Key Skills For IT Careers: Writing, Negotiation And Certification

Key Skills For IT Careers: Writing, Negotiation And Certification

Our post last week about the role of education in your career planning sparked off a lot of discussion. In this guest post, Josh Stephens from Solarwinds discusses the role certification plays in IT success, and the other skills you need to back them up.

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Often new network engineers, network administrators, system administrators, VMware admins, and general IT managers ask me for help in enhancing the skills, knowledge and marketability of the technologies in their areas of responsibility.

It’s a common concern among IT people because the technologies change so quickly, and because so many new people are entering the field. Today’s job market drives us to find new ways of ensuring that if we do find ourselves seeking employment, we can distinguish ourselves from the many other people with similar skill-sets who might be applying for the same job.

Over the past 20-odd years I’ve have well over 1,000 IT professionals working for me at one time or another, giving me lots of experience in recruiting, hiring and retaining folks. When it comes to enhancing someone’s skills and marketability as an IT professional, there are five key areas to keep in mind.

Certifications and technical training: Certifications are becoming more important than ever, with more and more companies willing to pay for their employees to become certified, especially if the certification exam can be bundled with technical training. Two types of certifications that are important. First, get a certification within your area of specialty. If you’re a network engineer go for the CCNA and then CCNP. If you’re a systems administrator the MCSE track is excellent. For virtual infrastructure specialists, pursue VMware’s certification program.

Secondly, get a certification in a specialty area that will separate you from the pack. If you’re into network operations or network management, check the SCP offered by SolarWinds. If you’re into project or program management, the PMP certification is well recognised, and so on. When added to core certifications, these specialties are great ways of improving a techie’s marketability.

Breadth of skills: At a recent user group meeting of about 150 engineers, I polled the audience about what they did. First asked for a show of hands from network engineers or network administrators – almost none. Then, how many were systems administrators or server admins? Again, very few. I repeated the question for virtualisation or VMware admins, SAN and storage admins, helpdesk, etc until I ran out of ideas.

Finally, I just asked a certain table what they did. “We’re infrastructure guys”, one said, and they all nodded. So, I re-polled the audience and just about everyone’s hands went up. In today’s data centres, you really have to know it all. In the old days, infrastructure meant core network gear.
Today, infrastructure means critical network, server, virtualisation, and storage gear, along with just about everything else that has a broad impact on an organisation. So don’t just study one discipline: find a way to expand your base of knowledge, and your opportunities will expand in parallel.

Soft skills: The highest paid IT professionals I’ve ever known had two things in common: they were good writers and skilled negotiators. If you are weak in either of these areas, next time you’re offered the chance of technical training, ask if you can do something in these areas instead. Otherwise there are books and online resources available to help. It’s probably the best investment of time you will ever make

Join a community: No, not Facebook, I mean something like the SolarWinds community at or Spiceworks. These communities are a great place meet other folks in the industry, learn about the technologies they’re working with, and in many cases discover job opportunities there. Additionally, when you’re stumped with an insoluble problem, reaching out to your community is a smart next step.

Be an expert in something: While it’s good to have a broad base of knowledge, as I mentioned earlier, it is also important to have a deep understanding in at least one core area. If you’re new to the field, becoming an expert probably isn’t a good goal to set your sights on for now, but be sure there’s an area you know more about than the others. Two questions you are sure to be asked in an interview and that you should be prepared to answer: ‘What area are you strongest in?’ and ‘What is your biggest weakness‘? The area you claim as your strongest will likely determine who handles your second level interview, should you make it that far. So be sure it’s something that you can discuss in detail.

Josh Stephens is vice president of technology and head geek at IT management software provider Solarwinds (this post is republished from his Geek Speak Blog.


  • I’m a c# developer and I can say that without a shadow of a doubt, my certifications mean nothing to every job I’ve ever applied for 🙂

    I did my MCTS first. It made no impact so I did my MCPD. It also made zero impact. Oh wait, it did drain my bank account a fair bit.

    Anyone else have any good experiences with Microsoft Certifications?

    • Certifications are most useful if the organisation has farmed out hiring to a recruitment/HR company. Those checking your resume often lack IT experience and cut down the pool of applicants by playing match-the-acronym.

      Once you get to the interview stage you can show off your actual skills and experience, but you sometimes need certifications to get to that point.

  • I’ve never really needed certification but then again I’ve only had 2 jobs in the last 13 years.
    I would suspect it will get you on more interview lists but by no means does it determine’s an individuals skills. If I was looking at a CV I’d look at experience before certifications but it can’t be a bad thing to have.
    The problem I’ve had with certifications is that most of the stuff you learn you’ll never use and because you most likely crammed for the exam, you’ll have forgotten most of it within acouple of months – you only really retain information when you use the actual skills.

  • Certifications aren’t particularly important for many positions in my experience. The reason sending people for certification/training is so popular in businesses is that it’s a tax write-off.

  • There is usually a highly contested debate about whether certifications matter or not, and when it comes down to it, you are much more likely to regret not receiving the credentials than you would ever be of achieving them. As Stove mentioned, your certs are going to set you apart during the initial review process. Even if the company doesn’t outsource the hiring process, many HR departments are not up on the tech speak, so having the right qualifications are still important.

  • For software developers there’s really no certifications that are useful and valued at all by employees that I know of, and I’ve been doing this now for over 15 years.

    Your programming knowledge and areas of experience, and ability to tackle and solve problems logically are far more important skills.

    For graduates, try cutting your coding teeth on an open-source application to get some experience. Alternatively, try and get some knowledge in specific areas that potential employers might be after to increase your chances. Examples of code and working applications are always far better than certs as it shows you can actually do the work and not just memorise answers.

  • … MCSE’s haven’t been current for a couple of years. MCTS/MCITP/MCPD have been the applicable terms for a while. I’d also argue that possessing credentials isn’t actually skill and part of demonstrating your writing ability in your resume would include knowing that.

    For enterprise IT, I’d say that certified ITIL training or demonstrable exposure to the framework is incredibly valuable. And vendor certifications for tech resources with some demonstrated IT work history are probably of more benefit than an IT degree for most people outside of development roles.

    For operations resources, after writing skills (because change requests and documentation are increasingly large parts of your role in IT ops), I’d suggest that scripting skills are a huge advantage in any application process. Powershell, VBScript, even batch scripting – hugely useful and very hard to find skilled resources to do it. And a lot of enterprise businesses rely heavily on scripts and hacks put together by now departed resources and will give preference to new hires who can confidently manage those scripts instead of hemming and hawwing when scripting comes up.

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