Balancing Certification with Experience

In the Live! discussion forums, people often ask questions about a whole host of certifications that they plan to pursue. Such questions usually--although not always--come from people who are just starting out and who often have a misguided view of what certification can and can't do for their careers. Certification is undoubtedly important to an IT professional--a quick look at the classifieds will tell you that. However, as UPDATE commentator Morris Lewis pointed out last week, gone are the days when certification alone is enough to secure a good job.

So, how do you cope with a job market that seems to require certifications but no longer values them as highly as it did just a few years ago? You must maintain a proper balance between certification and experience.

When hiring managers consider resumes, red flags go up when they see applicants whose certification levels exceed their work experience. An applicant who holds MCSE and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certifications and yet has marginal, if any, hands-on experience isn't necessarily the strongest candidate. Possessing the motivation to complete such a course of study is admirable, but companies have been burned enough by "certified professionals" who didn't have the practical skills necessary to do a job.

Let's consider a rough breakdown of the experience levels that we can typically associate with the most popular certifications. To maintain balance, follow these guidelines when planning your career.

Seek the following entry-level certifications if you have 0 to 1 year of experience:
  • Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) certifications: A+, Network+, Linux+, Internet and intranet+ (i-Net+)
  • Microsoft: Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), which entails passing an exam such as Exam 70-210: Installing, Configuring, and Administering Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional
  • Novell: CNA
  • Cisco Systems: CCNA

Don't try to obtain all these certifications, because you'll appear overcertified--even though the certifications are entry level. With no experience, you should have no more than two entry-level certifications. With a year of paid experience, you should have three, perhaps four, of these certifications at most. A solid set of certifications to hold at the 1-year mark include the A+, the Network+, and, without passing more than two exams, the MCP.

Pursue the following advanced-beginner level certifications if you have 1 to 2 years of experience:

  • CompTIA: Server+
  • Microsoft: Microsoft Certified Systems Analyst (MCSA)
  • Cisco: CCNA, Cisco Certified Design Associate (CCDA)

    At the advanced-beginner level, you can either continue to generalize your knowledge by pursuing other entry-level certifications, such as Linux+ or CCNA, or you can begin to focus your studies and pursue a "track," such as the MCSA. At this stage in your career, you're still building practical experience, and you've probably moved into a "hands- on" position (e.g., desktop support).

    Seek the following intermediate certifications if you have 2 to 5 years of experience:

    • Microsoft: MCSE, MCSD, Microsoft Certified DBA (MCDBA), Microsoft Certified Application Developer (MCAD)
    • Cisco: Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP), Cisco Certified Design Professional (CCDP)
    • Novell: CNE, Master CNE (MCNE)
    • Various hardware certifications, such as Compaq ASE
    • Various product-specific certifications, such as Lotus Notes/Domino and Oracle

    As you move into the intermediate stage of your career, you're likely taking on more infrastructure and back-office responsibilities. Now is a good time to validate that experience by pursuing a vendor certification track, such as the MCSE or CCNP. You're now in a better position to make informed decisions about your certification choices because you have industry experience and a solid idea of not only what you enjoy but also which skills are and will be most useful to your career. This perspective helps you focus and maximize your return on your certification investment. Typically, professionals at this experience level have one to two of the intermediate-level certifications in addition to any entry-level certifications.

    I won't address advanced certifications here, because if you have 5 years of industry experience, you likely have a good idea of which certifications you need. By maintaining a balance between your experience and certification levels, you demonstrate to hiring managers that you have the skills to back up the certificates. Seeking balance also help you make the most efficient use of your study time and get the maximum value from the certifications you pursue and obtain.

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