By Jason W. Eckert
So you have decided that you want to get certified.
Now, you must choose what to get certified in. Not an easy task.
In short, you should always choose certifications that will give you a return on your investment. The cost of certification doesn’t just involve the up-front cost that you pay a testing centre to take a certification exam. It involves your time preparing for the exam as well as any hardware, software and educational resources that you purchase for exam study.
As a result, it is important to carefully choose which certifications you want to pursue such that you are not wasting time on certifications that will not advance your IT career.
Choose certifications that are related to your experience.
When applying for jobs, nothing looks better than certification + experience. Someone who works as an Active Directory administrator and who is certified in Active Directory would be much more likely to get a job than someone who works in Help Desk Support and who has an Active Directory certification. In addition, you will need to purchase less preparation materials (including hardware and software) if you plan to obtain certification on a technology that you regularly use. That being said, you may want to become certified in a different technology that you are interested in such that you can upgrade to a better job. In those situations, make sure that you implement the technology in a test environment before you decide whether you want to pursue the certification. This allows you to better understand the types of jobs that would use the technology as well as gives you the ability to discuss your experiences using the technology during a job interview.
Choose certifications based on exam content.
The main purpose of certification is career advancement. During a job interview, you want to emphasize specific skills that you have in various IT areas. Some certifications such as Comptia’s Security+ certification test terminology only, whereas other certifications such as Microsoft Security Implementation (70-299) tests your knowledge of implementing and managing technologies such as Certificate Services, SSL, IPSec, VPNs (L2TP/PPTP) and Group Policy.
Avoid “buzz” certifications.
There are many certifications out there that sound great or have great reputations. However, these certifications have little to no practical value when you apply for most IT jobs. One good example is the Certified Ethical Hacker, which tests very general security concepts that only have application in large organizations that hire “IT security officers”. Another example is Cisco. Cisco always hits the “Top 10 IT Certifications” in many magazines and the word “Cisco” is commonly associated with good things in IT. However, when you poll employers, you will find a different story. My college dropped Cisco a while back and replaced it with SQL and Exchange. The reason lies with feedback that we received from graduates and employers. Nearly all employers (with the exception of ISPs) that hire our graduates didn’t care whether students could configure a Cisco router since that task is not typically a major part of any IT job. Similarly, only a few graduates found that Cisco certification helped them land a job (at an ISP of course). Alternatively, employers in Southwestern Ontario were in dire need for Microsoft SQL 2000/2005 and Microsoft Exchange 2003/2007. I have found that this feedback is still consistent this year.
Choose certifications that widen your job prospects.
Certification can be useless if there are no jobs in your field that require the certification. As a result, ensure that you choose certifications that are widely sought by employers. It may also be prudent to choose certifications that test general topics (i.e. Windows Server 2003) rather than specific technologies (i.e. ISA Server 2004) if you are looking to apply for a larger set of IT jobs. Alternatively, you may want to become certified in a technology that gives you an edge in the job market. If you are a Windows LAN Administrator (a very common skill set in the marketplace), getting certified in Linux (i.e. Comptia Linux+) or Apple (i.e. ACHDS) will give you that edge. Many employers that I regularly poll tell me that resumes with those two certifications always go to the top of the pile. One employer even told me that his IT staff is afraid of Apple technology because they know little about it – they always send Co-Op students down to the Marketing department to deal with Apple Macintosh issues.
Choose certifications that have added benefits.
Many organizations such as Comptia and Microsoft offer benefits for those who successfully obtain certification such as private login accounts. These login accounts can be used to obtain discounts on resources as well as share certification transcripts to employers via an online login code that you attach to a resume. Of course, if the certification comes with a free gift certificate to http://www.thinkgeek.com or a pack of Skittles, it is definitely worth getting.
Next blog: How to prepare for certification exams.