IT Certifications That Matter

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Which Certifications Do You Really Need?

If 90 percent of the tech tools that your office uses come from a single vendor, it makes sense to seek an IT pro with certification from that brand. But as more companies use technology from an array of vendors, and as more employees bring their own smartphones and tablets to work, that scenario is becoming less common.

"One of the challenges people run into is the circle of finger-pointing," says Barry Cousins, senior research analyst at the Info-Tech Research Group. "Was it the HP printer or the drivers on that Apple machine?"

Complicating matters, the certification programs for major brands are often run by a marketing arm of the company. Some programs require examinees to jump through multiple hoops, such as real-world testing and years of experience in the field, but others ask little more than mastery of a pass-fail exam.

Beyond Certifications

A credential alone doesn't guarantee real-world job skills, but it increases the odds that the person is competent. Look for a well-rounded technician with a deep Rolodex of contacts in the tech world; knowledge of multiple systems and brands can be better than a deep understanding of Windows alone.

In addition, certifications don't reflect hidden abilities, such as chops in social media. IT skills are lurking outside the lab and server room, within administrative, finance, and human-resources departments. Taking that into account, IT workers have grown from 2 percent of the workforce 17 years ago to 15 percent today, according to Foote Partners.

As more companies try to do more with smaller budgets, the research firm finds, they turn to cloud computing and other technologies that reduce the need for IT staff. As a result, the market for IT professionals now emphasizes hybrid skills. Not only must they understand the equipment, but they must solve business problems creatively.

Don't take someone's experience, training, and certification at face value. Ask what they had to do to get a certification. Hands-on lab work in addition to an exam is a good sign.

When reviewing a person's education, whether it culminated in a liberal arts degree, a diploma from a community college, or a certificate from a trade school, ask about the curriculum. If you're unsure about credentials, read between the lines. Lay out a real-life IT problem that you recently encountered, and ask how the candidate would solve it. If the task is too daunting, you can hire a consultant to interview IT job candidates.

"The classic mistake most people make is they're looking for somebody to solve the crisis du jour," says Michael Schrage, a research associate with the MIT Sloan Center for Digital Business. "You're looking to manage a relationship over time. The best time to do this is when you're not having problems."

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