Chasing paper? Earn stripes to earn respect

If you're making a career change, certification isn't a ticket to unlimited riches in the IT field—but it can open the door to the bank. All you need is the combination of experience and paper.

Let’s be honest. Many professionals enter certification training intending to strike it rich in the IT industry. This is true even for those individuals lacking industry experience.

Following a grueling academic program or stringent self-study program and the successful navigation of a half-dozen exams, you expect to be taken on the level, right? Don’t.

Too many fish have swum upstream from other professions, earned certification, and joined IT shops with the understanding that they’re up to speed on systems issues. However, if you lack practical experience, you’re likely to leave a bitter impression with many IT managers and technology pros.

Respect requires more than certification
In today’s IT culture, be prepared to earn respect. Many pros are industry veterans with seven, 10, or 20 years’ experience. They tend to be skeptical of greenhorns, to say the least, especially as these veterans themselves must often correct errors committed by their newly certified brethren.

In my book, there’s nothing wrong with a newly certified pro. As long as job candidates don’t misrepresent their experience when applying for a position, there’s no harm. There’s absolutely no shame in saying, “I have seven years of proven management expertise as an accountant and a new CNE I studied hard for over the course of 10 months.” Just don’t expect to be put in charge of a Novell network powered by nine servers supporting 5,600 users in 14 different locations. That’s a headache you don’t want … yet.

Don’t oversell yourself
It’s no secret to sales professionals that customers are generally happier when you under-promise and over-deliver. The same is true when job hunting for an IT post.

The last thing you should do as an imminent or freshly minted CNE, MCSE, or Cisco engineer is try to convince an IT manager that you’ve mastered the respective OS when you haven’t had a chance to work in the trenches. Be honest. Explain that you’re willing to join an operation as an all-purpose technical engineer or support technician. Don’t be afraid to carry a screwdriver, in other words.

Gain experience anywhere, anyhow
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Get seat time and experience working with production servers. Obtain such experience any way you can. Donate your IT skills, while you’re studying, to a nonprofit organization.

You can also swallow a little of the management pride you’ve developed and take a part-time post in the evenings staffing a support and help desk. Maybe a firm needs help managing a support department. All of a sudden, you’ve got a good fit. You might not be signing on as a network administrator or systems engineer, but you’ve broken through.

Be honest with IT hiring managers, and you’re likely to find your honesty being rewarded with opportunity. Misrepresent your credentials and expertise, and you’re likely to find yourself in the unemployment line.

Help you help yourself
If you’re chasing certification while you’re still working your full-time day job as an accountant, marketing coordinator, product manager, or what have you, be prepared to work a few evenings and weekends to earn IT experience. You’re a much stronger candidate with hands-on experience under your belt.

There’s another benefit, too. All the studying and learning you’re investing in will be boosted by the real-world knowledge you’ll gain and practice as you’re presented with, and solve, IT challenges.

Just be sure not to complain about the extra hours you’re working. Chances are the system administrator just had to answer a beeper call at four in the morning when a server went down.

While IT professionals usually get to sleep through the night, it’s not an unheard-of experience. Welcome to your new career!

Erik Eckel MCP+I, MCSE is editor in chief of TechRepublic’s IT communities. When he’s not working or staying up until three in the morning to watch the Flyers pull another overtime victory out of a hat, he enjoys mountain biking, jazz, and reading.

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