Never too old to learn

An incomplete guide to degrees and certifications.

Look at any of the ads in our Professional Development section and you will see dozens of training tracks that lead to myriad certifications. Pick up a course guide to any college or university and you will find B.S. degree programs in either computer science or electrical engineering, with dozens or even hundreds of courses to choose from. It’s a little like trying to navigate an unfamiliar city. How do you choose the right path–the one that will give you the best chance of success in your career–if you don’t know the lay of the land?

Any vocational discernment comes with a degree of self-searching. Many of these questions only you can answer. But once you choose a direction in this city full of old winding roads and new thoroughfares, I can help you to choose among the paths. Still, I call this an incomplete guide because a complete guide is a book, such as “Get Certified and Get Ahead” by Anne Martinez (McGraw-Hill, 2000). But note the date: General certification books are a bit old. Plus, not everyone has the time or patience to read a complete guide. So here I present an at-a-glance view that could serve as a map of the field. Once you have a general idea of the degree and certification map, I suggest you consult new books on specific degrees and certifications to figure out what they entail in the way of training and education.

Career direction

Any degree or certification decision tree will start with your career path. In choosing a career, don’t spend too much time deliberating. Find one that seems to suit you and try it out. Most people try more than one specialty before they find one that feels right. But you can’t really know until you try, so pick a path and stick with it until you land a job in the field. You can always change to a related field later. Having a variety of IT experiences will only help you in the future because employers often need IT people who can wear many hats in these lean times. If you’re having trouble choosing a path, hire a career counselor to help you make the decision. It will be money well spent; at the very least it will free you from self-doubt as you gingerly tread down the unfamiliar road.

Once you’ve picked a path in IT, you’ll obviously need to get working. Most IT positions require a degree, and not necessarily in IT. But let’s assume you want to go into an IT degree program. You can either get your certification first or your degree first. The advantage to getting your certification first is that you can work part time in IT while working on your degree. This will enable you to graduate with experience. The down side is that a lot of folks who do this delay getting a degree for too long and get stuck in the IT trenches as a result.

My advice is to get the degree first and then try to get into a program that enables you to get certified while earning the B.S. As I said, you have a choice of electrical engineering (EE) or computer science (CSCI). The former tends to emphasize hardware development while the latter tends to emphasize software development. There is a long-standing debate in the field as to which major path produces the best computer engineers, and I will not take one side or the other. There are numerous subspecialties and interconnections, so you can’t go wrong with either if you develop a diversified education plan with your academic advisor.

Whichever major you choose, take your time and get it right. That means exceeding all liberal arts requirements and taking as many business courses as you can. Every IT manager I’ve talked with has gone out of his way to point out how important these “soft” skills are in IT fields. In fact, a lot of IT managers favor liberal arts or business majors who got certified after they got tired of asking, “Do you want fries with that?” On the other hand, some of the greatest minds in math and science never made a difference because they couldn’t communicate their ideas or apply them in business settings. So, a minor in a business- or communications-related field will set you apart from the legions of CSCI drones. If this means taking an extra year to get your degree, so be it.

As hard as it may seem at the time, getting your degree is the easy part–just the first step in a long journey. Hopefully, your degree program included a co-op or internship element–it’s tough to get experience if you don’t already have it. If your program didn’t include an internship program, design your own. The summer before and the summer after graduation should be spent toiling in a data center and proving that you’ve got the gumption to solve tough problems and stay late doing so.

Job roles

One of the harshest realities awaiting recent graduates is the disparity between the courses they take and the job roles they end up with. Think of all that multivariable calculus as the calisthenics needed for the triathlon. You know you’ll need the brainpower at some point on the job, but you probably won’t duplicate those activities on the job. Even courses in C++-staples of most EE or CSCI degree programs-are often more valuable in teaching students how to solve problems with computers than they are in actually helping students develop applications. You’ll probably spend more time writing scripts than programs on the job. But knowing the programming procedures and being able to learn new tools will help you no matter what those tools end up being on the job.

These days, jobs are divided roughly between administration (helping companies implement and maintain IT infrastructure) and development (helping companies develop custom IT infrastructure or working for companies that develop hardware or software). After the core courses are complete, most IT courses in college train students to develop hardware or software. Most certifications prove that students are trained in PC, network, database, or application administration.

Because computing is gradually moving away from a lot of custom development, more and more jobs in IT will end up on the administration side. For example, development with Web services will require less programming skill and more administration and maintenance skill. Many recent EE or CSCI graduates have the dream of inventing, developing, or designing the next big thing in the field. Because these jobs are increasingly scarce, it is important to also have a certification on the administration side. If you can prove that you can solve problems with existing products, you may get opportunities to develop similar solutions in the future. For example, if you can write a script that enables two Web services to work together and uniquely help your business in the process, you may get a chance to develop similar scripts more often, and eventually, other Web services themselves. This is why it is increasingly important for college students to find a way to graduate with certifications relevant to their areas of interest.

Which certifications?

Right now, a number of certifications will give you a better chance of landing a job, all things considered (see sidebar). But the key is to match your certifications to your areas of interest.

Suppose you want to augment your CSCI degree in programming with a complementary certification. You could either get a Certified Internet Webmaster (CIW) or any of several database administration certifications, such as Microsoft’s MCDBA, Oracle DBA, or Oracle DEV. The CIW Application Developer certifications could help you land a job scripting with PHP or building XML pages. An Oracle DBA could enable you to handle data-intensive applications (applications are ever more data-intensive, especially Web services). Also, Microsoft’s MCSD for .Net certification could help you turn programming ability into Web services skills, assuming your degree program doesn’t adequately cover this.

Suppose you want to augment your EE degree in circuit design with a complementary certification. Your best bet may be in a field that deals with a lot of hardware, such as network administration. Since you already have most of the principles down, you can bypass the entry-level certifications, such as Microsoft MCSA or Cisco CCNA, and go right for the upper-level certifications, such as Microsoft MCSE, Cisco CCNP, Novel CNE, or Solaris Network Admin.

While having complementary degrees and certifications is a plus, having a wide variety of skills and experiences will enhance your chance of getting a job even more. So don’t be too concerned about making your certification directly relevant to your degree subspecialty. Skills that seem to have no relevance to your career path now may enable you to solve a particularly tough problem at some future time. Sometimes it’s best to gather the skills you need while working. You won’t always get opportunities that use all your skills or satisfy all your interests. Job opportunities will come out of left field and you have to be prepared to take them and grow with them. As an old wisdom keeper once said, “You don’t take the journey, the journey takes you.”

Certifications for degreed job seekers

Internet development/webmaster

CIW: Site Designer, Web languages, and Application Developer.

Network Administration

Microsoft: Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), Microsoft Certified System Developer (MCSD). Cisco: Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP), Cisco Certified Design Professional (CCDP). Novell: Certified Network Engineer (CNE) Linux: Sair Linux Certified Professional (LCP) Sun; Solaris System Admin and Network Admin

Network Security

Security Certified Network Professional (SCNP) Checkpoint Certified Security Expert (CCSE)

Database Administration

Oracle-Oracle DBA, Oracle DEV Microsoft SQL-Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA) IBM DB2: IBM Certified Solutions Expert and IBM Certified Advanced Technical Expert

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