Whether you realize it or not, a decision to pursue a career in IT is also a decision to become a lifelong learner. IT, perhaps more than any other profession, is a knowledge-driven field. Whether you’re an old salt or a newbie, IT professionals quickly find themselves adopting a lifelong learning philosophy to keep abreast of new industry trends and to make sure the skills they possess remain currently in demand.
Most IT professionals quickly grasp the concept that learning does not end with the photograph as you clasp a new diploma upon graduation. Formal education (technical or trade school, 2-year associate, or 4-year college degree, for example) generally tends to teach learners more about the IT profession and less about how to actually use the knowledge they obtained in school on the job. To be successful in the world of IT, you not only need to know the “what” in the IT profession, you also need to know the “how.” Learning “how” to do things comes from experience. Frequently, the “how” also comes through certifications, which are especially useful for those just entering a particular IT area to quickly build knowledge and master new skills.
Certifications generally come in three levels:
- Entry (6 months to 1 year of experience)
- Intermediate (1 to 3 years of experience; some hands-on skills and demonstrated proficiency)
- Advanced (advanced skills, 3 or more years of experience)
The certification tiers are referred to as “certification ladders” (or sometimes the Pyramid Certification Model, with the largest, entry-level tier at the bottom; the intermediate-level tier in the middle, and the smallest, advanced-level tier at the top of the pyramid). There are literally hundreds of certifications along with their associated certification ladders out there. Certification ladders can be vendor-neutral (general information; broad scope) or vendor-specific (geared specifically to enhance the skills and knowledge of those using Microsoft, Cisco, or Oracle products, for example).
Certification ladders are flexible in that they allow IT professionals to enter the certification process at different points depending on their experience and skill requirements. (For more information on certification ladders, see Understanding Certification Ladders.)
Although most vendors offer specific certification ladders, IT professionals understand certification ladders are easily customizable. The power of the certification ladder lies in its flexibility and the ability tailor the certification ladder to reflect your individual professional and career needs. The flexibility and adaptability becomes particularly important as career paths change over time, and the certifications required to remain fresh in the job marketplace change as a result. For example, consider the certification ladder of the following IT network professional.
- Entry level: Our IT professional is a recent graduate with no experience or measurable skills, who’s been hired to work with networks in a Cisco environment. Her initial certification ladder might include the following:
- Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) Network+: Network+ is an internationally recognized, vendor-neutral certification that speaks to the competency and proficiency levels of IT professionals as it relates to the areas of installing and configuring, maintaining, and troubleshooting basic networks.
- Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA): An entry-level credential focused on installation and management of LAN/VLAN/VPN environments, and connections to WANs.
- Intermediate (1 to 3 years experience): Our IT network professional has now mastered basic network skills in an IT environment. She has obtained basic credentials and has real-life work experience and hands-on experience with some level of demonstrable proficiency. Such a candidate is now ready to move on and continue to build skills and knowledge. At this point, she might choose more advanced credentials in the certification ladder such as the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP), an intermediate-level credential focused on installing and configuring, troubleshooting, and operating wired and wireless LANs, remote access, security, voice, and video.
- Advanced (3 or more years in a networking career): Our IT professional is now experienced and seasoned and ready to take on more responsibility and challenges. She is ready for more advanced credentials such as the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), an advanced-level credential geared for those who configure and maintain complicated networks.
It’s not uncommon for IT professionals to seek new opportunities, for companies to replace established hardware and software platforms, or for companies to reassign IT professionals to new areas of responsibility. Whether by choice or corporate mandate, this same IT professional may find it necessary to venture into the field of network security. The certification ladder will reflect that career change and may now include certifications such as:
- CompTIA Security+: Entry level vendor-neutral security credential.
- Cisco Certified Network Associate Security (CCNA Security): Intermediate vendor-specific credential.
- Cisco Certified Network Professional Security (CCNP Security): Advanced vendor-specific credential.
If the operating system were to change to Windows, the next step in the certification ladder might be the addition of credentials such as GIAC Certified Windows Security Administrator followed by other Windows vendor-specific credentials.
It’s easy to see how personal certification ladders change depending on professional requirements. Many factors drive which certifications to seek. Choose certifications that will enable you to succeed in your chosen career path, and don’t be afraid to mix and match credentials. This is particularly true for talented IT professionals who like to straddle multiple areas of IT expertise; it’s not inconceivable that one person might pursue Microsoft, Cisco, and information security credentials at the same time, while another might pursue Microsoft, networked storage, and datacenter-related credentials instead. At the end of the day, your certification ladder should reflect credentials that provide you with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed and move ahead in IT marketplace, and to pursue any and all of the technical areas of expertise that interest you or that appear most likely to promise long-term employability.