Becoming an ACE

To become successful in the IT field, concentrate on academics, certification, and experience

Our mission statement here at is to "help you become successful in the IT field." If we were only concerned about helping you pass the exams, we wouldn't be living up to our mission statement. Getting certified is one part of success in this industry but it definitely is not the entire puzzle. Here are three things that can give you the "total package" that you’ll need to advance rapidly through the ranks. We can sum them up in one handy acronym: ACE.

The A is for Academics
We were going to use "education" here but ECE didn't have the same ring as ACE. A lot of people will argue that academics are not important in this industry. They will say that colleges and universities don't do a very good job of preparing people for network administration. There might be some truth to those statements, but there are some very good reasons why focusing on academics is a critical step in your career path.

For entry-level positions, your educational background probably won't make much difference. A lot of companies couldn’t care less if their Level One help-desk employee has a bachelor's degree or not. However, as you progress up the ladder in your organization, employers tend to put more weight on your academic record. They want to know that you are more than just a computer expert before considering you for that management position.

For many people, that promotion to the upper ranks in your company might be years away. So why should you worry about education today? That's simple. The longer you put it off, the more difficult it becomes. As you get older, the thought of going back to school becomes less appealing. Raising kids and making your mortgage payment compound the difficulty of the decision.

Our advice to most people is to get as much education as you think you will need as early as possible. If you're just graduating from high school and think that one day you might need a college degree, don't wait. Go to school now. The workforce will always be waiting for you and that decision to pass up school for what seems like easy money may come back to haunt you.

If you are working full-time, consider going back to school at night for a couple classes. Not only will you gain some additional skills, but you'll also get yourself further down the path to a degree. The reward will likely be worth all of the additional effort.

The C is for Certification
This is the area where people tend to get out of balance. They think, "If I can just get my CCIE, I'll be on easy street for the rest of my life." They don't think about anything else besides getting that slip of paper. Even if they do end up achieving the certification of their dreams (many don't!), they often are disillusioned that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow isn't quite what they thought it would be. Why did this happen? Because they didn't put the entire package together and instead focused on only one aspect.

But it can work in the opposite direction as well. There are a lot of very bright, experienced people out there who haven't gone quite as far as they should in their careers because they ignored certification. The unfortunate part is that for them, achieving the certifications would have been quite easy. Don't let that happen to you. Recognize that although certification isn't everything, it is an important part of furthering your career.

To maximize the benefit of certification, one of the things that we would recommend is to pursue a certification that is roughly in line with your current level of experience. If you are brand new to the industry, pursuing your CCIE right off the bat doesn't make any sense. Going after an entry-level certification such as the A+ or the Network+ would probably be the best call.

If you've been in the industry for a little while then it's probably time to look at certifications such as the MCP, CAN, or CCNA. Putting one of those certifications together with six months to a year of solid work experience can be a pretty good combination on a resume.

If you've been around longer than a year, then it's time to look at the premium certifications. You'll get the most bang for your buck by going after an MCSE, CNE, or high-level Cisco certification such as CCNP, CCDP or even CCIE. Again, it's important to tailor your certifications to your level of experience. If you have been in the industry for 5 years, going after your A+ certification probably won't do you a lot of good.

If you must, pursue a certification that is slightly above your level of expertise. This will help you to learn new information sooner than you normally would have and might let you climb faster than you would have otherwise.

Lastly, make sure that you are choosing a certification that is in line with your goals for the future. You don't just want to blindly choose a certification based on a salary survey or a hot tip from a co-worker.

The E is for Experience
Imagine that your career is a house that you are building. Then think of experience as the foundation of the house. Without experience, everything else is destined to fall apart. You can have a Ph.D. in computer science and be an MCSE+I but if you don't have any experience, you're not ready to administer a company's network. Just like everything else in life, you typically have to fail a few times on little things before you are ready to handle the big responsibilities that come with being an IT professional.

Experience is important but it's also crucial to note that not all types of experience are created equal. The benefit that you will get from experience depends on the responsibilities that you are given, the training invested in you and the amount of feedback that you receive about your job performance. It is very critical that you inquire about these things in any potential job that you are thinking about taking.

Of course the age-old mantra for people new to any industry is that you need a job to gain experience but you can't find a job without experience. Even though this seems true of IT, it's not necessarily the case. IT is one of the few fields where with a little bit of money and a lot of time, you can gain a good chunk of experience of your own.

How can you do this? The number-one way to gain experience outside of a job is by setting up a home network and using it to get a feel for how things actually work. We've been harping on the subject of home networks for quite some time. You might want to take a look at our "Step-by-Step Challenge."

Doing things like taking the Step-by-Step Challenge will help you to gain the valuable experience that you need to build your foundation.

Keep all of these things in mind as you think of ways to advance your career. Remember that balance is important and if you work to improve yourself in the areas of academics, certification, and experience, then you will be well on your way to a successful future.

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