Advice: Pursuing degrees and certifications

Scott R. Marean

Title: Vice president of IT

Company: R.J. O'Brien & Associates, Chicago

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Scott Marean

Marean is this month’s guest Premier 100 IT Leader, answering questions about pursuing degrees and certifications and the hot jobs in IT. If you have a question you’d like to pose to one of our Premier 100 IT Leaders, send it to askaleader@computerworld.com and watch for this column each month.

I am a mainframe programmer who supports a financial application for a large bank that uses languages that are slowly becoming dinosaurs. I recently discovered that this application will be moved to a server-based distributed platform, and virtually all new applications my employer acquires are distributed applications. As a result, I now see the writing on the wall, and I'm considering going back to school to learn some new skills, specifically Web development. In and of itself, this doesn't sound like a problem, but the kicker is that I'm 50 years old and concerned that my age could be a "ball and chain" in competing with younger applicants. Any advice for someone like me who has a good background but is starting over with new technologies?

Don't lose heart! There are so many options. Sounds like you want to stay technical. Going back to school to learn new tech skills would certainly help, but you could probably do just as well with online courses (with a more flexible schedule), since you already understand programming concepts. Staying in your current company may provide the best gradual transition in responsibilities. As the application you're working on moves to a new architecture, there will likely be a need to analyze/document what it currently does as input for the requirements and design for the new system. Your legacy systems expertise (and years of business knowledge) will be useful there and should provide enough of an edge to get you on the new team, even if you're competing against younger applicants with more expertise in current technologies (who, by the way, don't have nearly your depth of business knowledge). A less technical alternative would be to move into a business analyst or project manager role (with additional training, if necessary), which would leverage both your legacy systems expertise and your business knowledge but not require you to go as deep into the newer technology. Last, but not least, (this one is riskier): You could go into consulting and do contract work involving all those old technologies. Depending on how long those old technologies linger out there (usually longer than anyone expects), you could have a lucrative run of a few years as a resource in high demand among dwindling supply.

I have a master's in computer science and work in data communications and networking. Would an MSCE add value to my résumé?

Certifications never hurt. Very few employers require them, but most look at them as a nice-to-have. If anything, they show your prospective employer that you are very interested in the topic and put in the effort to pursue an industry-recognized level of expertise. The MSCE, of course, is Microsoft-centric, which will mean more to some IT shops than others. However, in the end, it's usually your practical work experience in a certain technology (not classes or certifications) that means more to an employer than anything.

For the past three years, I have been an IT administrator at a civil engineering firm with about 20 employees. I install and maintain software and hardware, work on problems with computer equipment and update the company's Web site. I have also become pretty familiar with networking equipment like switches and firewalls, and am somewhat familiar with Windows Server 2003. My bachelor's degree is in communications. I would like to continue working in the IT field, since that is what I love to do, and lean toward a job in networking, systems administration or IT security. Would pursuing a degree be better at this point, or should I just get certifications? I don't have a whole lot of spare time. Will my bachelor's degree hinder my opportunities for other jobs or more money?

Many companies require a bachelor's degree for professional career-level IT positions, and they don't usually specify that it must be in an IT-related field. With three years of practical work experience under your belt already, certifications are probably the fastest way to earn the credentials that prove you really know the technology. Also, coming from a jack-of-all-trades position at a small company, you may find it difficult to get into a more specialized role at a larger company without the additional credentials.

I have a bachelor's in IT, which includes some CS courses. Since I am interested in a leadership role someday, should I be pursuing an MBA, a master's in the management of technology or a computer science/software engineering degree?

The answer depends upon what you mean by leadership role. Having both a technical bachelor's degree and an MBA would certainly be an advantage when pursuing a leadership role like CIO. We've been hearing about issues with IT/business alignment for years, and having an MBA will give you the perspective and vocabulary to relate effectively with your business leader peers. A master's in the management of technology would probably be useful for a midlevel management or project management role in IT. And a computer science/software engineering degree would probably be most useful if you are pursuing a much more technical (and less business-oriented) leadership role like that of an enterprise application architect.

I am an undergraduate studying computer science. I hear people say that there isn't much of a future in software development. When I graduate in three years, what areas are most likely to provide high pay with little competition for a job?

If you're looking for a job with high pay and little competition, I think “bomb defuser” might be a good one. ;-) However, you probably don't have to go to that extreme. There is a huge future in software development, and there will be for the foreseeable future. The dot-com bust in the early 2000s created both a decrease in unbridled faith in technology and a temporary glut of IT workers. However, that time appears to be over. The IT world has regained sanity over the past few years. Technology capabilities (and Internet-based business models) are more clearly understood now, and IT jobs and pay are growing at a realistic, steady, healthy rate. 2007 was a difficult year for employers to find qualified employees. Demand has started to outweigh supply once again. As far as areas to specialize in to make the most money, just read any IT salary survey. They usually specify which jobs (even sometimes specific products/languages) pay the most, which cities/regions pay the most (and usually have a higher cost of living, by the way), and what the hot industries are by region. That should help you narrow it down, but be sure you're pursuing something you enjoy and are good at, too. You'll be most satisfied when you're paid fairly for something you truly love to do.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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