Professionally Speaking

What’s It Worth?

This month, Greg and Steve address the value and importance of certification vs. good, old-fashioned experience.

This month we’re looking at certification. Is it worth it? The reality nowadays is that certification has its place, but it no longer can be seen (if it ever was!) as the sole ticket to career fame and fortune. I’m going to look at a number of different scenarios and make some suggestions as to what certifications, if any, are appropriate.

For entry-level people who want to get into the IT field, an MCSE is a complete waste of time and money. With the depth of material in the Windows 2000 program, there’s no way that you can really comprehend the material with no previous IT experience. Completing a single exam—such as Win2K Server (70-215) or Win2K Professional (70-210)—to earn your MCP certification first demonstrates to potential employers that you have some basic level of knowledge, are enthusiastic about IT, and are willing to educate yourself. (At the same time, these potential employers will be under no illusions about your abilities—you’re going to have to start at the bottom and be trained from scratch.) The other advantage of this approach is that you have more time to work on getting yourself hired, which is still going to be an uphill battle in the current IT market.

If you’re in the early stages of your career (the first couple of years), it may make more sense to complete the new Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) certification. This is especially true if you don’t see yourself doing any design work in the next one to two years. With this approach, your certification better matches your daily work and leaves the more complex material (if you elect to upgrade to an MCSE) for later, when you are better positioned to absorb and use the material.

For senior IT professionals working with Microsoft technology, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll have an advanced certification such as the MCSE or MCDBA. You’re competing with those who do have it, so why give someone else the advantage? There are people at this level who elect not to attempt to get certified, but often the reasons don’t make sense. Phrases such as, “I don’t want to make Bill Gates rich,” often mean that life is too comfortable to bother with the exams. The truth is, at this level you need to know the material (and a good deal more!) to do your job, so preparing for the tests isn’t going to be a huge stretch.

During the past month, the topic of braindumps has come up at MCP Magazine’s sister Web site, CertCities.com; I’m flabbergasted at the number of people who consider it OK to use braindumps as an exam-preparation technique. I’m not going to make any moral judgments other than to say I don’t use these myself. However, for those of you who do use these sites, I’m not convinced that your time and effort are well spent. Once you complete a certification, employers and clients expect you to know and understand the material, not simply be able to answer memorized questions. The value of the certification is really the knowledge you gain while getting certified—not in the certification itself. I’ve often found that some of the most interesting things I learned while preparing for exams were never addressed in the tests.

If you elect to get certified, remember that you need to keep upgrading your skills and your certifications as your career progresses. Of course, upgrading skills is something we all need to do regularly, but keeping your certifications current always means more exams. Unfortunately, too many feel that once they complete their MCSE, they should have a “sheep dip” approach to certification—once it’s done, it’s done for life. I’m afraid that the rate of change in IT is too fast for that.

The most important thing about certification is to have a realistic view of what it will and won’t do for you. It’s an important addition to your career toolkit, but certification alone isn’t going to do it.

About the Author

Greg Neilson is a manager at a large IT services firm in Australia and has been a frequent contributor to MCPmag.com and CertCities.com.

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