Career Coach - 10

A column that gives IT professionals a chance to pose questions about training, certification, salaries or any other career-related issues to eWEEKs panel of IT managers, hiring and training experts.

Dear Career Coach: Could you please tell me what network skills tend to impress hiring managers? Does an A+ cert help at all to get interviews, or should I focus more on esoteric skills such as Cisco and MCSE? Please respond. Im very torn about getting these certs and would like some input. --Confused

Brian Jaffe

Career Coach: BRIAN D. JAFFE

A+ certification just wont cut it for a career in networking. PC technician, maybe; networking, no.

But before you focus the next few months on getting your certification, make sure youre aware of the most common myth of certification. Certification is not the Holy Grail that magically opens locked doors of opportunity. The unemployment line is filled with people holding IT certifications. Not too long ago, when it seemed like IT was the surest path to untold riches, people gave up their existing careers, crammed for certificate exams, and found that without the companion experience, theyd be lucky if their certificate got them a job on the Help Desk.

Ciscos certification generally carries more cachet than Microsofts. Many consider it to be a more rigorous process, to entail more challenging exams, and to cover a more complicated subject area. As such, the Cisco certification may impress more hiring managers. But impressing them with your skills doesnt get you a job unless those are the skills they need.

Youll find that most environments have at least some of Microsofts products, but not every environment has Ciscos solutions. With a Cisco certification, youll probably have to market yourself to the larger environments and/or those that have multiple sites networked together. One last thing to bear in mind: There are a lot fewer people carrying Cisco certifications than there are Microsoft certifications. As such, if you opt for the Cisco certification, youll be a member of a more select group. And after all, to paraphrase Groucho, would you want to join any group that would have you as a member?

Brian D. Jaffe is a contributing editor to eWEEK and an IT director in New York.

Fran Rabuck

Career Coach: FRAN RABUCK

A+ certification is a CompTIA-sponsored testing program that certifies the competency of entry-level (six months experience) computer service technicians. These skills are a requirement for starting a networking career, but they are just the beginning. If I were you, I would look to understand the concepts covered by A+, maybe even skip this exam and move directly to your goal of becoming MCSE-certified. Start with the basic core exams to get some base level of knowledge and keep in mind what direction you might like to focus on when considering the elective requirements. Use your elective requirements to define your focus. Are you interested in security, e-mail and messaging, or designing infrastructures and networks? Be sure you go after current certifications also--mostly focused on Windows 2000.

Cisco certification can come later, when you have a better understanding of networking principles. Besides, Cisco certification can become an expensive and challenging proposition that requires more direct, hands-on experience.

Even more important than the certifications is experience. In fact, getting your certification from book study, practice tests, boot camps or lab-based courses wont guarantee youll be successful in either the exams or on the job. So how do you get hands-on experience? Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Buy two cheap used computers with a decent amount of memory and processing power. Install and network these systems together.
  • Look to attend user groups in your area that focus on topics such as networking or specific products. Listen, learn and participate in the group.
  • Volunteer. There are many groups out there looking for a smart person and willing to work with them on setting up computers and networks in their organization.
  • Find a mentor. Search for an individual in an organization who might be willing to work with you part-time. Offer to do it for free for a while. Its a better investment of your time than spending hours doing book learning. You might even be able to barter your free labor in exchange for covering your exam costs.

What do I look for when hiring people? A succession of jobs and projects that show effort and growth. A broad educational background in a variety of technologies and interests. A can-do attitude that shows commitment. Specific, proven skills as required for the job. Lastly, I look for certifications. Certification shows that an individual has invested the time, effort and dollars to prove his expertise, not that hes an expert on the topic. Experts are learning all the time and are forever perfecting their skill sets on the job.

Fran Rabuck is the Wireless Practice Leader for Alliance Consulting, in Philadelphia. He has over 20 years experience in the computing industry and has worked through the certification process for the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals CSP (Certified Systems Professional) certification, as well as numerous Lotus Notes/Domino certifications in both Development and Administration.

Gary Bronson

Career Coach: GARY BRONSON

The certifications are important. However, the bottom line is expertise and experience. When Im looking for key individuals to run my production environment, I need to know that I can trust this person to know what to do and when to do it. I need to know that the person understands where to go to get information they dont know. I cant afford to have someone come in and bring my production environment down. Obtaining the certs communicates to me a level of commitment and the ability to learn.

In smaller companies, you need a generalist approach, as you will need to understand all components in the network. In larger companies, you will tend to specialize. Your decisions should take into account what size company you want to work for.

Gary Bronson is IT enterprise operations manager at Washington Group International, in Boise, Idaho.