CXO

Why IT consultants should get baseline certifications

IT consultants don't need to get every new Microsoft certification. Erik Eckel recommends spending time gaining real-world experience and getting only the baseline certs.

I'm often asked whether IT consultants should get technology certifications. The reality is I can only recall one time in about 10 years that a client has asked whether I'm certified. Clients are usually focused on two pressing questions: (1) Can you fix it? and (2) Can you fix it today?

And yet, I believe all IT consultants should pursue accreditation, but not for the reasons many usually do -- that is, to add letters after their name, a belief certifications mean you've mastered the craft, etc.; consultants should seek certifications as part of the process to ensure they are proficient with fundamental technologies.

For example, say your consultancy is increasingly deploying virtualization solutions. If the organization's dependence upon VMware installations grows, it makes sense to nail VMware Certified Professional and VMware Certified Advanced Professional certifications, and possibly the VMware Certified Design Expert designation as part of the process of learning how to properly deploy and administer the platform.

Certifications work best as a baseline

CompTIA's Network+, Security+, and Server+ certifications are among the best places to start for a consultant who works in heterogeneous environments daily. The network, security, and server fundamentals these accreditations reinforce don't change as rapidly as material tested within, say, a Windows NT 4.0 desktop certification. Networks are largely still pieced together using Ethernet cabling; passwords mixing upper and lower case letters; special characters and a minimum length of eight characters are still a good idea; and preventive server maintenance routines are largely unchanged from a few years ago.

That's why CompTIA's topical certifications may provide consultants with the best baseline to reinforce or grow their skills. These certifications stay relevant longer and don't refresh at the same frenzied pace as other vendors' tracks, meaning consultants don't need to ride the mercilessly fast certification carousel some advocate.

For instance, I don't think IT consultants need to obtain every new Microsoft certification as it's released. If an IT professional limits oneself to a specific platform, such as Windows Server 2008, then it makes sense to invest in earning that system's accreditation.

But consultants who fight fires for 12-15 different clients every week know that no single platform owns the market. Just last week I was asked to work on Windows NT 4, 2000, 2003, Small Business Server 2003, 2008, Small Business Server 2008, and Small Business Server 2011 server platforms. That's in addition to troubleshooting a Mac OS X 10.3 server, Mac OS X 10.5 and 10.6 servers, SonicWALLs, and other systems.

Certs don't trump experience

Certifications are not a substitute for real-world experience. This is a slightly different tune than I sang about 12 years ago when I debated the topic with TechRepublic's late Bob Artner. But that was before a decade of working in IT chipped away at my cheerfulness and optimism.

I'd rather have a consultant supporting my network (with mixed Linux, Windows, and Apple servers and desktops) who boasts 10 years of experience and CompTIA Network+ and Server+ certifications than a two-year MCSE who has Microsoft certifications for every Redmond client and NOS released since 2009. While you're spending time studying for a certification, your real-world experience may take a backseat to studying manuals and completing practice tests.

Clients want and need IT consultants who have real-world experience and the baseline certifications.

More about certs on TechRepublic

About

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

4 comments
CareerSaverSamantha
CareerSaverSamantha

Especially if you are just starting out, they provide a validation of your skills and knowledge like little else will. Obviously, experience is important, but when they are wondering "Can you fix it?" and you don't have 15 years of "fixing it" to show on your resume, how do you prove that you can? That is the beauty of certifications. The ability to get certs is something that is so nice about this field!

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

Absolutely. Our experience is indeed what provides certifications with validity.

cyberpsych1
cyberpsych1

There's no way to say having a certification is better than experience or vice-versa unless you "gauge the situation as it presents itself." This is purely my take on the subject, by the way... As I.T. professionals, our "experiences" are what brings validity to the certification; this is what the original intent of certification was. Unfortunately, a lot of people's resumes have become "poster boards" for technology certs they've never worked on (but studied a brain dump) or studied long enough to learn the basic functionality "just to get the certification." I've always believed (as does the author) that having "baseline certs" is the way to go. Network+, Server+, Security+, I.T. Project+, and CCNA certifications are what I currently hold and I've utilized them all in one way or another in my past daily duties. In my case, my certifications were the main reason I got hired recently. Having a "certified and experienced" person on your team trumps a "certified without experience" applicant moreso than an "experienced with minimal or without certifications" applicant. Now, this is not to say a person with 15+ years experience can't get the job done; this individual may not get the same look as an applicant with 15+ years experience "and certifications validating that." In this case, the determining factor for hire would most likely come down to what each applicant demands in salary, period. However, this sets up a debate of a different nature, so I'll speed past this :-) :-) Personally, if I were hiring, I'd ensure to have a computer emulator/simulator close by so I can see how proficient applicants were to guard against "paper tigers in the work force. Anything presented on resumes becomes "fair game" to scrutinize. Regardless of anyone having certs or none at all, "anyone" applying for a technology position will still have to demonstrate "basic knowledge" of the technology utilized for the position they're applying for. Entry procedures such as this will definitely weed out the "paper tigers" because if you know it, you'll show it... Certified vs un-certifed is a situational dilemma. However, the more certifed a company's personnel portfolio is seen to be goes much further when courting clientele for that company (I'm just saying...). If you truly have the knowledge and experience, get certified; there's just more benefits to reap. If you don't have the knowledge but grab the certification as a presentation piece for your resume, "YOU WILL BE FOUND OUT EVENTUALLY."

Barshalom
Barshalom

I agree to everything Eric wrote. I too have over 18 years in the IT field and only three certs - Comptia A+, Security+ and MCP. I decided that my experience working with systems and not a whole bunch of certs was going to make me successful in this field. And do you know what? Not one employer in my 18+ year career has ever asked about whether or not I'm certified. As a matter of fact, no cert that I possess has ever gotten me a salary increase. Eric said it plainly as can be what every employer in my 18 year career wants: 1. Can you fix it? 2. Can you fix it today? - My response, Yes and Yes. Their response: Your hired! Thanks Eric for pointing this out.

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