Are your IT certifications killing your career?

There is no shortage of ways to advance your career, or your earnings potential. Racking up a bunch of certifications is one of them. But be careful it doesn’t have the opposite effect.

Man at computer

Specialization creates tremendous value in our economy. Adam Smith’s economic theory on the merits of specialization has been proven true over and over again. Yet, can you have too much of a good thing?  That’s an important question for technology professionals and leaders to consider.

Key facts about IT specialization

How rampant is the scope of the IT specialization? Consider these facts:

  • IT specialization by industry. Following the 2007-2009 recession, many IT professionals have changed their focus to healthcare because that sector is adopting technology rapidly to improve care and comply with regulations. A 2015 Modus survey found that healthcare and education are forecasted to have the most significant need for technology talent. The increasing rise of start-ups focused on niche markets and products is another factor encouraging specialization.
  • IT certifications. There are more than 100 certifications available to IT professionals, including such popular one as the Project Management Professional (PMP), Microsoft certifications, ISACA certifications, Cisco certifications and Oracle certifications. Oracle, it should be noted, offers more than 30 certifications related to their products.
  • IT job titles. There are dozens of popular IT job roles in the market. Some titles reflect seniority (e.g. Developer vs Senior Developer, Software Engineer I vs Software Engineer II) while others speak to a technical focus (e.g. Infrastructure Manager and Java Developer).

Specialization means different things to different people. A college graduate might think of specialization in terms of hardware or software engineering. In contrast, a highly experienced developer may specialize in a certain flavor of Linux or the C# programming language.

Surely all this specialization leads to economic value, right? One way to answer that question is to look at data collected by recruiters.

The recruiter’s perspective: specialization boosts salaries … to a point

Recruiters have a unique perspective on technology talent and in-demand skills. After all, they’re interacting with a large number of candidates each year, and are able to determine which skills are valuable. According to Robert Half’s 2016 Salary Guide for Technology Professionals, some of the most valuable skills in demand in the U.S. right now include the following:

  • Microsoft SQL Server database skills: Adds 10 percent to salary.
  • Java development skills: Adds 9 percent to salary.
  • Microsoft Sharepoint skills: Add 9 percent to salary.
  • Cisco network administration skills: Adds 9 percent to salary.
  • Virtualization skills: Adds 8 percent to salary.

Those salary increases will vary by region and vertical industry, of course. But the above trends suggest a clear pattern: Becoming a specialist with a given company’s technology suite (e.g. Cisco and Microsoft) is an excellent way to build your compensation bracket. It’s also worth noting that Cisco and Microsoft are both large, well-established companies that have built loyal customer bases across corporate America. Specializing in software offered by smaller companies offering similar products and services may not add value because employers will not be able to understand or make use of them.

The dark side of technology certifications

The endless pursuit of additional certifications and credentials is a major challenge for many IT pros, who often think that an additional certification in a given technology is the solution to a stalled career.

“Many people in IT hold too many technical certifications but still fail to deliver success,” says Piyali Das, Information Security program manager at Fannie Mae. “I think many technical professionals fail to understand that having many technical certifications doesn't make them a good technical leader, until that acquired technical knowledge is practiced in a real-time project/program scenario.”

While lifelong learning is valuable and admirable, there needs to be a strategy to the process. It’s easy for specialization activities to conflict with career goals. For example, if you seek promotion to a program manager role, it would be best to focus on leadership development rather than earning an additional technology certification.

“In real project environment situations, we cannot completely rely on the knowledge we gain from certifications,” says Vara Vegunta, IT project manager at Cisco. “I find that certifications provide helpful guidance and a process perspective.” Viewing certifications as a mental framework or overall approach is a productive way to view certifications.

Before you embark on another certification or time consuming learning program, take the time to reflect on that option. There are two ways to evaluate specialization and continuing education. First, start by looking at your own interests and career goals.

Developing business acumen: specialization for management

Many people decide that management is the right way to grow their careers. For technical professionals, moving to a management role presents new challenges and uncertainty. Fortunately, there are many paths to management and leadership career success. If you’re seeking to move into management or further climb the corporate ladder, start developing the following skills and experience:

  • Develop your customer focus. Management expert Peter F. Drucker once observed, “The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.” If you wish to transition to management, customer satisfaction matters. That means asking good questions and seeking to understand the business problems that customers are attempting to solve with technology.
  • Cultivate curiosity. Brian Grazer, author (with Charles Fishman) of A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, significantly grew his career by conducting curiosity conversations with people in many fields. Grazer attributes much of his success in the entertainment industry to the inspiration he received in these conversations.

Growing your people skills is an excellent way to derive more satisfaction and job security. As Thomas L. Friedman pointed in his book, “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century:”

“No matter what your profession – doctor, lawyer, architect, accountant – if you are an American, you better be good at the touchy-feely service stuff, because anything that can be digitized can be outsourced to either the smartest or the cheapest producer.”

As many IT professionals can attest, IT outsourcing is a reality. Taking a strategic approach to your career development with a strong focus on people skills is one way to protect yourself from this threat.

The way forward for your development: technical and leadership skills

Developing your career in the technology industry is a major challenge. In some cases, you may receive guidance from your managers and peers. In other situations, you’ll be left to your own devices. As you navigate to career success, there are two tracks to pursue in your professional development.

First, pursue the technical skills and knowledge you need to be successful in your current role. For example, you may specialize in Microsoft or Oracle products – applications that are in high demand according to recent research. These technical skills, especially for individual contributors, give you the ability to create results and earn credibility.

Second, look for nontechnology training and development to distinguish yourself from other technology professionals. If you frequently work with vendors, pursuing study in communication and negotiation training make sense. If your company is based in another country, you may want to add language skills to your toolbox.

This story, "Are your IT certifications killing your career?" was originally published by CIO.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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