Finding the Right Certification for Your Resume

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You may know that IT certifications can boost your resume and make you more desirable to hiring managers, but which certifications will help you the most? And which ones should you avoid?

In a time when industry analysts say IT hiring is about to pick up, these may be critical questions to answer correctly.

Back in the late 1990's, when the IT industry was booming, companies and organizations of all types scrambled to create certification programs that would satisfy the needs of a qualification-hungry workforce. Even though the past few years have been tough on the certification industry, today, with the economy poised on the cusp of what is being forecast as a long and healthy recovery, many IT professionals are once again looking to certification as a means of verifying and validating their skills.

The only problem is that the sheer variety of certification programs now available makes it difficult to know what pieces of paper are worth the investment required to attain them. So to help you sort the wheat from the chaff, we set out to identify what's going to be hot in IT certification over the coming year.

As in years past, the traditional mainstays of the IT certification industry are expected to continue their success in 2004. Certifications like A+ and Network+ from CompTIA, the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), and the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) will form the cornerstone of many individuals' certification strategy.

But while these foundational IT qualifications are easily identified by those starting out, for those already certified, or those looking for an edge over their counterparts, how to proceed is less clear.

Focusing on Security Without doubt, the hot topic of 2004 will be security.

As if security issues were not already a headache for IT managers, problems like the recent MyDoom virus outbreak serve as a timely reminder that every organization needs to have suitably skilled personnel on staff. In a survey by CompTIA of more than 600 IT professionals, 80 percent of respondents cited a lack of IT security knowledge and training as the cause of most security issues. Almost one in four respondents said they were recommending security certification for their IT staff.

But while IT managers recognize the need for IT security skills, many lack the knowledge required to determine if a prospective candidate has the ability to fulfill the role of a security expert. As it has in the past, certification serves acts as a guide, proving that a candidate has attained and demonstrated a certain level of knowledge.

Therefore, if companies will have an increasing need for security savvy professionals, it stands to reason that people with security related certifications are likely be in high demand over the coming year.

The ground level certification in the security arena is Security+ from CompTIA. Designed for people with two-years experience in networking, the Security+ certification covers a broad range of security related issues, such as cryptography, access control and authentication. Anyone familiar with CompTIA exams and testing methods will not find too many surprises in the Security+ exam.

And employer awareness of CompTIA certifications is very high, due largely to the popularity of other programs like A+ and Network+. These two factors alone make Security+ a wise choice for anyone looking to answer the call for security-minded IT pros in 2004.

As good as Security+ is, though, it is not your only option when it comes to security-related certifications.

There are a number of other entry-level security certifications worth considering, such as GIAC's Security Essentials Certification and TruSecure ICSA Certified Security Associate. Also worth checking out is the Security Certified Network Professional (SCNP) certification.

All of these certifications, like Security+, offer a vendor-independent perspective of security, though most include discussion of skills related to securing common operating systems.

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Windows 2003 Certifications

Another major area for certification this year will be Windows Server 2003. As companies start to look at the now established operating system as an upgrade to existing Windows server installations, more certified IT pros will be required to oversee, manage and perform migrations.

According to statistics from analyst firm Forrester Research, a survey of 818 companies with revenues exceeding $500 million revealed that 40 percent consider Windows upgrades to be a priority in 2004. This alone will drive demand for candidates with the appropriate level of Windows skills.

Taking the Path Less Followed

So, security and Windows Server 2003 are going to be the big topics of the year, but what if you are looking for something a little off the beaten track?

In that case, there are some other technologies and corresponding certifications that are worthy of attention. However, you will have to pick your way a little more carefully if you choose the path less followed.

Becoming a desired commodity in a nascent technology area is a little more complex than following the crowd. First off, there are likely to be fewer choices, in terms of training courses and other resources.

There also is a generally accepted requirement that you will have solid and extensive experience to backup your new specialized certification. Too much certification and not enough experience will not help you rise to the top of the resume pile. It is worth keeping this in mind before you decide to become a Master Certified Internet Webmaster Enterprise Developer after only having three months of practical experience.

One of the technology areas expected to see huge growth in 2004 is IP telephony. If you already have a solid networking background, a number of vendors including Cisco and Nortel, have IP telephony specific certifications that will allow you to verify your skills in this area.

For Cisco, IP Telephony certification is limited to existing Cisco-certified candidates who can go on to become certified in a number of IP Telephony designations

Of these specializations, two are open to accredited CCNAs, two to CCDAs, while another is only available to existing CCNPs. Attaining CCNP certification will involve a great deal of work for the large numbers of CCNAs already certified, but working toward a specialization like IP Telephony should act as a motivator for those wanting to progress up the Cisco certification ladder.

Not surprisingly, both Cisco's and Nortel's certification offerings are geared toward their respective product offerings. To this point, there are no vendor independent offerings in IP telephony, although a number of certification providers look poised to make sure that they don't miss out on the IP telephony wave that is sure to hit.

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What to Stay Away From

Now that we have talked about what certifications will be hot in 2004, we should at least talk briefly about what certification areas should probably be avoided in the coming year.

When identifying what certifications to avoid, it is not just a case of identifying specific certification programs or exams. It is more a task of looking at what factors might reduce the value of a certification, and then making a judgment accordingly. It could be said that there are really no 'bad' certification choices, but there are certainly some that are better than others.

Visibility and employer awareness continue to play a major part in the popularity and acceptance of any certification program, and it is something certification candidates need to be conscious of. If you have to explain what a certification listed on your resume is for, it's unlikely that your prospective employer will place much stead in the skills that you have attained in completing it.

For this reason alone, you would do well to avoid minority manufacturer-specific programs unless you can readily correlate your experience and job aims with their certification.

This is more than just a concern about recognition, however.

Gaining an advanced certification in, let's say, superwidget configuration and troubleshooting, is only likely to be of true value if you are looking for a position that specifically requires you to work with superwidgets, or a close variation thereof

Other, more macro-economic factors also will drive the IT job market in 2004, and these too should be considered before you choose a certification.

For example, everyone seems to agree that outsourcing is having a huge impact in some job areas. For skill areas like programming and system testing, outsourcing will reduce the number of vacancies for people with the requisite skills. Pursuing certifications in this area may be less wise than opting for one of the, shall we say 'hotter' areas.

This is a matter of simple supply and demand economics. More jobs being moved offshore will result in the demand for personnel shrinking over the coming years.

Whether you choose 2004 as the year to update and market your IT skills, or merely as a year of preparation before going to the market in 2005, the demand for skills like strong security knowledge or a background in IP telephony is sure to add value to your skill set. If you are thinking of using certification as a means of verifying these skills, the key is to start thinking about what certification to take now.

By the time the expected job wave hits later this year, you should be ready to go.

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