Certification confusion or: Which cert is right for me?

In today's IT landscape there a lot of certifications — no, I mean a lot. Students and other certification newcomers can be understandably overwhelmed, leading to questions like: Which cert should I work on? Which cert will help me get a job after I finish my education? There are several things to consider before deciding which certification to pursue.

One of the first things to ask yourself is: What do I want to do in IT? This is, in my opinion, one of the most important questions to address. I have many friends in IT who seem to get certs just to have them. Many of the certs they earn are not of much use in their field. One colleague of mine, who works mostly in high-level tech support, has a security certification. It's a great cert to have, and he put a lot of effort into getting it — but it isn't relevant to the area in which he has chosen to work. So first ask the question, "What do I want to do in IT," and then look at which certs are relevant to that field.

The next question to ask is, "Will this certification showcase the skills I have?" Make sure that the certification you choose reflects both the skill and the level of skill that you want to demonstrate to prospective employers. This is one of the reasons that my program at Southeast Arkansas College uses Test Out labs and certs. There are some certifications that are out of date, or that address out-of-date concepts. I have several Novell certifications. They are excellent certifications, but they are out of date with respect to the current IT world.

I have also, at one time, had a Cisco CCNA and Microsoft MCSE NT4 and 2000. Again, while these are good certs they are no longer valid in my chosen field in IT. I currently have several Test Out certifications, and am working on reacquiring my MCSE and obtaining a Linux certification. These, for me, are necessary to my work as an IT instructor. I tell most of my students that the certs they will earn in my program are a good starting point. The next step is to consider what you want to do, and what skills you will need, and find the right certs to get you there.

Another important question to ask is, "Will this cert — or these certs — be all I need to achieve my goals?" While certs are an excellent tool for getting employment, they are not the only thing a prospective employer will be looking for. Experience is one of the main qualifications most IT companies will be looking for. I know, I know. Now you are saying to yourself, "I can't get a job without experience ...  but I can't get experience without job?"

This is one of life's great Catch 22s, and it's alive and well in the IT industry. I typically suggest to my students some of the following options:

Volunteer work — There are many charitable organizations that have IT problems, and they are usually very willing to take help from students

Mentors — When I was still in industry, I mentored several entry-level IT pros. In a mentoring relationship, you meet with a professional and learn about their job and how they do it while assisting them in various job functions. Don't plan to just show up and observe: I expected the people I mentored to work hard. This is called "paying your time."

Internship — Work part-time (maybe even full-time) in a real IT environment. Some internship positions are paid, others are not. Either way, this is a very good way to get some experience, and it will look great on your resume.

To this point, some of you are saying, "Yeah this is great general advice, but what certs are right for what field?" Bearing in mind that there are many certs to choose from, here are some base-level certs that will get you a start in various fields. If you enjoy solving computer hardware and software problems, then help-desk and lower level tech support is a good place to begin, and an A+ (from CompTIA) or PC Pro (from TestOut) will help. You might also consider a Network+ (CompTIA) or Network Pro (TestOut) cert.

If you are going into an area where you will be working on computer infrastructure, then CCNA (from Cisco), MCSE (from Microsoft) and Linux+ (from CompTIA) cert are going to be your best bets. IT security is a popular field with lots of available positions, and a good first step on that road is Security+ (from CompTIA), Security Pro ( from TestOut), or SSCP (from ISC2). These are especially relevant if you are trying to work for a government entity — the federal government really likes Security+.

Hopefully, I've given students and newcomers some advice that will aid you in starting your careers. Here's one final tip: Talk to some IT professionals who have been in the industry for a while. Most of these people have seen a lot. That's another excellent way to find out which certs will really work for you, and what you'll really need to know to do your job.

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