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4 Ways to Upgrade Your IT Career

You've got the degree and maybe even the job - for many information technology professionals, the question becomes, "now what?"

Finding out the best way to invest a limited amount of time and money, however, can be a tough problem for IT professionals to solve. With thousands of certifications, education-specific degree programs, graduate education and more, it's not always clear how to get ahead in an IT career.

ComputerTrainingSchools.com recently conducted a 2015 survey of people working in the IT industry, asking where &mdash and how — they'd found success in earning raises and career advancement. While there's no one silver bullet for guaranteed advancement, the findings of our survey suggest there are a number of ways professionals can work to keep themselves relevant and raise their value to employers, which can help them continue to earn long-term success.

Get the experience


it degree and certifications

When it comes to the best ways of a professional pushing their career forward, work experience is typically considered most important factor. Among the respondents on our survey:

Twenty-one percent of survey respondents pointed to time spent actually on the job as being most important to advancement:

  • 15.9 percent responded that earning a degree was the best way
  • 13.1 percent said earning one or more certifications would help pull down raises
  • 4.3 percent said attending boot camps or similar programs would be most helpful

The largest group of respondents, 45.7 percent, said all the above options combined is the best way to get ahead. That suggests that IT professionals should try to make themselves as valuable and versatile as possible, but even broken down by specific fields, work experience always led the pack in responses on the survey.

"Any time that you can get real-world work experience, I would argue that that has a tendency to trump all else," said Matthew Ripaldi, senior vice president at IT staffing and recruiting services firm Modis. "I think secondarily would be certifications. You know, obviously having the right type of education, whether it's engineering or computer sciences or math and sciences, that'll give you a good foundation. But having that real-world experience is really key."

Professionals can and should try to seek out new work experiences even if they're already employed, said Ester Frey, vice president of technology staffing services at Robert Half Technology. Additionally, asking managers for new projects can help build new skills while on the job.

"It's important to keep in mind employers want to know how candidates have applied their knowledge in the workplace - so taking on project work will be valuable," she said.

Fill experience gaps with certifications


Where professionals have gaps in their experience, certifications can help, Ripaldi said - they allow you to strengthen areas where you're weak when it comes to different kinds of technologies. But as the survey suggests, knowing which certifications to choose can be difficult.

The largest portion of survey respondents, 20.7 percent, said obtaining a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certification (MCSE) should be a requirement for IT professionals. But nearly just as many, 17.9 percent, said there are no "must-have" certifications. Still, taken together, 58.8 percent of respondents said IT pros should pursue additional certifications, whatever they might be, beyond their base education. Ripaldi said it all depends on your job, as well as your future career goals.

"The certifications can get very specific and that's really what you want," he said. "You want them to align with your experience, and more importantly, where you want to go."

Ripaldi said certifications can best be used to help professionals adapt and learn new and valuable skills, especially since IT is an industry that's always evolving. Pursuing and keeping current on certifications in technologies that are on the cutting edge helps workers keep up with trends and stay valuable to employers - so it's often less about any one particular certification, and more about staying abreast of what's going on in the industry and mastering technologies as they change over time.

Invest in yourself to encourage employers to invest in you


IT certifications and degrees

Pursuing certifications also suggests to employers that a professional is a good addition to their companies.

"The other thing about getting a certification is it shows a little bit of character about the individual," Ripaldi said. "It shows that they're passionate about tech, it shows they're investing in themselves, it shows they're trying to improve their knowledge base. It makes a very good impression to a potential hiring manager."

Still, at least in today's market, some certs seem to be more valuable than others, according to survey results. From professionals who received a 5-percent raise to those who obtained 15 percent raises, at least one in five respondents pointed to the MCSE as being required.

Among individuals who'd earned 20 percent pay increases, Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) and Project Management Professional (PMP) were the top ranked, each tying with 25 percent of the vote. And for professionals who'd managed pay raises of 25 percent, Certified Information Security Manager was the top certificate, at 31.8 percent.

Survey respondents are onto something, according to research from GlobalKnowledge.com: on its list of the top-paying certifications of 2015:

  • PMP was fourth, with certified professionals pulling in a median salary of $109,405
  • CCNP ranked ninth, with a median salary of $97,038
  • MCSE was eleventh, with a median salary of $96,198

The top three certifications fell within the security field:

  • Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control led the list at $119,227
  • Certified Information Security Manager at $118,348
  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional at $110,663

Professionals also can add potential value to their resumes by seeking out certifications outside of their fields and expanding their overall knowledge base. In the survey, 77.8 percent of respondents said they expected to be employed with a raise in the next five years. Of those, 27 percent recommended certifications in programming, even if they didn't directly benefit a professional's career; 19 percent recommended certs in Networking; 14.6 percent pointed to project management; and database/server, security, hardware and support garnered 8 percent each.

"Something employers are looking for across the board are candidates who possess the business acumen and communication skills to work effectively with all departments and can understand and communicate the impact of technology initiatives to the business," Frey said. "From a technology standpoint, big data and analytics professionals and developers are in high demand."

Look to advanced degree programs as long-term goals


Advanced degrees as a long-term career goal

The largest percentage of survey respondents said that, outside of certifications, work experience is the best way for IT professionals to get ahead and earn raises. That said, if it's possible to pursue an industry-specific degree, it can also be valuable to advancing a career in IT.

  • More than 17 percent of respondents said industry-specific degree programs were a key to advancement
  • 20.7 percent said industry-specific graduate degree programs were important
  • More professionals in the Database and Servers field - 29 percent - thought a graduate degree was essential than did work experience

Whether pursuing a new degree is the right call for all workers depends on their career paths and goals, though. As Ripaldi put it, the best candidates are those that have a good mix of everything and can display versatility.

"Real-world experience is number one, and maybe certifications number two, but any time you can get that type of foundational education within your industry, that's going to give you a very solid base and good fundamentals," he said. "The key is having all of these together as best you can. Having the right foundational education, having real-world experience, and having the certifications that let you stay current makes you well-rounded."

Sources

Interview with Matthew Ripaldi, Senior Vice President, Modis, conducted by Phil Hornshaw, June 2015
Interview with Ester Frey, Vice President of Technology Staffing Services at Robert Half Technology, conducted by Phil Hornshaw, June 2015
15 Top-Paying Certifications for 2015, Global Knowledge, 2015, http://www.globalknowledge.com/training/generic.asp?pageid=3736