How to get more from your IT certifications

* Linda's List of Best Practices to Benefiting from IT Certifications

Do you hold an IT certification? Are you getting all the value you can from that certification? Here are some tips on how to benefit from IT certifications.

For a number of years, I've worked with various technology companies and organizations to help them develop and promote their certification programs. I thought I'd share some of my insider knowledge about how to get the most out of your IT certifications. Let's call this "Linda's List of Best Practices to Benefiting from IT Certifications."

I’ll start by defining what I mean by “certification.” In the IT industry, there are numerous organizations (e.g., CompTIA, SANS Institute, SNIA) and vendors (e.g., Cisco, Microsoft, HP, Red Hat) that have formal programs that validate the knowledge and skills of an IT professional. The person who goes through this validation process – usually one or more written or hands-on tests – attains a “certification” or “credential.”

Some credentials are easy to earn; others take many months or even years of training, hands-on experience, book study and other preparation. Regardless of the type of certification you choose to earn, there are a few simple things you can do to maximize the value you get out of your certification.

If you don’t already possess a credential, take the steps to attain one. When you are competing for a new job, contract work, or even a position within your company, the certification can be the differentiator between you and another candidate. Hiring managers often state that a certain certification is required or at least preferred for an open position. This is especially true if you want to be hired by a value-added reseller (VAR) or consultancy that earns its money from selling IT professional services.

If you already have a credential, maintain it. Many certifying agencies require continuing education or some form of periodic skills renewal to validate that your skills are current and relevant. Given the pace of technology changes, a credential that is even a few years out of date is practically worthless to an employer. What’s more, an outdated credential may not qualify you for benefits in the certification program any more. A credential is like an insurance policy; once it expires, it’s of little use. And to re-earn it, you’ve got to start from scratch.

If you hold a credential, check around to see how you can build on it. Many certifications act as prerequisites to others. With perhaps as little as one more test, you could earn a second credential. Often times, the general “third party” certifications from neutral agencies like CompTIA and SNIA can cross over to meet a requirement from a technology vendor. For example, to earn HP’s storage integration specialist certification (AIS – HP StorageWorks [2008]), you can meet a basic prerequisite by proving you already hold any one of more than two dozen third-party credentials.

Once you are a member of a certification program, keep your membership profile updated so the program administrators can contact you. For instance, if you change jobs or get a new e-mail address, let the certification program office know. This is the best way to continue to receive notices about changes to the program, continuing education requirements for your credential, training opportunities, and changes or enhancements to your program benefits.

Pretty much every certification program offers benefits to its members. Be sure to take advantage of them! Typical benefits include access to special technical support services, knowledge bases, and experts; discounts on training; invitations to exclusive events; reference materials like part guides and repair manuals; discounts on hardware or software; and many other benefits that are intended to give you an edge. Turn the benefits into your secret weapons for competing against the guy who doesn’t have them.

Use your certification as leverage with your employer. Your certification validates that you have specific knowledge and skills that might be hard to come by or costly to build, even in today’s job market. In particular, companies that resell products and services from vendors like Cisco and Microsoft are required to have certified professionals on staff in order to qualify for certain authorized partner programs. If you are the certified professional with the required credentials, your company needs you in order to maintain partner status. You can leverage this advantage when it comes time for a promotion, a raise, an increase in benefits – or even to keep your job during a reduction in force.

Use your certification status to grab some glory. Vendors love to use quotes or testimonials from their members to market their programs to others. If your employer doesn’t object, you can offer to provide that testimonial. You might find yourself featured in news articles, on Web sites, in brochures or on Webinars. It’s an easy way to get someone else to toot your horn for a while. And if you work for a VAR or IT consultancy, this glory is good publicity for your employer. Your company should play up the fact that it has technical professionals that are fully certified on staff. This is an edge when competing for contracts.

And last but not least, protect your investment in certification by helping to stop cheating. Read my article about how cheaters diminish the value of certification and what you can do to stop certification cheating. If you know of someone who has cheated to attain a credential, report that person. Otherwise, he or she enjoys the same status as a real certified professional without having done the work to earn it.

An IT certification is an asset that needs a little care and maintenance in order to retain and increase its value. It also has the power to open doors and give you opportunities you might not get otherwise.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.