often be lured by training companies that sell IT certification packages as your key to a high paid job working in IT. IT certifications are NOT a golden ticket to success and higher salaries are only paid to experienced IT professionals who have invested a significant amount of time in developing their skills. You should be prepared to start at the bottom and work your way up as you gain experience and prove your skills.
The next step is deciding which IT certification will help you attain your career objectives. One way you can do this by browsing the jobs on the online job sites. This will give you an idea about the types of jobs available in your area, the salaries and what companies are asking for in terms of qualifications and experience. Keep in mind that recruitment agencies often inflate salaries to attract candidates to positions. Also, companies are sometimes willing to take on candidates that match most but not all of the criteria. Be realistic in your expectations though, as your first job in IT is unlikely to be as a network administrator (If that's your ultimate ambition). It's more likely that you would get a job as an IT technician and progress to becoming a network administrator as you gain experience as well as qualifications.
Choosing the right IT certification is an important decision as you need to pick a certification that is industry recognised and relevant for your career goals.
In the UK, I've found that many IT jobs don't advertise in local papers. Most positions are handled by recruitment agencies and are advertised on online job sites like CWJobs.co.uk
. The two websites mentioned allow you to submit your CV so that it can be searched by recruitment agencies, who will contact you when a suitable position is available.
After you've chosen a certification path you need to decide on the best way for you to study for your certification:
Home study is probably the cheapest way to gain IT certification and it allows you to study at your own pace. You can usually purchase any books you need from Amazon or other book retailers (I mention Amazon as it's often quite useful to read some of the online reviews). The software/hardware you need to complete your course will vary from one IT Certification to another so be sure to research this beforehand. MS Press training books normally come with trial versions of all the software you need to complete the course, or the trial versions are often available to download from Microsoft. Also, books often come with practice tests to help you prepare for the exam. You can create lab environments with the use of Microsoft Virtual PC which saves you from needing to purchase additional computers and also from messing up your home PC. When you are ready to take your exam, simply book online via Prometic or VUE (Most tests can be booked via these two companies and they can help you locate your nearest test centre).
Distance Learning Company
Distance Learning via a training company is likely to be very similar to the home study option above, but more expensive. One of the advantages to using a training company is that there is usually someone to contact if you have any problems. If you choose this option, be sure to check exactly what you are paying for and consider if it's good value for money. I'd advise most people to give the home study route a try first. If you are planning to do a multi-exam course like a MCSE/MCITP qualification, you will often need to pay for the whole course up-front with a training provider. If you choose the home study route by comparison, your initial outlay is just the cost for the first book for the first exam. Also, if you decide the course isn't for you then you are free to change direction without worrying too much about your financial investment in the course.
Classroom training is normally the fastest way for your to archive your IT Certification goals, but it's also the most expensive. They can get you up-to-speed very quickly with new technologies, but they do vary in quality depending on the instructor teaching the course. Also, to get the most from the course, please pay close attention to any course prerequisites. Some courses will be aimed at people that already have a certain amount of experience; if you are a newbie attending such a course, you will probably find it a complete waste of time. You should aim to re-enforce your training with additional practice and reading after completing the course.
Also note that you can choose more than one of the options above to help you study for your exam.
A cautionary Tale...
After finishing college, I was deciding which option to take to help me get started on a career in IT. I decided to study for a MCSE qualification with a distance learning training provider. This option seemed like a good idea at the time - I had some experience of building/fixing computers but no experience whatsoever of computer networks or servers. I wasn't sure how much help I would need and it was comforting to know that I could speak to someone on the phone if I needed help. The course included all training materials, exam fees and also included a 1 week hands-on training session. The training materials for the course were all MS Press training books that you can buy from any book retailer. In terms of support from the training provider, I only contacted them 2 or 3 times and usually they were not able to provide me with a satisfactory answer to my question. I found that I was able to answer my own questions a lot easier by using Google.
The 1 week training course was supposed to take place after you've studied for the first 2 exams, but before you actually take any of the exams. One of the problems when I took this course was that 2 of the other 3 people taking the course had only studied about the first chapter of the first book for the first exam. The other person on the course was at a similar level to me, except he had actually taken both exams at that point. The first day of the training course was more or less a complete waste of time as it was impossible to teach the four of us together with two of the people on the course really struggling. The next day we were split into two separate groups, but it was actually the same trainer going back and forward between the two rooms - this was certainly a factor that limited the effectiveness of the training course, but it wasn't the only problem. The trainer teaching us didn't speak very good English and it took a lot of concentration to understand what he was trying to say. Also, the trainer had only recently passed his MCSE qualification and he had little real world experience.
After passing the first few exams I contacted the training company only to find out that they had gone bankrupt and wouldn't be receiving any training materials for the rest of the course or any other compensation from the training company. This is not something you want to hear when you have paid up-front for the course!
After reading the above, you might assume that I regret studying for my MCSE qualification, but this is not the case. Those first few MCP exams helped me get my first foot on the ladder, working as an IT technician in a college. The exams also gave me the skills I needed to progress from technician work to work that would be associated with a network admin role. I also decided to study for a MCDBA qualification as part of my MCSE elective exams. This enabled me to take responsibility for anything SQL Server related and started me on a new career path as a Database Administrator. IT Certification has definitely played an important part in my career progression and I'm sure that my CV would have otherwise have gone unnoticed.
I think with hindsight I would have just gone down the home study root without paying any money to a training provider. I'm not saying that all distance learning companies are bad as I only have my own experience as a reference point. I would say that it's worth looking at only long established and reputable training providers and you need to consider carefully if they are offering good value for money. I can also say that I've done some classroom training courses that have been excellent and that they are a very fast way for you to learn new skills. Unless work is paying or you have deep pockets, I'd normally suggest that people give the home study route a try first.
IT certifications are useful for both newcomers and experienced IT professionals, enhancing your career prospects and giving you some of the skills that you need to succeed. At the same time, IT certification is not a golden ticket to success and it can take a number of years experience in addition to your IT certifications before you reap the financial benefits. I would advise against people choosing a career in IT for financial reasons - you will probably find that the entry level positions are not very well paid and there can be stiff competition even for entry level positions. It can take a significant amount of time and effort to gain the knowledge and experience to move to the next level. Such progression might be difficult/impossible unless you have genuine enthusiasm for the job. Picking the right career is a very important decision and should not be taken lightly. If you decide that a career working in IT is right for you, it can be very rewarding and I encourage you to follow your career goals. IT certification is one option you should consider to help you get started working in IT and also to progress in your career.