When you started on the independent contractor or consultancy track, you had a certain skill set, right? This was how you got your first contract work or your first project to run from a client. From there, you learned more technical skills on the job and by supporting your learning in your own time and between contracts and projects.

As is the nature of our industry, though, the time to the obsolescence of our technical skills is short. We must make decisions about the amount of time and money we’ll devote to maintaining our position in the marketplace, measured against the other demands on our resources. Essentially: How critical is it to show you are staying at the top of your game?

Working through an agency vs. building a business
Here, I believe, comes a difference in strategy between the independent contractor working through agencies and the consultant trying to grow a business. (See, “The difference between contracting and consulting and why it matters.”) As a contractor, you are as good as the sum of your skill set, your experience and, of course, your resume. That resume will look bare if you have no certifications. While I contracted business, I made it my business to stay up with the technology I was seeking work in, through formal training and late nights. I took the exams, and I got the contracts—it worked for me.

As a consultant trying to build a business, these are important, too, as they go a long way to defining your credibility. However, there is a whole mountain of other drains on your resources, notably time. When small consulting firms start, it’s usually clear that their “bread and butter” project offerings are going to center on the core skills that the founders have built up. Then starts a growing conflict between current skills losing the value they once had and the amount of time needed on business issues, running the projects that bring in the revenue, marketing the business, and maintaining training and certification.

Experience vs. certification
This, of course, brings on the experience vs. certification debate again, as you battle to gain credibility through completing projects with your current skills (read: experience). But you also must justify training time (read: certification).

Obviously, both of these can be disastrous in their extremes. Either you run all your projects with your current skills, then one day find out that no one wants to implement Dinosaur 1.0 anymore and you stop everything to train to find new work, or you continually train and only find enough work to pay for your training.

Certainly, prospective clients will want to see your client list to gauge your experience—but they also don’t want to see that your only experience is with old or irrelevant technology. I believe there has to be some planning involved on a strategic level in your business, which revolves around your growth plans, your current operational requirements, and your particular business.

A business consultant recently asked us what it was that we personally enjoyed doing. His rationale was that people do well at things they enjoy doing, and businesses do well at things that they enjoy doing well. For organizations of people who follow this through to developing IT skills, the challenge will be in how to run the “business of running the business.”

Finding a solution
Rather than run screaming from the building, there should be some identifiable decisions that businesses can take when deciding on how to keep both the experience of completed projects growing, and the tech-training budget healthy.

The smaller the business, the fewer the opportunities for people to specialize and become adept at the various skills in running and developing a consulting business, while still getting the actual work done.

As the organization grows, determine to what level you will outsource work, both business operation and technical. Just as importantly, keep a check on how the resources being freed up through the outsourcing are being used.

The pursuit of certifications only reaps value if the audience for your list of completed exams is interested in them. Very few of my current clients would know I am an MCSE, though when I was a contractor for hire, I made sure all of the agents I spoke to knew I was an MCSE.

Of the two “poles” of experience vs. certification, I think most would see the sense in coming down on the side of experience. If you can point a prospective client at a successful project relevant to their requirements, they are likely to see the value of project completion and a happy client, in addition to your proven skills.

David Parkinson lives and works out of the North West United Kingdom as principal consultant for Control Key Ltd. Clients range from a Premiership Football Club to small manufacturing sites.

What’s more important: certification or experience? Which will better help you to stay on top of your game? Give us your thoughts by posting a comment below. If you have a question or comment for David, send us a note.