It must be something in the air recently, but I’ve gotten half-a-dozen emails from readers asking me to explore the old familiar “school vs. certification” conundrum. For most people, career advancement or development is subject to limited time, money, and energy. Naturally, they want to invest in what will produce “the best return.” And often, they come to me with the attitude that because certification often offers a quicker and more tangible immediate pay-off, certification must also be better than college education when it comes to career preparation, development and advancement.
Not so, says I. For one thing, it’s not really an either-or proposition. In fact, for most employers, it’s a “both-and” proposition — that is, employers want people who are both certified and have at least an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, if not something more advanced. For another thing, college and certification often teach different kinds of things in very different ways. Granted, what you learn in earning a Microsoft, Cisco, or VMware certification is likely to be more relevant to what you do on the job when you work with Microsoft, Cisco, or VMware platforms and tools. But college is as much about learning how to learn as it is about learning something or anything in particular, and learning is something that IT pros must keep doing throughout their careers if they want to stay in the field. If they want to excel in the field they must also excel at learning, in organizing and formulating what they’ve learned, and in many cases passing some or all of that knowledge onto others as well.
As you plan out your career path, then, try to strike a balance between school and certification studies. Yes, you will need more and better certifications constantly to keep up with the pace of technology change and innovation. But you will also need the opportunity to learn and try things out in a non-critical, open, and more exploratory environment — namely school — to really get the most out of your learning experience. When it’s OK to make mistakes or even simply to noodle around for a bit, you will actually learn more and better than you will when your job or your business is on the line all the time. That’s why you may want to plan to take 2 to 4 years to finish up a bachelor’s degree, or an equal amount of time to chase down a master’s degree once you’ve earned your bachelor’s. You really do want a chance to explore and size up various subject matters to see how you like them (and how well your mix of skills, knowledge and experience maps into their domains) to help you figure out what’s new, what’s next, and what’s most interesting to you.
Sure, it will take time and cost money to follow this kind of dual track. But in the long run, you will be better off for the learning and experience you’ll acquire along the way. And don’t forget to enjoy the ride, while you’re at it!