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Certification and Career Self-Assessment: Can and Should You Do It? (2014 Edition)

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Aspiring or active IT professionals can benefit from an improved understanding of how regular certification and career self-assessment pays off. Ed Tittel shows you how annual self-assessment and planning can boost your professional career, along with things to consider when developing or refining career and certification plans.
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There was a time in the not-so-distant past when whatever skills you possessed when you entered the workforce could carry you throughout your career. But the face of the employment landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade or three. The days when your initial diploma (be it from high school, a trade school, college, or university) was sufficient to sustain you in the workforce are long gone.

This is particularly true in IT, which is constantly growing and changing with the continuous emergence of new technologies and amazing changes to existing ones. Let's face it: IT is a knowledge-based industry. Like it or not, knowledge drives the IT industry and the economy. Those who aren't flexible can't adapt, and those who can't or won't learn new skills risk finding themselves on the outside of the IT workforce looking in.

Making time for regular—at least annual—certification self-assessment is a smart "best practice" for anybody's IT career development and planning. Career goals can and do change as your position in work and life alters over time.

A new marriage, kids, divorce, moving to a new location, aging parents, layoffs, and so forth are all major lifestyle changes that affect career goals. A career path that looks perfect when you're 22 and fresh out of college may have a very different look and feel from that same career path at ages 30, 40, or 50.

Not only does your life change but today's IT market landscape also changes frequently and demands increased flexibility and adaptability from the workforce. New skill sets are constantly required in response to dictates of emerging tools, platforms, and technologies. Those with the right skill sets to meet current demands will reap rewards; those who lack them will fall off the IT bus.

Certification self-assessment and career planning help IT professionals set and adjust the course for their professional lives. An annual certification checkup also enables IT professionals to track progress against career goals, adjust their bearings, and respond to changing lifestyle, economic, and industry circumstances with forethought and deliberation.

The first step of developing a certification/career self-assessment is to establish clear professional goals and objectives. The goals you should include form the basis for a career self-assessment that you'll use to track your career development progress over time.

Keep the following recommendations in mind as you establish those goals and objectives:

  • Goals should be clear and measurable.
  • Goals must be documented in written form. You need tangible, well-written goals so you can refer to them in the future. Also, there is great power in committing your goals to paper (or its digital equivalent).
  • Goals should reflect the items that motivate you to succeed. People are motivated by different things: money, being known as an expert in their field, being recognized as a great leader or manager, and so forth. Good career goals reflect things that are important to you and will motivate you to build your career.
  • Goals should include both short-term and long-term objectives. You'll find that some goals can be accomplished in a relatively short amount of time; others—a Ph.D. in engineering, for example—can take years to achieve.
  • Goals should have timelines. Just as deadlines keep you on track on the job, giving yourself personal deadlines or timelines help you to meet your goals. You're more likely to push yourself forward when a date is attached. Also, be realistic as you set those goals. Most people can't work full time and earn an MBA in one year, so make certain that your timeline is both reasonable and achievable.

After you establish goals and objectives, determine what you need to make each goal a career reality. For each goal or objective you list, determine what skills you need to meet that goal and then document an action plan to achieve it.

Consider the following questions as you work through this task:

  • What education do I need? For example, high school diploma, technical school, bachelor's degree, master's degree, Ph.D., and so forth.
  • What certifications do I need? In listing certifications, think about your short-term and long-term goals because related certifications might differ. Many certification paths involve multiple tiers or layers, from novice to expert, so choose those certifications that lead to your goal.
  • What soft skills do I need to develop? Soft skills include communication skills (oral and written), negotiation skills, leadership ability, and organizational skills.
  • What experience do I need? Long- and short-term goals come into play in this area, too. Often, short-term goals create a foundation for long-term ones. Chances are you won't start out as team lead or senior program manager—you need experience. Understand what kind of (and how much) experience is required for each goal.
  • Do I need cross-training in multiple fields? Some goals require training in more than one IT field. For example, if you're a software developer seeking to make a move into project management, you'll not only need technical skills in programming, testing, and QA but also project management skills.
  • Do I need to join any professional organizations? Membership in a professional organization can be a great resource for career planning and development. Many organizations have mentor or training programs that can help you meet your goals or provide access to advice to help you define and refine those goals. They often provide discussion groups, share job leads, and offer professional development training to interested and motivated members.
  • Do I need ongoing professional development? Many certifications require ongoing education for recertification as an alternative to re-examination. In addition, as technology changes, it is prudent to keep your skills current and up to date with what's hot in the industry.

As you put your plan together, don't overlook industry trends. Stay abreast of what's hot—and what's not—in your IT field. Be prepared to make goal adjustments based on the needs of the IT industry.

At least once per year, conduct a reality check. Take a close look at where you are on your plan and determine whether you need to make adjustments.

As indicated earlier, not only does life change but the demands of the IT industry also change. Be sure you understand how these changes affect your plans.

Today's IT market demands a commitment to lifelong learning. To stay in the game, it's important for IT professionals to understand that IT is a knowledge-based industry. Learning new skills, gaining new certifications, and so forth must become a way of life for serious, committed IT professionals.

Why not plan ahead and make this a well-planned and enjoyable adventure?

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