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  1. First Steps into IT
  2. Recommended Certification Paths Based on IT Sector
  3. Conclusions
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Recommended Certification Paths Based on IT Sector

Now let’s look at the certification paths that I recommend if someone wants to enter IT in 2008.

Networking: LANs and WANs

Networking is such an expansive sector in IT. Every vendor has its recommendations for entering IT using its products. Based on marketing and fluff, you might consider only one or two vendors and their certifications. And that is fine.

If geographically one or two vendors dominate the landscape, by all means go with those certification paths. For everyone else, I would strongly recommend a solid background in LANs and WANs.

If you want to manage, administer, install, maintain, upgrade, migrate, or access a network, you have to know something about the topics, skills, and concepts unique to generic LANs and WANs.

LANs to manage a local area network, the servers on that network, and how those servers and clients interact. The best, most affordable LAN certification that has the potential for the longest life cycle is the LPI-1 certification sponsored by the Linux Professional Institute.

In this certification you will learn all the fundamentals of client-server networks in a vendor-neutral environment. You will be able to access excellent, affordable training materials from online vendors like InformIT.com. You will also be able to get free—or very reasonable—copies of the operating systems needed to establish a test environment. Once you have the LPI-1, you will have the basic knowledge needed to manage a Linux environment, as well as some notable proprietary environments. The LPI-1 requires two tests that you can read more about at the Linux Professional Institute website.

Some would say that I should recommend a Microsoft certification. And again, if you are in a geographical area where Microsoft is king, then by all means go for it. But the issues that I have with Microsoft certifications for folks entering IT (and I am an MCT, MCSE, and many more) are the following:

  • Training materials and courses are expensive.
  • Certification life cycle is not as long as most open source/Linux certifications.
  • The operating systems are not cheap. To set up a Microsoft LAN with Vista and Server 2003 could be very expensive.
  • Most network environments are not exclusively Microsoft, while most have some Linux/Unix in them.

I would also encourage those interested in networking to look at getting some hands-on knowledge of WANs (wide area networks) because the world does not revolve around a local area network. Now the world revolves around accessing other corporate networks and the Internet.

You need to have some background in routing and switching to understand the methodology of how networks communicate and transmit data. The best, most affordable WAN certification that has the broadest market appeal is Cisco’s CCNA.

Admittedly, the CCNA has only a three-year life cycle, which I find problematic, but it can open so many doors for career changers. There are so many jobs out there now that require the CCNA. Training materials for those who want to self-study are readily available and affordable from Cisco Press.

To supplement the Cisco Press textbooks, I recommend not buying a lab of Cisco routers and switches as I did, but instead seeking out some of the online labs that you can rent some time in to get sufficient hands-on practice configuring a pod of routers and switches.

Whether you decide to pursue the LPI-1 or the CCNA or both, I strongly encourage those interested to access a good practice test before spending the money on the live exam. There are a few excellent practice test providers. And by this I am not referring to brain dumps. I am referring to those providers who offer good test questions that offer a simulated test environment in an attempt to help you assess your readiness for an exam. The best that I have dealt with over the last 10–15 years is MeasureUp.com. It has a superb philosophical corporate understanding of the IT environment and offers clients excellent support.

If you do not want to go the self-study route, I encourage you to look at some of the online training available. Not prepackaged online PowerPoint presentations, but live online training with a live instructor. One that I have recently heard great things about is RealTimeITSolutions.com, which provides live instructor-led training and is authorized by a number of the major vendors.

Database Work

The design, administration, and management of corporate databases have become a true specialization in the IT community. There are a number of major database solutions available and (depending on to whom you speak) loyalties run deep.

For those wanting to enter IT through the database avenue, there are two certifications/paths that I recommend because they require only one test to get your feet wet, and they have a large enough base to offer good job potential.

The two are the MySQL CMA which you can research here, or the Microsoft SQL 2005 TS certification which can be found here. Both offer the serious candidate a taste of database work without being cost-prohibitive; have a good, affordable selection of self-study materials available; have growth potential for someone who really wants to pursue a DBA-type certification; and are sought after in the current job market. There are also numerous online courses available and a good selection of practice tests for those interested in these two.

For the person who wants to jump into the deep end of the pool and pursue Oracle certifications, I still recommend as first steps either the MySQL certification or the SQL 2005 certification. The concepts and skills you learn with these will easily translate to Oracle.

Web Design

There are a number of ways to enter the Web design sector in IT. Most ignore the certifications that are out there because skills and experience speak volumes in this field.

For those wanting to quantify their experience through a certification as they take their first steps into IT, I recommend only one certification that is not well known. Although most would expect me to recommend the CIW because I hold many of its designations, I have not found the CIW a profitable certification in this market.

The certification that has benefitted me the most is the one that I earned through the Center for Professional Development at Florida State University. It is without question the best instruction I have had in the field of Web design and is very affordable. It is offered in both instructor-led and online programs. Both offer the same content, the same assignments, and the same final project. Both are highly demanding and very fulfilling.

Anyone looking to enter into the field of Web design would be wise to research the online program at Florida State University. It can be found at the following websites:

If you have a local program similar to the one at FSU, I strongly encourage you to research it to see how well respected it is in the local job market. The one at FSU is highly respected in the local market.

Programming

This is the field I know the least about because it is not my passion. That said, I have done a bit of programming, taken too many programming classes, and have learned what I need to know to do the jobs I am faced with.

Those who are interested in programming should look into starting with one of the open source languages that have an abundance of self-study books available and that can be run on a number of platforms.

Here I recommend Perl and PHP as good places to start. If you are a Microsoft fan, then without question you need to look into the certifications Microsoft offers for .Net programming. Some might point you to VBScript, but I am not seeing as many job opportunities for VBScript programmers as .Net programmers.

A caveat: In the mid-90s there was not much call for Fortran and Cobol programmers until Y2K sprang into the media conscience. Then the "old" Fortran and Cobol programmers were working big time. So the language you choose should be based on what is popular in your geographic area and have enough of an installed base to secure its future.

From my perspective, I would enter programming with the cheapest language to learn or the most popular. That means either one of the open source languages or .Net.

Programmers traditionally are not certification-oriented. Skills and experience are make-or-break criteria for a good programmer. So I would not get hung up on programmer certifications. Instead, I would find something that feels right and run with it. When an employer tells you that you need to learn a new language or a certification, I would go with the languages that you are most comfortable with.

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