This feature first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Almost any professional career involves learning new concepts and developing new skills over time. This is especially true of information technology. In the IT world, it is a given that there will be constant change. The key to building a successful career is to keep up with all of these changes.
This is true of both technical and non-technical IT careers, but for our purposes we will focus on technical careers. Mind you, there is plenty to learn in other areas of the IT industry, and anthing that you do to acquire new skills and knowledge is certain to prove valuable as you follow whatever career path is before you.
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it has been reported often that there are record numbers of people quitting their jobs, reassessing their lives, and deciding to change what they do for a living. Hiring managers are looking for talented people, and companies want workers who can grow within their ecosystem and become knowledgeable about their products.
To that end, an individual looking for work is much more likely to stand out if he or she can demonstrate a strong knack for absorbing new information and turning it to productive use. You can’t teach people to be taller, but you can teach people about your product and services. What hiring managers really want to know, in other words, is whether you have the right aptitude and ability: Is this a person who can learn?
You might be a learner
When assessing potential new hires, characteristics and traits are an important factor. The patterns to be found in how one has learned, and is continuing to learn, can reveal desirable traits to a potential employer. Some of the key characteristics of a proven learner are as follows:
Willingness — People who are willing to learn are valued, in part because not everyone has the ambition and drive needed to tackle a new subject. It takes energy to commit to learning, and hiring managers love energy
Persistence — You can’t learn if you don’t follow through. Being able to stick it out and hang in there over the course of time required to grasp new knowledge and develop new skills shows persistence. Employers don’t want to hire someone who can’t (or won’t) finish what they start.
Initiative — Learning often requires self-directed creativity and curiosity. Suppose that while studying networking, you decide you want to practice some of the concepts — and then you go find the right equipment and create your own practice environment. That’s initiative, in a nutshell.
Self-Possession — Understanding what motivates you to learn is important, as is tracking your outcomes. How do you measure success? Certification can be an important tool to validate successful leaning — as well as gain professional recognition for doing that learning.
Make your learning count
It takes commitment and perseverance to go to night school, or take online classes, or even just pick out a couple of relevant books and start reading. Particularly in the case of an individual who is between jobs, employers will want to know what that person has been doing with their time?
This is where the impact of IT certification can make a big difference. It’s critical for anyone coming off a period of unemployment, or even just switching jobs, to prove to hiring managers that he or she is committed to learning. It’s one thing to signal this trait by taking a handful of courses, and quite another to validate what you’ve learned by passing a high-stakes, proctored IT certification exam.
There are relevant mileposts: You can earn digital badges, or get a certificate of completion, by passing an IT certification training course. Both are good to have on a résumé, and both can show you are on a path to certification. Passing the actual exam, however, counts even more. Even just passing an entry-level certification exam carries more impact more than taking a class.
Getting a certification, if done properly, can also signal something to employers that you might not expect. Berkshire-Hathaway founder Warren Buffett, one of the richest people in the world, has a short list of what he looks for in potential employees. “You’re looking for three things, generally, in a person. Intelligence, energy, and integrity.”
In Buffett’s view, the first two are relatively commonplace. “I tell them, ‘Everyone here has the intelligence and energy — you wouldn’t be here otherwise.’ But the integrity is up to you.”
Certification is one place where integrity matters. In my experience, anyone who focuses on taking shortcuts during study, or who attempts to circumvent the rigors of an exam, is showing a lack of integrity — it’s as simple as that. That’s not the kind of person employers are looking for.
Beyond a lack of integrity, cheating to pass a certification can derail an otherwise promising career. I can tell you firsthand that cheaters get caught, even while when taking exams online from the comfort of a home dining room or office. I’ve personally removed credentials and banned people from certification programs. Don’t give up your integrity.
Learning as a way of life
Many, perhaps even most, IT professionals begin their learning journey by graduating from college. Earning a college degree is an invaluable accomplishment that requires all of the characteristics discussed above. Learning should not stop, however, once you have a diploma in hand.
For starters, don’t discount the possibility of an advanced degree. There are many programs available to help you plan (and finance) a master’s degree or other advanced certificate from a college or university. Figuring out how to make that work shows grit, determination, and both the willingness and the ability to learn.
Wherever you end up working, especially in the IT industry, learning will continue on the job. Some of this will be informal, but you should also expect your employer to provide access to any hands-on exercises, labs, and courseware that are required to move forward. Be sure to take full advantage of any such opportunities, especially if there is a way to involve certification in the process.
You should always start any new project or work cycle planning to take advantage of every opportunity to learn, no matter how it comes about. Is there a new software platform the company is implementing to support your department? Become an expert in using it. Any time that physical equipment or processes are changed or upgraded, dive into any documentation you can get ahold of.
The more that you take advantage of opportunities to learn, the more that you will be rewarded for your efforts. Sometimes the payoff will be indirect: It might not seem, for example, like becoming the go-to person for whenever an unexpected issue pops up is a reward. Businesses place a high degree of value, however, on individuals who can dig in and solve tough problems.
Sometimes learning happens because of a career move. Individuals who are joining a new company, for example, might be required to pass a high-stakes, proctored IT certification exam. This exam could be for a credential owned and offered by the company itself, or it could be an industry-wide certification exam. Often, associate-level exams are primarily intended for new hires.
Certification fuels learning
Certification programs typically (though not always) require certified individuals to maintain their status either by periodically retaking and passing the certification exam, or by engaging in some sort of ongoing training. The latter most often consists of completing a certain number of continuing education units (CEUs) over a given period of time.
In the licensure world, like nursing, CEUs are a common practice to help ensure that professionals keep pace. Colleges and universities frequently offer courses that qualify as CEUs, and CEU credit can often also be earned by participating in workshops at IT industry conferences and conventions. Always be on the lookout for CEU opportunities; these could be the key to advancing your career and taking it to a different place.
If you dedicate yourself to learning, you could eventually be invited (or volunteer) to participate in exam development workshops. If your employer has a certification program, you can lock in your learning by offering to become a subject matter expert, or SME. SMEs are exposed to different points of view and interact frequently with other experts. These interactions can help you learn about entirely new aspects of a topic, process, or product.
Becoming an SME can also help you build your network. There is nothing quite like being in the trenches of writing good scenario-based questions with the people who are not in your group or organization. You can reach out to these other SMEs for career development assistance, professional references, and more. I have hired folks into the training organizations I’ve led based on their participation in exam development workshops.
Whatever you end up doing, stay busy. Find programs that offer hands-on training and labs. Find peer groups to study with. Be a mentor to others. Organize and lead your own training sessions for others. When you do any of these things, you grow as a professional — and you increase your value to both current and future employers.