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
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 of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.