In the last decade-and-a-half I’ve made myself available to thousands of active and aspiring IT professionals to answer their questions, offer suggestions, and dispense career development and enhancement advice. If there’s one constant question that stands head and shoulders above all “the usual concerns” I’m repeatedly asked to address, it has to be that old favorite — “Which is better: a college degree or IT certification?” The real answer to this question, of course, is “Both,” because employers want job candidates to have a degree to show their ability to learn, to successfully complete a multi-year course of study, and hopefully also, to have absorbed some skills and knowledge of professional value along the way; and because employers like current certification as evidence that candidates have relevant, up-to-date skills and knowledge for specific tools, platforms, and technologies directly related to the job at hand. But then again, who doesn’t want to “have it all?”
I had a chance to ponder an interesting spin on this question in fielding a set of queries from a 17-year-old young man from South Africa recently. Our complete interchange is available for your perusal at Tom’s IT Pro in a blog post entitled “Making it in IT: College Degree or Certification?” This was a very interesting case in point for several particularly stark reasons:
- My interlocutor really regarded his choice as an “either-or” proposition, and needed to make an immediate decision
- His means were limited so he felt strongly he wanted to invest his (and his family’s) money first and foremost where it would provide the best immediate return
- He already had a surprisingly clear set of goals and objectives for a person of his age, which made it much easier to suggest a possible plan of attack
The net-net was that I recommended he find an academic program where he could either pursue certification as part of its outright curriculum (an increasing number of colleges, universities, technical schools, and community colleges or their international equivalents now include coverage for specific certs in their course offerings, primarily for the CompTIA, Microsoft, and Cisco offerings) or where he would be able to work with Microsoft development tools and environments in pursuing his desire to learn programming languages and skills. I also pointed him at the excellent DreamSpark program from Microsoft, which makes programming tools, languages, and platforms available for free to students enrolled at accredited academic institutions.
I’d like to think this helped him address his need for education and his need to develop relevant technical skills and knowledge for the workplace. But I remember being 17 once myself — long, long ago though it was — and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few twists and turns along the way take him to some unexpected way stations and stopping points. I do wish him and others in his situation only the best of outcomes, and submit a good education is a good foundation for life no matter where it may eventually lead.