Whether you're interested in security, networking, administration, or another area of IT, certification is a great way to join an elite group of highly trained and sought-after IT professionals. Certification in your IT field of interest provides you with not only the skills necessary to compete in today's economic job market but also gives you some "sheepskin" to prove to prospective employers that your abilities set you apart from other candidates.
Industry statistics estimate that millions of individuals world-wide believe that certification gives them a competitive edge. Thus, although these people haven't yet completed all requirements for various certifications, they are somewhere along in an IT certification process. (Add to that up to 10 million individuals who've already completed at least one certification, and you have quite a crowd.)
We're pretty sure that somewhere between two and four times that number are probably considering whether or not to obtain some kind of IT certification. That's a huge audience!
In this article, we describe several really great jobs available in IT. This can help you evaluate your readiness to tackle an IT position that involves a technical certification of some kind by comparing what you know against what employers fondly hope that ideal candidates know.
Any IT certification requires some type of exam, so going through this exercise should also help you figure out what you need to learn to prepare yourself to pursue a certification credential of some kind.
Six Fabulous Job Roles Where Certification Counts
Describing the number of potential job roles available for IT professionals in the workplace is akin to describing every star that appears in the night sky—it's nearly impossible. Therefore, we focus on six key job roles that our research tells us are most likely to employ certified individuals.
As you ponder your own options, if your goals don't match at least one of these roles, don't lose heart: You can still learn more about your area of interest after reading them over and comparing what you already know to what employers think you need to know. Plus, you might discover that one of the job roles described sparks your interest in a new area that you hadn't previously considered.
In the list that follows, we describe these six key job roles. As you read through the various job role descriptions, pay close attention to not only the certifications required but also the different types of tasks the job function requires. Examine the skills required to do those tasks and compare them against your own skills.
Employers are always on the lookout for "perfect" or "ideal" candidates. Because so few of us are that perfect (and wouldn't the world be pretty boring if we were?), it should come as no surprise that very few real candidates can match up to a perfect paper ideal. Although the requirements for any of these roles may seem formidable, they are by no means impossible to meet. However, be keenly aware that it takes time, some expense, and hard work to get through any certification process.
The descriptions of the following six job roles are based on years of email from readers, IT industry and certification surveys; reviews of most major IT certification programs; and interesting discussions with other certification gurus.
Network administrators support IT infrastructures by installing, configuring, and managing desktop and server machines. They're also usually responsible for installing, configuring, and maintaining common network services, including file, print, fax, and Internet access.
More-senior network administrators may also manage custom or enterprise-level applications and services, including accounting systems, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, and database environments. Common certifications for network administrators include credentials such as the Linux Professional Institute Certification (LPIC) Level 1, 2 or 3; the Certified Wireless Network Professional (CWNP) program; and the various Cisco Certified Networking Professional (CCNP) credentials.
Internetworking professionals manage complex networking infrastructures that are usually TCP/IP-based, plus related routing, name services, security structures, and much, much more. Whether an organization connects to the Internet, operates its own intranet, or is part of an extranet, internetworking professionals make these complex collections of wide and local area networks work.
Common certifications for internetworking professionals are Cisco's CCNP and CCIE certifications, along with other certifications from Avaya, Juniper, Alcatel, Ciena, and others.
Security professionals support IT and business infrastructures by analyzing and evaluating networks and systems from a security perspective. They are usually responsible for eliciting, defining, documenting, deploying, and administering an organization's or a company's security policy, in all the many and glorious forms that such a policy can take. This means they work with routers, firewalls, gateways, and intrusion detection systems; perform security audits; respond to virus infestations; and so on.
Security professionals often work inside organizations, in which they generally belong to some kind of centralized IT or risk management department that provides security support to all kinds of users, including in-house staffers and external customers. Common certifications for security professionals include the SANS-GIAC, CISSP, CISM, CCNP Security, and Security+ certifications, among many others.
Virtualization/Data Center Administrator
Virtualization/data center administrators typically lead large infrastructure projects. They plan, develop, implement, monitor, and support activities and operations of a data center, many of which run in virtual environments and offer cloud-based services. This type of administrator must be well versed in both physical and virtual servers, virtual desktops, local and wide area networking, storage systems, and telecommunications equipment. They must also support Windows Active Directory, Domain Name System (DNS), and the plethora of various protocols associated with data center networking.
Popular certifications for virtualization/data center administrators include the Cisco CCIE Data Center, VMware Certified Design Expert 5 - Data Center Virtualization (VCDX5-DCV), SNIA Certified Storage Networking Expert (SCSN-E), and the BICSI Data Center Design Consultant (DCDC).
Programmers create in-house systems, help make Web sites interactive, create mobile apps, and customize and deploy complex software such as database or ERP systems. In short, programmers take the software building blocks that make up most modern IT environments, put those pieces together, and tailor them to suit the unique information processing needs in modern organizations.
Common certifications for programmers include MCSD certification, Oracle's Java credentials, the EC-Council Certified Secure Application Developer (CSAD), and other development tool or environment-specific certifications.
As the name implies, project managers manage day-to-day operations to ensure that projects get delivered as planned, on time, and within a specified budget. (Scope, time, and budget are referred to as the "Triple Constraints" within project management.)
Project managers also manage all project phases from initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing the final project out. They must have excellent organizational, negotiation, and leadership skills because they not only manage stakeholder expectations (which may differ depending on the various stakeholders involved) and resources (both people and materials) but also must make task resource assignments; develop schedules and ensure that the resources are available to keep the project on schedule); and manage project risk, scope creep, budget, and anything else necessary to ensure a successful project.
In an IT environment, a project manager needs sufficient subject matter expertise to understand the scope of the project and what it takes to accomplish project goals. As a result, IT project managers frequently hold certifications in other IT areas as well.
The field of project management can be a great career path for those who want to transition into management. The most common certification in this area is the Project Management Professional (PMP) credential offered by the Project Management Institute, recognized globally as establishing a standard for training, experience, and education.
Various colleges and universities also offer programs in project management (for example, the Stanford Certified Project Manager program). Many universities offer master's degrees in project management with an emphasis on specialized areas such as technology projects, information systems security, and technology logistics.
As you consider any particular job role, remember that the ones discussed here are the most heavily populated job roles that employ certified individuals: Lots of people already occupy these spots. By extension, because others have walked these pathways ahead of you, you should be able to reach your certification goals, too.
It's not like you're a brave pioneer, going where no IT professional has gone before. If others can do it (and, in fact, many have done these things already), so can you!