She earned a bachelor's degree in systems security from the University of Phoenix in 2011 and a master's degree in information systems, also from the University of Phoenix, in August. She paid the nearly $50,000 tuition bill using her own money, loans and grants.
In addition, Nelson has paid for a number of seminars and training courses covering everything from Microsoft products to VMware. And she covered the costs for programs that helped her earn A+, Security+, and Network+ certifications as well as the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert designation. She figures she spends eight to 20 hours a month in some sort of training program.
Nelson picks courses based on what she knows her employer will need as well as what's hot in the field.
"You weed it down a little bit to what the company needs and then you ask if it's going to be beneficial for me for the future. You don't just want to do it for the company and have skills that won't be useful anywhere else," she says.
That approach has helped her get ahead. Nelson has held three jobs at three different organizations since 2008, with each position a step up from the prior one.
However, she questions whether such efforts will continue to stand out on her resume. She says employers seem to expect IT staffers to pursue ongoing education just to stay employed.
"I think it's becoming more so that you have to have it, it's not even putting you over the edge to know all these things," she says. She points to a colleague who was told by a potential boss that even though a job posting listed a number of certifications as "preferred," he really required them.
The courses that are most in demand seem to correspond with the most sought-after skill sets, with the popular training topics depending on the individual's specialty, according to both IT workers and those who hire them. Networking pros gravitate toward Cisco certifications. Project managers seek out courses that can help them earn the Project Management Professional designation. Developers are trying to sharpen their mobile app development skills. Those looking to move into management are taking business courses and enrolling in MBA programs.
"You can almost break it down by position," says Joseph Kotlinski, a partner and manager in IT search at WinterWyman, a Waltham, Mass.-based recruitment firm.
Kotlinski says system administrators are signing up for training sessions in Linux and Windows administration and in Perl, PHP, Python and Ruby on Rails. People who know .Net and Java want to learn about mobile and open-source technologies. Database folks want to learn more about SQL, MySQL, Hadoop, Cassandra, and big data in general. And everyone wants to learn about cloud computing.
Kotlinski agrees that IT professionals need to keep up with their training if they want to keep their jobs.
"The business expects the technical people to really know what's going on out there," he says. "There are a lot of people in companies who are gadget people, and you don't want those people to know more than the technology people, so the IT people [train] just to stay current, but also so they can provide services and guidance to those gadget people."
Many pay for training so they can check off the certifications and skills that job postings list as requirements, just to make it past the screening process.
On the other hand, Kotlinski says, some techies sign up for extra training simply because they're curious.
"They want to know what's out there. If they hear someone mention a new technology, they want to know what it is," he says.