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 thwack.com 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.