The Practical Mac

How to Land the Job You Want

- 2002.10.22 - Tip Jar

Last week we took a look at the state of the IT job market. This week's column will offer some advice to help you get to the head of the class in your job search.

Certifications

I'm often asked, "Just how important are certifications?" The short answer is, "It depends."

A certification with little or no relevant experience is not worth much. Gone are the days when a CNE or a MCSE would open doors by themselves. Although a certification and an enthusiastic attitude may still occasionally land an entry-level position, certifications usually require a solid one to two years of experience in order to have a realistic chance of helping you land a good job.

Of course, this creates a chicken-and-egg problem: You can't get a job without experience, and you can't get experience without a job. The best way out of this is to find a small local company or nonprofit agency where you can volunteer your computer services. If you do a good job in a volunteer situation and secure a good reference from your "employer," you will greatly increase your chances of getting a paying job in the IT industry.

Here is a brief synopsis of some major certifications and an analysis of each:

Novell

  • CNA (Certified Novell Administrator): This is the entry-level Novell certification and consists of passing a single exam, demonstrating the knowledge and ability to perform day-to-day administration on Novell NetWare networks.
  • CNE (Certified Novell Engineer): This advanced certification usually requires successful completion of six exams. It qualifies you to solve advanced companywide support problems and high-level network problems. You perform planning, installation, configuration, troubleshooting and upgrade services for networks.

Microsoft

  • MCP (Microsoft Certified Professional): The entry-level MS certification involves passing one test, demonstrating knowledge on a single MS platform.
  • MCSA (Microsoft Certified System Administrator): A new, midlevel, system administration certification for Microsoft products, generally requiring passing four tests.
  • MCSE (Microsoft Certified System Engineer): The advanced certification requires successful completion of seven exams.

Apple

  • ACTC (Apple Certified Technical Coordinator): This certification is for Mac OS X power users, entry-level system administrators, IT professionals, and technical coordinators who provide help desk support to Mac OS X users. In addition to user support, these professionals maintain the Mac OS X Server platform.
  • ACSA (Apple Certified System Administrator): This certification is designed for full-time professional system administrators and engineers managing medium-to-large networks of Mac systems in demanding and relatively complex multiplatform deployments.
  • AppleCare Technician: Designed for those pursuing a career with Apple or authorized service centers, repairing Apple hardware.

CompTIA

  • Network+: Network+ is a vendor neutral certification that measures the technical knowledge of networking professionals with at least 9 months experience in network support or administration. Earning the Network+ certification means that the candidate possesses the knowledge needed to configure and operate a variety of networking products. This exam covers a wide range of vendor and product neutral networking technologies that can also serve as a prerequisite for vendor-specific IT certifications. This certification is helpful in demonstrating a broad general knowledge of computer networks.
  • Linux+: The Linux+ certification measures vendor-neutral Linux knowledge and skills for an individual with at least 6 months practical experience. The target market for Linux+ certification are individuals interested in demonstrating fundamental Linux knowledge and skills.
  • A+: A+ certification signifies that the certified individual possesses the knowledge and skills essential for a successful entry-level (6 months experience) computer service technician, as defined by experts from companies across the industry.

Education

The best advice I can give someone in college is to graduate. Majoring in a computer discipline is important for those wishing to go into programming or computer engineering. For technicians, managers, and network-types, the major subject is less important.

For most of our positions, we require at least an Associate Degree in any subject. Why do we require a degree? Simply put, it demonstrates an applicant's ability to take on a long-term project and see it through to completion. It also shows us that you have the ability to successfully learn new ideas and concepts. Both of these abilities are absolutely essential to success in the IT industry.

We get hundreds of applicants who list "some college" or "x years completed" or even "x classes away from graduation." This is fine if you are still in school and working toward graduation, but if you have dropped out, it raises a red flag.

Occasionally, we see people with legitimate reasons for not completing their degree. By and large, however, this is not the case. "Finances" are often cited as a reason for dropping out of school. Many grants and scholarships are available to assist with school. Even if you don't qualify for these, student loans are freely available.

As long as you choose a reasonably priced school, the increased earning power you achieve with a degree quickly offsets loan repayment. It all boils down to the fact that we pretty much do whatever we set our mind to. If you want something badly enough, you will find a way to get it.

This may sound harsh, and I apologize in advance for offending anyone. In most businesses, computer down time means lost production, which means lost revenue. I want people working for me who will tackle a problem and not leave until it is fixed. I can't afford to have someone who looks at a problem, declares it "unfixable," and goes home.

There is a proliferation of schools offering degrees completely through distance learning, usually online. There is nothing wrong with a degree earned in this manner as opposed to a traditional on-campus experience. However, you need to beware of the abundance of unaccredited diploma mills. These "schools" will essentially sell you a diploma with little or no effort on your part, other than payment of their "fee." Further, beware of institutions with phony accreditation!

Make sure your chosen school is accredited by an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Check with the college to see if they are accredited and, if so, by what organization. Go to the website for the accrediting organization and make sure your college is listed as an accredited institution. Finally, go to one of the above websites and see if the accrediting organization is recognized by the Dept. of Education and/or CHEA.

Many schools offer college credit for life experience. Essentially, if you can demonstrate that you have acquired the learning equivalent to a college class through work, volunteer positions, or other experience, the school will give you credit. For accredited institutions, this is usually limited to six or nine credit hours.

If a school is willing to give you half or more of your credits this way, look out - they are probably not a legitimate school.

Experience

We have only limited control over the jobs we have, and most employers realize this. An applicant with a stable work history will generally merit a look before a job-hopper. However, frequent job switching is not nearly the disadvantage it once was.

I have talked to dozens of good applicants in the last few months, most of whom had at least one short-tenure position (less than one year) on their resume. The vast majority of these were due to the collapse or near-collapse of the company they were working for. I worked eight months for a company once, and left shortly after the conference call where management was informed that the company was "$85 million in debt with no ability to pay." Most prospective employers see my decision to leave there as a sign of good judgment!

If you have significant work as an independent contractor, do not list every single job. This makes your resume look fragmented, and if the prospective employer does not look closely, your work history appears very unstable. Instead, list it something like this:

2/1999-4/2002 Independent Contractor
Performed work (describe here) for various companies on a contract basis. (List some sample employers if you wish).

The job glut of the late 90s dried up, but with a little preparation and diligence, you can still find the job of your dreams. Good luck! LEM

Further Reading


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Steve Watkins is the Vice President for Information Technology for a mid-sized bank, an attorney, and an Army Reserve JAG on extended active duty. He has been a Mac user for about 12 years. He has owned some PCs along the way - but always came back to the Mac. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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