Now what?

An MCSE should only be the start of your certification checklist.

OK, so you’ve got your Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification. Congratulations to you–and to the million or so others who have the same slip of parchment.

Is it getting to be time to set yourself apart from the pack? An MCSE will always be a good thing to have, but it’s approaching becoming a baseline certification that becomes worth less (not worthless) unless it’s augmented.

It could be that another certification isn’t what you’re after. If you’re burned out on tests and studying (and paying for all those courses), it might be time for a break.

But as baseline certifications become more common, and therefore devalued, diversity in your skillset will come in handy. The good news and the bad news are the same: There are almost 500 IT certifications to pick from. Finding the right mix can mean the difference between being an indispensable resource and having an expensive collection of paper.

Is school for fools?

A bit of a taboo in the training conversation is the notion that maybe conventional wisdom–that a college degree is an essential building block of a good certification portfolio–isn’t necessarily true.

“I know that in most areas of the high-tech industry, a college degree doesn’t matter much,” says Kestenderg “Most universities can’t keep up because of their size: There are politics and approval processes every time a new class is created or even changed. That’s the beauty of certification: It’s a shortcut. If a company needs a developer or someone to work in C+ or .NET, they don’t care about a degree in software engineering, because things change so quickly. Routers get upgraded, operating systems improve. Companies are looking for just-in-time knowledge.”

Mix it up

“Cross-certification definitely helps,” says Joel Kestenderg, vice president of Norwood, Mass.-based CareerAcademy.com. “A CCNA or A+ certification, or even an MCSE from a different vendor, is good. It’s easy to make yourself more marketable.” There’s not much question that a single cert will do little more in 2003 and beyond than get your résumé in front of a hiring manager. In fact, the recipe for success in the future seems to be a smorgasbord of certs that complement each other and scream “versatile” to prospective employers.

Some IT professionals rack up 20 or more certifications without batting an eye. But don’t just treat your cert portfolio as an Easter-egg hunt. Get no more certifications than you can handle or afford, and try to stick with vendor-neutral programs that offer solid core skills. Vendor-sponsored and hybrid certifications can wait until later.

The cisco kid

An increasingly common path for augmenting a stale résumé is Cisco-certified training.

The emergence of Cisco Networking Services for Active Directory (CNS/AD), in combination with Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), will create complex configurations. Someone has to design, install, and maintain all those new databases of network services, and Cisco-certified engineers are in demand as a result.

“An MCSE is enough to get your foot in the door,” says Kestenderg. “It can get you a spot on the help desk or as a support associate. But if you’re serious about advancing, look at a CCNA [Cisco Certified Network Administrator], CCNP [Cisco Certified Network Professional], or CCIE [Cisco Certified Networking Engineer].”

Security blanket

With or without the wake-up call of 9/11, security would still be the word on the lips of everyone in IT.

There are scads of security certifications and many categories, but the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification is gaining a reputation as the Rubik’s Cube in the industry: very tough to solve, but loaded with bragging rights for those who do.

For starters, CISSP candidates must prove three years of hands-on experience in a particular security specialty. Only then are they given the opportunity to take the six-hour, 250-question exam. The exam covers access control systems and methodology; applications and systems development; business continuity planning; cryptography; law; investigation and ethics; operations security; physical security; security architecture and models; security management practices; and telecommunications, network and Internet security. If that sounds like something you can handle, prepare to find yourself in great demand once you land this certification.

The bottom line

IT workers with certifications make more money and have greater job security than those without certifications. That much is almost beyond dispute. According to a study of more than 1,800 employers in North America and Europe by IT staffing research firm Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Conn., workers with certifications saw their bonuses remain steady throughout 2001 and the first quarter of 2002. On the other hand, workers without certifications saw a decrease in their bonus packages.

When put in terms of dollars and cents, bonuses for workers with certifications now hover at about 8.3 percent of base pay, while bonuses for workers without certifications have fallen to 8.1 percent, down from a high of 10.2 percent in the third quarter of 2000.

You do the math. And start shopping for supplementary certifications.

Life after MCSE

So, to revisit our main headline, now what? Options are plentiful, but an unscientific survey of various sources netted a few other certification tracks that are, if not essential to your career advancement, undoubtedly a nice bow to tie on to that MCSE.

Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA)

The MCSA, introduced in 2001, was created in response to increased demand for administration know-how among MCSE-certified workers. Getting it will tell employers that you know how to implement, manage, and troubleshoot existing network and system environments based on the Windows 2000 and Windows .NET Server operating systems. MCSAs usually don’t deploy new networks and systems as part of their job function, and unlike MCSEs, MCSAs are not expected to have design skills.

CompTIA’s A+ and Network+

Nonprofit CompTIA’s certifications are many, but its bread and butter are still its A+ and Network+ certs. A+ certifications have a broad base of knowledge and competency in core hardware and operating system technologies including installation, configuration, diagnosing, preventive maintenance, and basic networking. And with security concerns ever-rising, the CompTIA Security+ vendor-neutral certification exam is the standard of competency for foundation-level security practitioners.

Novell’s CNA and CNE

Although Novell doesn’t rule this particular roost the way it once did, its certifications are still money in the bank. Certified Novell Administrators (CNAs) handle the day-to-day administration of an installed Novell networking product: NetWare 6, NetWare5, NetWare 4.11 (InternetWare)or GroupWise.

You need a working knowledge of fundamental IT concepts, including microcomputer platform environments and local operating system concepts (MS DOS and MS Windows) prior to entering the CNE program.

Java programming

There are a lot of certification options in this field, which is a testament to its popularity among workers and employers alike. Java is the programming language of choice for integrating the code of legacy software systems with new dot-com applications. This cert will give you the basic skills needed to to use this language productively, giving you skill in syntax and application programming interface structure, and object oriented programming concepts.

Oracle Certified Professional/Database Administrator (OCP DBA)

Databases still need maintaining, and Oracle’s cert path has seen explosive growth over the past two years. Developments in the field happen lightning-quick, so expect a lot of continuing education once this certification is in place.

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