IT professionals face a significant challenge: How do you balance a stiff workload, often requiring odd office hours, with a personal life? Certifications and their associated continuing education requirements place even greater demands upon systems engineers, network administrators, support technicians, and other IT pros.
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So should IT pros even pursue multiple certifications, or should they focus instead on sharpening their skills on a single platform or area of expertise? You know what they say: Jack of all trades, master of none.

What’s best for you?
The question of whether pursuing multiple certifications is right for you should be answered, as they say in the telecom industry, ICB, or on an individual-case basis. Why? Because each IT pro brings entirely different skills to the table.

Have you been in the industry for years? If so, you’re probably much more familiar with legacy systems; you’ve developed knowledge only experience can impart; you’re intimately familiar with the demands and challenges an IT pro faces; and you probably have a repertoire of rational approaches to take in times of crises.

Are you one of the many, many folks who have switched to a career in IT from another field? There’s no shame in doing so, but now may not be the time for you to become MCSE+I, CCNA, MCNE, A+, and Net+. Instead, I’d recommend you focus on developing significant expertise with a single platform, while also working to master the myriad networking and troubleshooting fundamentals a strong netadmin needs. Then, after a year and a half or so in the trenches, if things are going well and you feel on top of your game, feel free to pursue your next accreditation.

Maybe you’ve been in the industry for decades and believe certifications are hogwash. That’s too bad. Instead of grumbling about all the paper certs entering the workforce, you could earn your own and enjoy the benefits.

Then again, you might simply be a fast learner—or you might have landed in a situation in which you need to learn skills you don’t have. If you find yourself no longer facing new challenges, go ahead and develop expertise in yet another area of the industry. If you’ve already obtained a CNE, and you’re tasked with managing your enterprise’s WAN, it makes sense to pursue Cisco certification.

Who are IT managers looking for?
The real question you might want answered is “Which qualities do hiring managers seek when recruiting IT pros?” You’re likely to find most managers are looking for candidates with a blend of experience and certification, plus a few other qualities thrown in for good measure.

“When I’m hiring someone, I’m looking for four specific criteria,” says TechRepublic’s IT vice president, Jeff Luckett. “I seek domain- or platform-specific knowledge, attitude, experience, and adaptability.

“While certifications help to prove domain-specific knowledge and some adaptability, and experienced candidates appreciate the sense of urgency and customer-focused service that is required to be successful, attitude is a must in a hire,” Luckett added. “I don’t care how a candidate stacks up in the other categories. In a corporate IT environment, being a team player with good initiative is a must. No one can function in a vacuum, regardless of technical prowess.”

To gain another viewpoint, I called Jim Cantrell, the director of information systems at NASCAR, who oversees a department of 16 employees, 12 servers, and 500 users. He knows a thing or two about working in a fast-paced environment (pardon the pun).

“We look for all the standard qualifications, and certifications are one thing we look at along with work experience,” Cantrell says. “A proven ability to work with a number of systems is key. Single-platform individuals, while having good attitudes, can become flustered when it’s necessary to bring in other platforms.”

What else does he seek in a candidate?

“Flexibility and adaptability are helpful,” Cantrell said. “Platforms change and standards change, and it’s key to be able to make different platforms work together.”

It’s all about balance
Ultimately, the question of whether multiple certifications are right for you can be answered only by you. The demands your job place upon you often dictate the skills you need, the timeframe you have in which to acquire those skills, and whether multiple skill sets are required.

Of course, the importance you place on personal and family life also affects this balance. You may be single and driving toward the purchase of a 911, or your goal may be to free up time to spend with the kids. Every situation is different.

That said, it makes sense that you concentrate on areas in which you have strength. Here’s hoping your strengths and expertise are in demand in today’s job market.
If you’d like to share your opinion, please post a comment or send the editor an e-mail.