This feature first appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
There are mixed views on IT certifications. While some maintain that certifications play a significant role in enabling a tech worker’s career progress and increasing their income potential, others believe certifications are not required for career or earnings growth. Industry reality is somewhere in between.
The information technology sector offers a variety of careers in different domains. For example, there are computer networking professionals, developers, cybersecurity experts, tech support professionals, data scientists, and cloud computing specialists, to name just a few. In some disciplines, such as tech support, networking, and cybersecurity, relevant certifications have value.
Certifications are a good way for working professionals to develop knowledge of new tools, technologies, and best practices. Technology evolves continuously. Professionals who upgrade their knowledge and skills are better equipped to respond to challenges thrown up by technological change.
Companies that realize the value of having technologically advanced employees often invest in training their tech employees in new technological developments. This is beneficial for employer and employee alike.
Pros and cons
There are many recognized benefits of achieving a certification. Recognized certification programs offer the opportunity to develop and validate skills. Studying for and taking certification exams, however, routinely costs hundreds of dollars and can be even more pricey than that. It’s worth weighing the benefits and costs before opting for certification.
For example, the CompTIA A+ exams cost a total of $478. The CompTIA Security+ exam costs $381. Expert and specialist exams usually cost more. The CCIE written exams are $450 per exam and the lab exam costs $1,600. The CISSP exam costs $749. And those are just exam fees — training and preparation can balloon certification cost ever further.
The money expended can be a good investment if the credential earned improves your career and income prospects. Certifying in in-demand specialties, such as cybersecurity, cloud computing, and computer networking, can help you land a fulfilling job in your chosen discipline.
Deciding on the right certification requires some research and thought. There are a multiplicity of IT certifications on offer. All are not equal. Some have IT industry recognition around the world, and are necessary for certain job roles in some organizations and companies. Others are not as valued and may not offer the same advantages that sought-after certifications do.
What’s your situation?
Depending on the field of work and the candidate’s experience and qualifications, certifications can prepare IT professionals for success. Employees who upgrade their skills or learn new technologies can be viewed by management as motivated and proactive. This could improve chances of a promotion.
By certifying in new technologies or platforms early, you can gain recognition as a specialist in a new product or technology, and benefit from the demand for skilled professionals. This could lead to a new assignment in your organization, or a better job in another company.
Some certification providers require that certification holders recertify every few years to maintain their certified status. Depending on the provider, you may have to take an exam, or earn continuing education credits. Whatever the requirement, it helps certification holders keep abreast of new developments and trends in their field, thereby benefiting both the organization and the employee.
In certain tech domains, earning professional- and expert-level certifications helps you gain in-depth domain knowledge and contributes to your professional credibility. Organizations value subject matter experts and some encourage employees to take advanced certifications.
Certifications are, of course, not necessary for all IT professionals. According to a survey mentioned by tech employment facilitator Dice in their 2021 Tech Salary Report, 55 percent of tech pros surveyed said they didn’t hold a tech certification.
Certifications are not required for all IT roles and there are a number of key IT sectors — computer programming, for example — where there are very few certifications available. Also, many professionals have gained a lot of practical experience in their specialization and are frequently able to learn new processes on the job.
On the other hand, certification absolutely can — and does — improve career prospects and facilitate growth and development for many IT professionals. Let’s talk about six important ways that earning and maintaining professional IT certifications help both newcomers and experience IT workers stand out from the crowd.
1) Certifications verify knowledge and skills needed for specific job roles
Industry-recognized certifications, such as those from CompTIA, Cisco, Microsoft, Google, Amazon Web Services (AWS), VMware, SANS/GIAC, ITIL, (ISC)², ISACA, and SAS validate expertise in technologies, tools, best practices, and project management.
All other qualifications and experience being equal, a candidate with a relevant certification is likely to be preferred over a non-certified candidate for a role that requires a specific skillset. Employers want proof that prospective workers can do their jobs. Preparing for a certification exam also gives you the opportunity to learn a topic well and develop practical experience.
Certifications can also be helpful for employees aspiring to develop advanced knowledge in their IT discipline or looking to learn new skills to transition to a new role. Studying and practising for performance-based certification exams can help you develop a thorough understanding of a particular topic, which can prove useful on the job.
2) Certifications can provide key foundational knowledge for IT careers
Many entry-level IT jobs, require a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in computer science, information technology, electrical engineering, or a related subject. In some cases, however, a recognized core tech certification such as CompTIA A+ can be substituted for this requirement when applying for a junior tech support role or other preparatory job role.
For an IT newcomer who lacks past work experience, or project work, an industry-standard credential can open the door to full-time IT employment even outside entry-level roles. Recognized certifications can demonstrate to potential employers that the holder is serious about a tech career and has invested time and money in developing foundational knowledge in information technology.
3) Certifications are required for certain job roles
The U.S. Department of Defense — to cite one prominent example — requires all individuals performing Information Assurance Technical (IAT), Information Assurance Management (IAM), Cyber Security Service Provider (CSSP), and Information Assurance Security Architecture and Engineering (IASAE) functions to have approved certifications, as directed by DoDD 8140.
The definition of “approved” certifications differs according to job categories and levels. For example, DoD 8570/8140 approved baseline certifications for IAT Level 1 include CompTIA A+, CCNA Security, CND, CompTIA Network+, and SSCP.
4) Certifications are required by companies that partner with certain major vendors
In order to maintain approved partner status — with Microsoft or IBM, for example — service providers and IT consultancies need to employ a specified number of certified personnel. Companies that have a certain number of employees who hold relevant vendor certifications can provide service to customers who use these vendors’ products.
5) Certifications demonstrate initiative and self-discipline
Studying for certification exams requires time and effort. Earning a certification shows potential employers that you have the discipline to learn new skills and achieve professional goals. Some hiring managers view certifications as evidence of the holder’s seriousness about their career, and their motivation and commitment to develop his knowledge and expertise to move ahead.
6) Certifications can help you expand your professional network
Many certification providers offer membership in their community of certified professionals to candidates once they achieve a certification. This opens up opportunities to connect with professional peers, share ideas and knowhow, participate in events, learn and gain inspiration from experienced people in your field, and grow your network.
Engaging with like-minded professionals from different companies and locations, both in the United States and abroad, can be stimulating as well as professionally rewarding. Professional connections are also an important reference for finding out about new job possibilities and getting hired for new positions.
Not a be-all solution
What matters most, ultimately, is being able to do your job up to expected standards. Certifications can’t substitute for real-world experience in your chosen IT domain. Indeed, most mid- and advanced-level certification exams require years of full-time professional experience in the domain.
Working toward earning a certification can help you develop knowledge and skills that can be applied on the job. Taking certification exams is an opportunity to assess your expertise against an industry benchmark. Certification exams are difficult and require experience and study. Passing a challenging exam can increase your confidence.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether to go for a certification or not, and which certification to choose. You don’t have to be certified to enjoy a long and prosperous IT career. If certification is well suited to your IT aptitudes and ambitions, however, then you are certain to benefit in multiple ways.