The down economy we're experiencing is sending a lot of people back to school to learn a trade or to sharpen their existing skills. For IT professionals who are out of work and those looking to move forward with their careers, the assumption is that degrees or information technology certifications are tickets to getting ahead. That's a dangerous assumption.
I've worked with numerous people over the years who had advanced degrees, yet they didn't know their you-know-whats from a hole in the ground. Ditto with IT certifications. Anyone with time and money can get a degree or get certified in IT.
IT professionals are no different than doctors, auto mechanics or anyone else in the working world. There are good, and there are bad. Just because you have an M.D. behind your name or a framed ASE Certified Technician certificate on your wall doesn't mean you've got what it takes to succeed in business.
The pros and cons of information technology certifications
IT degrees and certifications are enablers in both good ways and bad. The good is that you've gotten over the hurdle that often weeds out other job candidates. You've demonstrated that you have put in the work and have a basic understanding of the material. The bad is that they create a sense of entitlement. I was this way when I graduated college and subsequently obtained some IT certifications. I thought, "OK world, I did it. Now give me a high-paying job!"
Another thing about information technology certifications is that going out and getting five, 10 or 15 of them might come across as desperate -- like you're trying to prove something to cover up other weaknesses.
More resources on information technology certifications
Microsoft certifications: How MCSE and MCSA have changed
SearchSecurity.com's IT security certifications guide
Microsoft revamps IT certifications for cloud, requires recertification
A big part of the problem is that many of the business information systems and IT degree programs don't go nearly deep enough to prepare you for the realities of IT in the real world. In all fairness, they can't. Many college degree programs are complex, with a nice sprinkling of politics on top. So they can't change course on a whim and are thus outdated before the ball even starts rolling. Furthermore, too many (but not all) professors haven't the least bit of hands-on experience working in the real world.
Certifications, meanwhile, tend to be a little more current. But even then their coverage of topics is often a mile wide and an inch deep.
Degrees, certifications in IT might not set you apart
So be careful before spending your time and money on a degree or certification. Go into it naively and you'll learn the hard way that businesses don't owe you a thing just because you've obtained that piece of paper. It's up to you to differentiate yourself, become a valuable person and make things happen.
Do whatever you can within reason to improve yourself and your career. I know I wouldn't trade my degrees and certifications for the world. You just have to be smart about it and strike a good balance.
In the end, career success is more about your drive, your discipline and your relationships with the right people than anything else.
Kevin Beaver is an information security consultant, expert witness, author and speakerwith Atlanta-based Principle Logic LLC. Kevin earned a bachelor's degree in computer engineering technology from Southern College of Technology and a master's degree in management of technology from Georgia Tech. He also holds CISSP, MCSE, MCNE, and IT Project+ certifications. With over two decades of experience in the industry, he specializes in performing independent security assessments involving compliance and minimizing information risks. He has authored/co-authored eight books on information security including Hacking For Dummies, 3rd edition. He's the creator of the Security On Wheels information security audio books and blog providing security learning for IT professionals on the go. You can reach Kevin through his website www.principlelogic.com and follow him on Twitter at @kevinbeaver.
This was first published in August 2012