How to make sure IT certifications actually matter

Has the certification golden ticket become nothing more than fool's gold? Here's how to get real value as a employee or employer

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I know why I was there: This is part of my career path. I write books, articles, and so forth about Exchange, and I'm currently working on a video series for Train Signal that addresses the subject matter of the 662 exam. Logically, I had to have some insight into what the exam covers -- and I had to be certified so that students who purchase the course can trust that I know what I'm saying.

But why were all these other people here? For some it is still about proving to an employer that they have studied a relevant subject, such as Windows Server 2008 for server admins or Windows 7 for desktop admins, and proven by Microsoft's standards that they are proficient to a certain degree. The certification may help them land that job, especially in a tough economy.

In other cases, it may help a person keep his or her job by being able to say during your review that you have continued your education by attending a conference, watching training materials, reading various articles and books, working in a lab, and taking additional Microsoft exams impresses management. It shows that you are driven as an employee to improve, and that benefits the organization.

So, if you're getting certified for the right reasons, what's the right way to go?

How to choose a certification path

To start, you might want to map out certifications you believe are relevant for your career -- and you don't have to stick with a single provider. To prove your hardware know-how, you might consider taking an A+ exam from Comptia. To prove a base knowledge of networking, you might try the Network+ exam (also from Comptia). If project management is more your focus, you might like to focus on the Project+ exam.

You might want to prove your ability with Microsoft products; the traditional MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) has been discontinued in favor of the MCTS (Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist) and MCITP (Microsoft Certified IT Professional) tracks. You might prepare for the Windows Server, SQL, or Exchange tracks if you are looking to focus on the server side, or you might prepare for the desktop side with Windows 7 exams. The number of exams you can take is endless.

Another direction you may prefer is to pass exams on technology you know is relevant in your environment. Virtualization is a huge market right now, and you might see the value in pursuing VMware exams to demonstrate your virtualization expertise. (My InfoWorld colleague David Marshall explores such certification in his article "Is it worthwhile to upgrade to a VMware vSphere 4 certification?")

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