Like most new professions, ICT has undergone a process of growing maturity. At the outset, it was possible to know virtually all things ICT, and experience and a willingness to learn were the major employment criteria. Certifications in various disciplines became available as the profession split into areas of specialism and they gradually became accepted as employment recommendations and requirements.
The definition of a certificate by Phillip Barnhart, taken from his Guide to National Professional Certification Programs is:
………”certifications are portable, since they do not depend on one company’s definition of a certain job and they provide potential employers with an impartial, third-party endorsement of an individual’s professional knowledge and experience”………….
Today an IT Engineer can acquire a variety of certificated qualifications, local, national and international. Some supplier defined certifications, for example Microsoft A+, N+ and the various Cisco networking qualifications have become de facto industry standards.
In parallel with this, internationally recognised certification bodies have emerged, allowing for the development of training and certification standards and internationally portable certifications.
As with other areas in ICT, networking has developed into specific areas and specialisms, including network security, network design and management, network equipment configuration and installation. Each area now has training streams and certifications, either proprietary or vendor independent.
Organisations have emerged to deliver and certify training programmes. Microsoft and Cisco as examples have outsourced their training programmes to certified training providers. Other organisation such as CompTia and other training service providers offer independent training tracks for network topics leading to either a vendor independent or vendor certified training certificate.
The skills needed of an IT engineer will vary, depending on the organisation they work for. In a large organisation, an IT engineer could be a network administrator primarily focussed on maintaining network service levels by managing network components. In a small organisation, the IT engineer could be responsible for the entire computing environment, from desktops and their applications software to server environments and all the network software, equipment and infrastructure in between.
Why should an IT engineer worry about a certification path?
Most certifications are tiered, from entry-level to specialist. Job opportunities and salaries rise as an individual moves up the certification track, and they often act as a gateway to less specialised posts in ICT management. Certifications also act as a positive or negative recruitment indicator. Organisations often make certification mandatory for some positions.
The choice of certification path tells at least two things, the ultimate career goal of the individual, and their current interests. Obviously, both will change over time, but will in general give a good overview of an individual’s aspirations. The certification history will also indicate how the individual’s interests have changed over time.
What does a certification track look like?
It usually consists of three levels:
- Foundation. The foundation level provides a basic introduction and the skills necessary to perform basic tasks;
- Intermediate. The Intermediate stage builds on the Foundation level, and provides more detailed instruction and guidance on common tasks; and
- Advanced. The advanced level is usually as high as you can go and provides instruction and guidance on complex tasks and unusual events.
Some tracks have a fourth level – Expert, which covers all the known information about the focus area.
Certificates therefore indicate that an individual has the knowledge required to master a particular focus area.
What does certification tell us about an IT Engineer’s aims and aspirations?
Firstly, it indicates that the individual is serious about their career in IT. Taking a series of certificated courses can be a commitment in time, often of as much as a year. It will also eat into the candidate’s leisure time, bo9th for regular study, and possibly of leave time to attend summer schools. It also implies a financial commitment for course fees, any residential accommodation costs and materials if an employer is not funding the certification.
Usually, if an employer pays for the certificate, this requires the individual to make a corresponding commitment to the employer, either to work for a minimum period following successful completion, or to repay the course costs if they choose to leave before an agreed time has elapsed. Some employers require the employee to pay the course costs and any associated expenses up front, and only reimburse the course costs following successful completion.
Either way it is a considerable commitment in time and money undertake a certification course.
Secondly, the chosen course track indicates how the individual sees their future career path in IT. Taking a course in network security indicates one thing, while taking a course in ITIL or COBIT indicates a future desire to move into IT management or Business Intelligence.
On a similar note, an IT engineer taking a certificated course in a new or emergent technology, for example Blockchain or IoT shows a forward thinker.
Employers need to take careful note of this when looking at an employee’s career planning in an organisation. Sending an IT Engineer down the wrong track could make the individual think of changing employer to return to their chosen career track.
Having said all that, certification is not always a guarantee of practical competence. Some individuals can be very competent at taking courses and sitting exams but lack the practical skills and common sense to be competent in the workplace.
Experience, common sense and practical ability are still a necessary part of any individual’s skill set.