Parts 1 and 2 of this series focused on career progression and making sure you stay relevant (and stay compensated). Next I turn to something I touched on in my last post in regards to staying relevant: degrees and certifications.

Let’s Go to College

Let’s start with degrees. Working in IT is a field where you can go without a degree and still be very successful. The job itself does not require a degree, unlike other professions that require one, like nurses or doctors. That being said, here’s the ugly truth: having a degree will most likely get you in the door sooner and take you further.

It’s the only reason I completed my bachelors degree. I earned an associates before getting into the job market. Several years later, I applied for a job that listed a bachelors degree as a requirement. I figured I would still apply despite the requirement, but I was automatically rejected by the job application system. It did not matter the years of experience or other skills, I was immediately left out of consideration as I did not have that degree.

Now, there is a growing movement inside some corporations to consider a wider breadth of candidates with different experiences in order to be more inclusive and attract a wider candidate pool. It will also probably depend on the type of company you are applying for. Larger, more traditional companies will probably require a degree, as this has been decided by the hiring manager or HR person in charge of recruiting. Smaller companies and startups are probably less likely to care as they only worry about if you have the skills to do the job.

I believe having a degree will also take you further in your career. If you decide to get out of the technical side and be a people manager, degrees are usually required for supervisors, manager, and directors.

At the end of the day, it’s all going to depend on the company you apply to and what type of position you are looking for. Generally speaking, I would say jobs like help desk, PC technicians, and system admins can typically get a job without a degree. I feel like programming jobs will typically want some sort of degree in computer science as those computer science theory fundamentals can play a big part in what you are doing. Colleges don’t teach server administration, so degrees for those fields are typically not available or relevant (as a friend of mine says, “No one goes to college wanting to be an Exchange admin.”).

College is a major commitment, both in terms of time and money. I would definitely research the role you are pursuing in your geographic area and see the degree requirements on job listings. If you find yourself having a hard time breaking into the industry, consider an associates degree from a community college or technical school to get yourself started. But don’t throw yourself into massive amounts of debt to get there.

It’s OK…I’m Certifiable

It seems like most IT people either love or hate IT certifications. They either see them as proof they are an expert or as a glorified money-making scheme that don’t hold any real world value. The truth is always somewhere in the middle. In my opinion, certifications are a fine thing to have, and much like the previously discussed degrees, sometimes you have to get them to get yourself noticed. They are often listed as requirements in job listings, and if you are able to check those boxes, the more likely you’ll get past HR for an interview.

Myself, I love certifications, not so that I can post the badges on my website or list them on LinkedIn (ok, I do this), but because I take them as an opportunity to learn something new. I recently passed the AZ-100 and AZ-101 to earn the Azure Administrator Associate certification. Now am I an expert in all things Azure? No, of course not. I’ve never even administered Azure in the real world. But by working on the certifications, I have learned the basics of the service and proven this through the tests. Am I going to go out and start consulting as an Azure expert or present myself as one? Absolutely not, but if I were to look for a new role, I would gladly list this accomplishment in hopes of showing a hiring manager that despite no real world experience, I do know the fundamentals and have the drive to go to the next level.

When I first started working with Lync and Exchange, I started studying for the associated certification exams. By going through those exam objectives, studying, and building a lab environment, I learned aspects of those systems that I did not perform on the job. I was presented with different scenarios and deep-dived into topics that I never encountered in my day-to-day responsibilities. I would encounter a test question that I did not know the answer too, so I took that opportunity to go learn about it afterwards.

Now for the other side. I have read plenty of accounts online from other IT pros who hired someone with a CCNA who couldn’t explain what a subnet is or an admin with an MCSE who couldn’t do basic server administration. These people do exist, and unfortunately they probably earned their certification through a compressed classroom/boot camp scenario or through brain dumps found on the Internet. I totally get where the people who don’t put value in certifications are coming from once they experience someone like this. In the end, I hope they step back and realize that for everyone one of those people, there are a ton more who have earned their certification and also have the skills to back it up.

If you work for a company that is a partner with a major vendor (like a Microsoft partner), having certifications are a requirement. Often these vendors require a certain number of individuals in the company to have their certifications. If you plan on working as a consultant or architect at one of these types of companies, research if this would be a requirement as having them ahead of time could help you land the role.

Again, certifications are like degrees: having a few will probably help your resume and job opportunities. But approach them like I have, as an opportunity to learn something new or deepen knowledge on an existing skill. Getting the certification will just be a bonus.

Other Options Besides Degrees and Certifications

Coding boot camps have increased in popularity in the last few years. They often boast of taking someone with no prior coding skills and getting a programming job after six months of intense coursework. These can often be cheaper than going to college, and they are becoming a more accepted way of entering that particular job role. If you are interested in coding but don’t have the long-term commitment of college, consider this route. Just be sure to research the reputation and cost breakdown as well as what services they provide for job placement.