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Now What? &#151 A Case for Certification

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Now what? Many students preparing for college, their parents, and career changers wrestle with the question of whether to get a college degree or pursue certification. This article sheds light on this debate from a teacher's and IT professional's point of view.
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Now what? In an earlier Now what? article, I discussed some of the questions that career changers face when entering into the IT world. In that article, I discussed one of the questions that I have been facing, namely should I pursue a Ph.D. in CIS or should I pursue the Cisco CCIE certification? This question brings up the debate over the value of technical certifications versus the value of traditional, university-based, instructor-led, academic training. Many have come out on the side of traditional, university education—the pursuit of a B.S. in CIS, to the detriment of vendor-based certification. I have quietly sat back and listened to the arguments from both university professors and vendor-based, technical certification advocates.

This week, that debate came to a head in my life, and I was forced to take a position and make a personal decision on the next phase of my career development. In this Now what? article, I want to explore traditional education, the advantages and disadvantages of technical certification, and my dream for the certification industry. I do this having taught in traditional education settings and for vendors who offer technical certifications. Many students preparing for college, their parents, and career changers wrestle with the question of college or certification. I hope to shed some light on this debate from a teacher's and IT professional's point of view.

Traditional Education

I came to the realization that I was a strong advocate for technical certifications several years ago. This week, that advocacy was intensified. Recently, I applied for teaching positions at several universities. I was told in two separate conversations this week that I did not qualify to teach IT courses for the universities. The fact that I held a master's degree in Vocational/Technical Education and that I am authorized by Novell, Microsoft, Prosoft, etc. to teach close to 80 classes makes no difference to the universities, even if the positions advertised were to teach such classes. I was told by both schools, (are you sitting down?) that if I want to teach for either of these institutions, I have to go back and earn a third master's degree in CIS (I also hold a M.Div.) or a Ph.D. in CIS. I can then come back, and they will hire me as an Assistant Professor for a starting salary of $28K–$35K. My real-world training made no difference to the universities.

After some research, I found that the Ph.D. track would cost me at least three years of my time and close to $40K (so that I could earn $28K). The courses that I would have to take I could teach, right now, with my eyes closed. The university systems do not recognize technical certifications or those who teach toward those certifications. At that point, the question that I was wrestling with—should I pursue the Ph.D. or the Cisco CCIE—had an immediate answer. I am staying with vendor-based technical certifications. I will pursue and earn the CCIE in the next 12–18 months. I will not waste another minute or dollar thinking about teaching for an educational system that has its head in the sand. With the CCIE, I will not be earning $28K. As an MCSE and an MCNE, I earned well over that $28K figure. As a high school science teacher with a Bachelor's degree, I earned more than $28K.

That said, I do not in any way disparage a traditional university education for students leaving high school. I fully recognize that the certification by itself is not enough to make it in this world or in the world of IT. I am a firm advocate of a liberal arts education, in which students are exposed to math, science, literature, art, music, and computer sciences—with a major in any of the above. These courses help to develop people with a well-rounded outlook on life. My B.A. is in Chemistry, with a minor in Biology. The four years I spent earning that degree were wonderful and enlightening because they exposed me to a variety of disciplines that have enhanced my appreciation of the world I live in.

As I look back to the courses I took in pursuit of the B.A., the two that have benefited me the most as an IT professional and an IT instructor were "An Introduction to Logic" and "An Introduction to Symbolic Logic." These two courses worked my classmates and me vigorously as we learned how to reason deductively and inductively. I have no regrets about the major I took for my B.A. or the classes I took. In the early and mid-70s, there was no B.S. in CIS—at least it was not widely available or attractive. You could get a B.A. in Mathematics and take some computer/mainframe/keypunch classes, but that was it. The B.A. degree prepared me to think, and that in and of itself in the world of IT is invaluable.

I do not believe that the B.S. in CIS that is offered today is the degree that it is cracked up to be. As a side note, the CIS degree is a relatively new phenomenon. Students learn a good bit about many topics and develop some programming skills, but do not experience the environment that vendor-based classes offer. I have advised high school students, community college students, and career changers to get the bachelor's degree, but to also get certified if they want a career in IT. I have had many, many students and their teachers who have a degree in CIS or in Instructional Design in my vendor-based classes who had no idea how to operate a computer or how to log on to a network. Some have a bachelor's degree, while some of these students have advanced CIS degrees. It is scary. The universities are not addressing the real-world IT environment that students face when they get their first IT job.

Traditional education needs to be combined with technical certification so that IT candidates will have a real shot at a good job. There has to be a marriage between traditional education and technical certification in the training of IT professionals to adequately prepare students for the real world of IT. The universities should welcome IT professionals into their classrooms as teachers/instructors, so that students learn from people with real-world knowledge, not just book knowledge. If the universities wanted to do something radical, they should make teaching IT on the university level financially attractive as well. Well-versed and active IT professionals who want to teach will not leave the real world for the world of academics to earn $28K.

The bottom line is that all students wanting to enter the world of IT should get a college education. They don't necessarily have to get a B.S. in CIS to be an effective professional. A B.S. in CIS is a hook to get a job, but the certifications that one earns reinforce an applicant's desire; and willingness to learn, adapt, and grow in a profession. The value of the B.S. in CIS is that it gets the attention of HR people. Virtually every IT job advertisement requires a B.S. in CIS. It is nice to have. but not a necessity. You can get an IT job without the CIS degree—especially if you have the certifications or experience to prove your qualifications. The CIS degree is just another certification that validates an entry-level baseline knowledge that many consider to be NOT real-world oriented. The education that a university offers helps to develop cognitive awareness and critical thinking skills, as well as an appreciation of non-IT phenomenon. The academic degree needs to be supplemented with technical certifications and experience to have validity.

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