BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
In today's IT world, having a strong understanding of products and technologies can be instrumental in securing a top-notch job, or it can be the added push you need to help get your foot in the door. One of the primary ways to showcase your knowledge is through vendor certifications.
Vendor certifications have existed for many years and have represented a way for IT professionals to prove they have experience with and knowledge of key products or technologies. Microsoft and Novell helped lead this effort, and now a growing majority of vendors offer certifications based on products that showcase a professional's skill. While certifications initially started with a few per vendor, they now can span multiple product families and skill levels.
Similar to traditional educational achievements, vendor certifications now start at the associate level and progress to the professional, advanced and master levels. If you look at VMware as an example, you can climb up the ladder, starting with VMware Certified Associate, then VMware Certified Professional, then VMware Certified Advanced Professional, then all the way to VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX). Several vendors have similar progression trees that allow IT professionals to have continual growth toward a master's-level certification. However, this is not a speedy process and often takes years, not weeks or months. With all the time and effort for these higher-level certifications, a key question should be asked: Is it worth it? Now, don't get me wrong: Today a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) or a VCDX certification is nothing to sneeze at (in fact, they are in great demand), but are these advanced degrees all you need to be successful?
Only a few years ago, professionals with a Novell Master Certified NetWare Engineer certification were in critical demand. But now, Novell engineers are not as in demand as they used to be, and the folks that invested considerable time and effort in this certification have found themselves with a piece of paper that doesn't hold the high value it once did. It is unlikely that VMware or Cisco could suffer the same fate as Novell, but the fact is, the future is always uncertain and we don't know what is waiting for us around the corner. While investing several years with one vendor may pay off in the short term, you might want to consider developing a wider base of certifications from multiple vendors in case the markets change.
One of the unique challenges of being an expert in a single vendor or topic is that there is a ceiling on your growth. When something new comes out that is not related to your specialty or if you get bored with what you are doing, what are your options? I have seen CCIEs take VMware courses to learn about this new technology coming to the data center. They didn't take the training out of fear, but because of their desire to learn something new. Even today, look at the number of VMware evangelists learning about OpenStack or Docker. Most professionals regard staying in our silos as not only boring but also career-limiting. So, why should vendor certifications be the same? Branching out horizontally and obtaining certifications from multiple vendors, such as Microsoft, Cisco and EMC, can help the professional have options when it comes to possible career paths.
Besides technical training, IT professionals should not overlook formal education. While many people consider traditional two- and four-year schools less important than vendor training in a technical area, these schools do impart fundamentals and important communication and teamwork concepts. Oftentimes, you will hear technically gifted people comment that traditional education no longer has a place and is a waste of time and money since most companies care about the bottom line and getting the job done. However, recruiters are becoming more concerned with employees' "soft-skills," not just the technical side. One of the common themes you hear from recruiters today is the feeling that "technology and skills can be trained easily, but teamwork and communication are much harder." While I am not sure technical skills are something that is really that easy to train employees in, the statement does underscore a very important point about the value of teamwork and professionalism. In sports you can see very talented players completely destroy the morale of their team to the point where no other team wants players with that type of character. The athlete had the individual skills, but his attitude and behavior were poisonous to his overall team, and his individual skills no longer mattered.
Could the same situation happen with IT professionals? To put it simply: Yes. There are some highly certified professionals that are some of the nicest people you could ever meet. They contribute to both the team and the organization. And on the flip side, there are more than a few others that are very technically gifted, but their arrogance and toxic behavior make them people you'd never want to meet, much less have on your team. Having a formal education that encompasses a bachelor's degree or a master's degree won't fix the problem, but such degree programs are designed to teach students a wider skill base that can help mitigate some of these narrowly focused paths.
Advanced certifications are not right or wrong, just as a traditional education is not more valuable or less valuable. Professionals today benefit from combining a formal education with a balanced mix of both broad-range and advanced certifications. Companies today ask for IT staff to wear multiple hats, so our education and certifications should reflect that diversity as well.