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Can You Afford Not to be Certified?

By Rebecca Fitzhugh

It's the time of year when we resolve to make improvements that may have eluded us in the past. As we embark on this new year, it is a good time to reflect on your career, what you've accomplished so far, where you want to go next and how becoming certified aligns with those goals. I am a VMware Certified Instructor and every single time I teach, I get questions regarding certification. IT certifications always seem to be a controversial topic, and the question is always, "Why should I become certified?"

One thing to consider is how other people perceive certifications. Some believe that certifications aren't an accurate representation of a person's true knowledge of a technology or product.

One could argue that some certification exams test fact-based knowledge rather than operational, hands-on experience. And, in some cases, exams could be passed without much or any real-world experience. Anyone can cheat or "game" the system if one tries hard enough.

The conjecture could be made that those who are "paper certs" or "game" the system ultimately devalue the certification.

On the opposite end of the argument spectrum, one can assert that some people place too much emphasis on certifications. Some IT managers think that certifications are the only true measure of an IT professional.

Realistically, the truth probably lies somewhere in between these two mentalities. The short answer is: Yes, IT certifications can be a great value to you if the certification is in a niche that you are professionally pursuing.

I prefer cold hard statistics when I'm weighing the pros and cons of what I should do. It's hard to quantify the worth of pursuing certification, but CompTIA provides some insight from a recent survey:

    •    96 percent of HR managers use IT certifications during recruitment for screening or hiring criteria.
    •    72 percent of employers use IT certifications as a requirement for specific job roles.
    •    66 percent of employers find IT certifications to be valuable.
    •    65 percent of employers use IT certifications to differentiate between candidates that are equally qualified.
    •    60 percent of employers tend to use IT certifications to confirm a job candidate's expertise or subject matter knowledge.

These statistics make doubting the validity of certifications difficult. Here they prove to be a valuable addition to your résumé.

Getting certified demonstrates a certain level of commitment and proves that you have, at least, a base level of technical knowledge for this product or technology. This is extremely valuable when you are searching for your next job opportunity or if you are seeking to advance within your current role.

As IT professionals, we aren't always particularly skilled when it comes to focusing on our own career advancement. It's not uncommon for us to get caught up in the excitement of new-and perhaps career irrelevant-technology and "geek out," which is an essential and fun part of our field.

Focusing on your career is important, and it requires active participation. Sometimes I become too consumed by work and I forget about certifications for a while. Studying and preparing for certification exams takes time, and that's something I don't have very much of as an independent consultant. I really had to change my mentality regarding certification when I went independent; I now view certification exams as scheduled career maintenance. It's important for us, as IT professionals, to make a plan and to take time out of our normal operations to undergo routine maintenance. The result should be quite similar to any kind of traditional scheduled system maintenance, with the idea that your career will run more smoothly with frequently added new functionality.

The obvious fact is that technology continues to evolve at an ever-increasing speed. This is probably one of the greatest challenges of career development for most of us. Keeping pace with the constant changes and still managing to get your job done is a major aspect of any career in IT.

Certification can serve as a framework and model for keeping up with new technologies or product updates. As new generations of products are released, going through all of the necessary steps in the certification process can be a great way to ensure that you are familiar with all of the product changes and enhancements, even if you haven't yet upgraded or started using the latest and greatest in your own environment.

I think the better question is not, "Why should I certify," but, "Can I afford not to be certified?" The value employers place on certification is clear as previously outlined. The evidence points to a renaissance in certification by IT professionals, given the considerable weight they add to the résumé in the eyes of a prospective employer.  

Once you've taken a moment to evaluate where you are in your career and where you want to be, stop and do your research. Every year, lists are put together detailing which certifications are to be the most valuable based on industry and market demands. After deciding which certification you want to pursue, search for the prerequisites and begin your preparation.

The bottom line is that IT certification can be an important and integral part of your career development and technical education. Ultimately, this is a challenging and highly personal pursuit. If there is a particular area of study that you are trying to professionally pursue, I suggest that you find out if there is a certification in that area. An investment in your career is an investment in yourself. Take career-developing tasks, like pursuing different IT certifications, and break them into easily attainable short-term and long-term goals-like scheduled maintenance-and it will be far more likely that you'll reach that next level.

Remember, while endeavoring to better yourself personally this year, also resolve to focus on the betterment of yourself as an IT professional. Since you may not still be using that gym membership in the springtime, join me and pursue new certifications and upgrade existing certifications this year for results that are far beyond seasonal.