Certifications versus experience

Computer monitor with code and server housing in background.

Knowledge and certification

In the IT sector, there are many people with strong opinions on certification.

I have had spirited discussions on the level of importance placed on certifications in the workplace. Some have said they would take experience over certification flat out, end of discussion.

Taking a higher level approach - combining training, certification and experience - is more holistic and achieves a better outcome for both employee and employer.

As products, risks and threats grow and change, IT professionals need to react. Keeping up with this constant evolution requires more effort than reaching for "Doctor Google" or other instructional aid.

Complexities of IT

Information technology is more than servers, storage and network equipment. From corporate policies and organisational strategy, standards of adherence are formulated. Then there is architecture, which comes in all sorts of flavours: organisational, information and solutions.

Over to daily operations, which include help desk, application support, networking, database administration, storage, backups and security teams. If changes are required, project and change management is needed.

Somewhere in all of this, a risk register and audit function may be required to ensure compliance and adherence to organisational risk profile. Now, the cybersecurity skill set needs to be included for operational and developmental risk mitigation. Not forgetting the people with skills and capabilities to make the ecosystem function.

While a lot of what happens in most organisations has been glossed over, you start to realise it takes more than a bunch of geeks in keeping computers running. Your IT team has a range of skills, some of which go unnoticed.

Keeping up to watch the lights

Information technology is not a static work environment. As the world turns, we see new technologies emerge and additional uses for existing technology.

Working in this industry requires constant learning each day, otherwise skills quickly become outmoded. My best example of technology obsolescence is the market shift away from Novell Netware and Lotus Domino. Both very clever platforms, Domino is still used today, but you will need to search for their installations. As for Novell, they shifted from Netware (to Linux), from my perspective, appears to have lost their once large installation base. Point being, things change.

Building a complete IT environment is complex. Making the environment comply to an organisation's strategy, policies, architectural principles and achieving full operational documentation is a huge undertaking. It's a process that does not happen overnight.

I have a friend who says "Mountain climbing is easy, when you know how”.

Achievement of awesome

So, where do you start?

Once armed with ideas on career direction, talk to friends and colleagues (or even recruiters) to gain further understanding of current work requirements and skills employers are looking for. Employment adverts provide a general indicator of "in-demand" skills.

Find industry associations to help guide you on your journey; they often have education and training opportunities on offer.

Once the groundwork is mapped out, practice and study. With the topic known, certify yourself to demonstrate a solid level of understanding.

But a warning: managers and other technical staff responsible for hiring can sniff out a "paper-based" learner, through simple questions during an interview.

For example, I sat on an interview panel for a System Engineer requiring Exchange and data protection skills. The question asked was "How do you restore an Exchange mailbox? Provide the high-level steps required to complete the task." The answer given proved the candidate had no knowledge of Exchange Server; further clarification confirmed no fundamental knowledge of the Exchange system at all.

Moving on up

The methods used to achieve skills and competency is up to you. You can find a job and hope they will train in areas of interest, or grab some books, sit a course or watch some training videos. Don't forget to look into industry associations, you may find a person who can be a mentor.

What then? In a lab environment: build it, break it, fix it, break it and fix it again, until the technology is understood inside out, upside down and back to front. If looking at a non-technical role, find a platform to practice the skills.

Either way, when the technology is mastered, certify yourself. Your employer will see the certification as added value.

No substitute for quality

There is no substitute for experience. Training can help build your experience quicker, but it is not a magic wand.

Any good training process needs accompaniment with practice. One of the more frustrating issues seen in today's market are skilled professionals not keeping up-to-date with technology, who end up deploying systems or upgrades without new, richer feature sets.

I have met skilled professionals with the knowledge and experience for a particular role, but don't meet the certification criteria and consequently are not interviewed for the next step of their career.

To stay relevant, remain current on trends and technologies you pride yourself knowing. If your workplace does not provide training, you have a choice: stay and cry in your beverage, or determine a method to train yourself on the latest technologies. In my mind, training helps in learning what you don't know about a technology or environment.

Get creative and think about ways to receive training. Perhaps your employer could afford self-study books and exam costs, but not the money or time for a training course. With courses, timing is everything; I have lost count of the times training was booked, but found it conflicted with work or personal commitments.

Colleagues who work for the big names in technology - such as VMware, Palo Alto, Nimble, NetApp and McAfee - achieved their positions by working hard and smartly towards the goal of being brilliant at what they do.

Training and certification is important in the current employment market. The United Kingdom, United States and Australia all state a massive skill shortage in cybersecurity. The only way this gap can be filled is with quality training and certification to assist willing IT professionals in migrating to the security sector.

So, what is your professional development plan?

About the author

Paul Angus's picture

Paul Angus

Paul is a security and infrastructure professional with over 13 years of experience in the Information Technology sector.

Before transitioning to the IT sector, the knowledge gained working along side senior management, civil engineers, surveyors, town planners and graphic designers helped to shape his unique perspective.
Last updated: 
2016-08-24 00:05

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