SECOND DEGREE VS. CERTIFICATIONS: don’t waste time or money

Experts weigh in on whether a reader should pursue an advanced IT degree or go for certifications

When you’ve got about three years of IT experience under your belt and you want to increase your earning power what do you do? Do you go back to school and earn an advanced degree in IT ? Or do you take your first steps in pursuing vendor certification? Those were some of the questions I received recently from a reader who has worked as an IT administrator (the only IT guy) at a small civil engineering company. He currently earns about $43,000 a year and wants to bump up his salary but his time for education is limited due to family commitments. So what’s the best option?

I’m often asked by IT folks whether to pursue advanced degrees – in 2005, we discussed the pros and cons of MBAs for IT pros (see below for links to those newsletters) - but we’ve never discussed IT degrees for relative IT newbies. I wanted to get some professional opinions so I put the questions to two recruitment agencies, an IT manager at a construction firm, and a certification trainer. This is what they said:

Advice from staffing companies:

James Del Monte is president of JDA Professional Services, an IT staffing company based in Houston. He says: “Having a 4-year degree in anything is a good start and will open most doors. Having a technical degree is preferred in lieu of experience. So he is off to a good start. Given his situation, my suggestion would be to get Microsoft and Cisco certifications. He sounds like he is more interested in a technical career and could use some formal training in this. It also sounds like he is looking to improve his situation more immediately. I would suggest a Master (MBA) if he is interested in more of the business aspects of IT or views himself getting into management. That of course is a longer term commitment. His compensation for what is described seems fair. His next move would be into a larger company where he can learn from others.”

Sandi Henrikson is regional manager at Sapphire Technologies North America. She says: “A degree is desired by many employers, even if it is just a non-technical Bachelor’s. If the worker is young or early in his/her career and has the time to devote to going back to school (i.e. not a lot of family obligations or a demanding job) then investing their efforts in obtaining a degree would be recommended. However, where this candidate says he has limited time, it may be better to focus his energy into getting certifications. With certifications you can pinpoint the specific career path you want to follow and fine tune your skills precisely to the position that you want to aspire to. There are many online certification courses for the person who cannot dedicate themselves full-time, as well as the ability to pursue a Master’s degree part-time down the road if you choose. Many companies, including Sapphire, offer discounted training offerings to assist their employees in keeping up-to-date with the latest technology.”

Advice from an employer:

A. Reader, who wants to remain anonymous, is an IT manager at a construction company, and offers this advice: “What is the employment objective of the individual? Is the individual currently working in IT? If IT management is the goal then a Master’s degree in IT is probably going to serve the needs of that position well. An IT manager with a Master’s degree with a good balance of advanced and current technical and business background brings tremendous tools to the 'table'. One of the most difficult aspects of IT management is having a manager who is skilled enough and current in his/her grasp of emerging technologies such that they can communicate effectively with the project managers and technical specialists.

“If an individual is looking to enhance their marketability in core technology positions such as network engineering or project management I see the choice of Master’s vs. certification as a bit of a toss-up. If one wants to be a project manager with a specialty in security, the Master’s degree could serve well; certifications would be a plus, but could also be seen as overkill or the reverse with the Master’s degree. The credentials become a ‘flashpoint question’ of what does this person want to be, a manager or super-tech? By the same token a well-seasoned engineer with project management and security certifications along with a solid resume would be a very appealing candidate.”

Advice from a certification trainer:

Wendell Odom, CCIE No, 1624, splits time between writing Cisco training books for Cisco Press and teaching classes at Skyline ATS. (Wendell will also be blogging for Network World’s Cisco Subnet site in September - watch this space for details. If you have any burning Cisco certification-related let me know and I’ll forward them to Wendell, or keep an eye out for his blog and you’ll be able to contact him directly).

Wendell says: “I think employers want both types of folks - certified and those with a Master’s in an IT-related field. However, the real trick is to look at job roles within IT and within the networking-centric part of IT. The vast majority of job roles within the networking part of IT requires the skills proven with certs more so than the skills and knowledge proven with a Master's degree. I would say though that someone with a Bachelor's degree plus some certifications - even if the degree is not in IT - has a distinct advantage over those without a degree. I've talked to many students and readers over the years who were somewhat frustrated by having their options limited in some ways by the lack of a degree.

“Also, you need to separate your thinking in terms of whether the employer is a company implementing networking technology [an IT user], or a reseller/vendor/consulting company. An overwhelming number of students tell me that [IT user organizations] do not care a bit about certifications for current employees. They are about skills first, and certifications second, for potential employees. So, for those employees, I'd say getting certified is an important step if they’re looking to land the next job. However, the resellers/vendors/consultants see some inherent value in the certification branding, so oftentimes the skills and certifications tend to be on an equal footing. There's also a much more likelihood that these companies would help you move towards getting your next certification.

“A quick word on the Master's in an IT field. If you want to work in the broader world of IT, and not just networking, then I'm a big fan of getting a Master's. It's just a lot tougher to get there, especially once you're past the carefree days of youth. However, if you're going to focus on a career in networking, I'd recommend a [Cisco Certified Internetwork Engineer] cert over a Master's in IT – CCIE certs are more centered on the technologies you'd work with. I've never met a CCIE who thought the cert didn't have a big impact on their career.”

Thanks to all the experts who offered their advice and thanks to the reader for writing in with the question. As a seasoned IT pro, I’d like to know your thoughts on this issue. Or if you’re an IT newbie – let me know if you are pursing a Master’s degree or vendor certifications