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How to Compete in the Post-Dot-Com Certification Era

Although the economy continues to show signs of modest recovery, store and IT spending is reporting up in many industries, the return to health and vigor still hasnt touched the certification marketplace in many ways.

In thinking over trends and tendencies in the IT certification market in 2004, I cant help but be a bit disappointed with that year in review. Although the economy continues to show signs of modest recovery, and IT spending is reporting up in many industries, the return to health and vigor still hasnt touched the certification marketplace in many ways that I can see. The annual salary survey issue of MCP Magazine (September 2004; http://www.mcpmag.com/salarysurveys/) leads with the title "Salary Stalemate" and goes on to opine that the days when attaining a Microsoft certification made a difference in pay or employability are "long gone." Whats an IT professional to do?

First and foremost, its important to look for the bright spots. I see two trends in IT employment that can lead savvy, motivated IT professionals up the career ladder, on to better jobs and pay (or into a paying job, for those entering the job market or temporarily on the sidelines). The first trend is toward technical specialization, with an emphasis on hot technologies or important market niches. These include networked storage (SAN and NAS, or whatever a vendor calls this type of thing), wireless networking, messaging, and above all, Security. Certification still makes something of a difference if its in a hot technology or an important market niche, but one must take a close, hard look at available credentials and pick them on the basis of name recognition and, where vendors are involved, on the basis of the sponsoring companys or organizations market and mind share.

The second trend is toward augmenting straight-up technical skills and knowledge with supporting soft skills and abilities. The best example of this kind of thing is the Project Management Institutes Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, which teaches tech-savvy individuals how to design, staff, manage, budget, and keep projects up with cost and delivery requirements. Other examples include developing people management skills, communications skills (primarily, writing and speaking), and other attributes that help IT professionals see the "big picture" inside which technology works, and understand the business mindset that helps to explain and (when necessary) justify IT investment and expenditures.

Given that IT certification by itself is no longer a ticket to a better job, and may not be enough to get one into ones first job, theres another essential soft skill that all IT professionals would do well to develop: selling oneself. Though the catchphrase is not without some iffy connotations, this means understanding how to present oneself to potential employers, or to those who make decisions about putting people into different positions if one already has a job, so as to maximize the chances of winning the positions you want. In plain English, this means you must understand whats important to those people, and recast your knowledge, skills, abilities, accomplishments, educationand yes, certifications as wellin ways that speak to their needs and desires. If youve already dealt with issues or problems that theyre facing, explain how what youve done, what youve learned, or what you know can help them understand and resolve them. If youve helped a company or organization improve productivity, boost sales, increase capacity, or otherwise improve their bottom lines (however theyre measured, recognizing that while money is an important metric it doesnt speak to all needs or situations) you must communicate this in a way that shows you can add value if youre put in the position you seek.

Anything less is probably not enough to land a job, or win a raise or promotion in todays climate, no matter how much alphabet soup you can hang after your name. Its not just about what certifications youve earned any more; its about what you can DO with them. Thankfully, with a little thought and elbow grease, you can probably think of lots of good things to say about yourself, your skills and knowledge, and what you can do.

Ed Tittel is the creator of the Exam Cram series of cert prep books; in its current incarnation as Exam Cram 2, he still edits that series. He also writes on certification topics regularly for Certification Magazine, InformIT.com, and various TechTarget Websites. Contact Ed at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.