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Using Microsoft Certifications as a Career Path

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Finding a job in information technology is harder than it used to be; just having certifications isn’t enough anymore, as prospective employers can be choosy and look for specific skill sets rather than just some “alphabet soup.” Brian Posey offers advice for IT professionals on how to use Microsoft certifications as a step on the path toward a career, not just a job.

If you really stop and think, it is amazing how much things can change over time. Just over a decade ago, the Dot Com boom was in full swing. Most of the IT pros that I knew back then were making insane amounts of money and living like rock stars. Fast forward to today, and we are in the worst job market since the Great Depression.

With so many people out of work, those who want to get started in IT (and IT pros who want to advance their careers) have a tough road ahead of them. So what can you do to hedge your bets on landing the job (or promotion) that you want? Well, certifications are a good first step, but certifications alone might not be enough. Let me explain.

When I was a kid I never really bought into the idea that history repeats itself, but now that I am getting older I have begun to realize that history often is cyclical. That being the case, I think that some of the lessons that IT pros learned the hard way a decade ago are just as relevant today.

As I mentioned earlier, during the Dot Com boom most of the well-established IT pros that I knew were sitting pretty. In fact, I remember one friend saying that he felt as if he had won the lottery. Of course it was only a matter of time before those who weren’t in IT began to take notice of just how good things were for the IT folks.

All of a sudden everybody wanted to get into IT because that’s where the money was. Just like the Klondike gold rush, people from all walks of life abandoned their jobs and set off in search of IT riches.

It was this mini gold rush that caused a funny thing to happen. Over the span of a few months an MCSE (Microsoft’s highest certification at the time) went from being a highly coveted achievement to being a mere checklist item on almost everyone’s resume. In fact, I recall receiving a resume from a former truck driver with no previous IT experience who had quit his job so that he would have time to study and had earned an MCSE certification in about six weeks’ time.

With so many people seeking IT certifications, the job market quickly became saturated just in time for the bottom to drop out of the tech industry. It got to the point that employers would not even look at a resume unless the person who had submitted it had earned an MCSE. This was quite the contrast when you consider that only a few months prior to this earning an MCSE had been nothing short of a status symbol.

So what does any of this have to do with today? Well, even though the bottom has not dropped out of the tech industry lately, the current economic conditions and the 9% unemployment rate make today’s job market somewhat similar to the job market just after the Dot Com bust.

As was the case a decade ago, there are a lot of IT pros who are out of work. Contrary to what you might hear on the news there are employers who are hiring, but given the abundance of job candidates, employers can be as picky as they want about who they hire.

At the very beginning of this article I said that Microsoft certifications were important for anyone who was looking to get started in IT (or looking to get a better job), but that a certification alone might not be enough. At the time of the Dot Com collapse certifications became something of a checklist item. In other words, the few employers who were hiring expected to see certifications on the candidate’s resumes. However, having a certification was only enough to get a candidate past the first cut. It was by no means a guaranteed way to get a job.

Today, things aren’t quite as bad for IT pros as they were a decade ago, but there are still an abundance of candidates competing for relatively few jobs. So with that in mind, what can an IT pro (or an aspiring IT pro) do to improve their odds of landing that job that they want?

In my opinion, the best thing that an IT pro can do at this point is to decide up front exactly what type of job it is that they are interested in. After doing so, they should pursue the certifications that are the most relevant to the job.

OK, I realize that this advice probably seems a bit obvious, but if you really stop and think about it, this approach makes total sense.

To show you what I mean, imagine that you decide that you want to become an Exchange administrator. If that is your career goal then you could go take Microsoft certification exams 70-662 and 70-663, which would earn you the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP): Enterprise Messaging Administrator 2010 certification.

Obviously that’s a great start, but with today’s job market it probably isn’t enough. After all, when was the last time that you saw a job posting that simply said “Wanted, Exchange Administrator; Exchange 2010 certification a must”? I’m guessing never. Every Exchange Server related job posting that I can ever recall seeing came with an entire laundry list of skills that the ideal candidate should possess. In addition to an Exchange 2010 certification for instance, an employer might ask for familiarity with legacy versions of Exchange, Active Directory, TCP/IP, DNS, Outlook, Windows 7, and Windows Server 2008.

All of the items that I just mentioned are relevant to Exchange Server administration. In order to pass an Exchange Server 2010 certification exam, you have to know a little bit about most of the items that I just listed, but in depth knowledge is not usually required. Herein lies the problem. In order to be an effective Exchange Server administrator, you have to know quite a bit about the Active Directory. However, the Exchange certification exams typically only have a handful of Active Directory related questions. If a potential employer is at all familiar with the exam then you will never be able to convince the employer that passing an Exchange certification exam makes you an Active Directory expert.

On the other hand, if you could show the employer that you are certified in Exchange 2003, 2007, and 2010 and that you have also earned a number of different Windows Server and general networking related certifications then you should have no trouble convincing the prospective employer of your qualifications.

As I stated earlier, the best thing that anyone who is hunting for an IT job right now can do is to figure out exactly what they want to do and then figure out what skill sets are typically required for the job so that they can earn the related certifications. I realize that every employer has slightly different needs, but if you can gain the skill sets that are most commonly associated with your chosen career then you should be in a good position to get the job that you want.

So how can you go about figuring out what skills you need to learn and what certifications would be most beneficial? One method is to read as many relevant help wanted ads as you can and then look for consistencies in what the various employers are looking for.

Another method that might prove to be easier is to use a free tool that is available on the Microsoft website. This tool lists a number of different IT positions. When you click on a position, the tool takes you to a web page that tells you things like what skills are typically required in order to get a job in that position and which Microsoft certifications would be the most beneficial to someone who is seeking the position. The tool even shows you what career paths are available to someone in the position along with the skills and certifications that might be helpful to someone who wants to advance to the next step in the chosen career path.

Ultimately having the right certifications does not guarantee you a job. However, if you can anticipate the skill set that employers in your chosen career path are most likely to need and then get certifications related to those skills then you should be in a very good position to beat out the competition. After all, earning multiple certifications requires tenacity and hard work, which are both traits that employers love.

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