Over the past 10 years, during my time as both a user group president and Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP), I have hosted or presented numerous times for various user groups, conferences, and events. One of the questions that I get asked all the time from both seasoned and new IT professionals is “What advice can you give to help my career?” This question is almost always followed by “Should I be a generalist or should I specialize? What area should I get into? Where is the best money? Where can I be assured of a long career?”

Well based on my experience and what I have seen over the years with others that I have helped, the best advice I have is “Get certified.”

I know a lot of people say that certifications are not worth anything.  But I disagree with them, and the reasons are simple. Here is what happened to me.

In November 1997, I worked for the Canadian Government; I was just one of the team. This team had in the previous two years been merged with another team from another department. Because of budget cuts not all of us could take the training that we wanted. To help solve this issue my boss purchased some Computer Based Training (CBT) and wanted everyone to spend some time reviewing the courses. Being the low man on the totem pole, it took a while before it was my turn.

Fast forward to the beginning of February 1998 just after two of my teammates left for another department. On February 19, 1998, I told my boss that I had an appointment and needed to step out for a few hours. This is when I was quietly taking my first Microsoft exam. I passed the exam, “70-067 Implementing and Supporting NT Server 4.0,” and when I returned to my office at 12:20 p.m. I handed her the result sheet for the exam (however, you could tell that she thought I was going to quit too). Her mood changed quickly when she learned that I had passed my first exam! I was the first person within my office to pass an exam. This turned out to be a big deal and the news went up the chain several levels and got me noticed.

Over the next year I continued to write exams until I passed my last exam and got my MCSE on January 19, 1999. At the same time, I was asked to work on special projects and each of these smaller projects was successful.

I was then asked to join my region’s Y2K project, and part of my job was to determine which computers within my region were Y2K compliant.  I was told by the national project office that I needed to create a team of staff from the help desk and inventory each computer. This meant that we needed to walk to each and every computer, then document, test, and sticker each computer in our region. My region had over 2,000 computers!

At this time, I had been working with SMS 1.2 for a while. I asked the national team as to why this couldn’t be done via SMS 1.2. Due to my past successes, the Director General (DG), which both my team and the national team reported too, suggested that I take a week to test and prove that the Y2K test could be sent via SMS 1.2. It only took a few days to get the results that I needed. In short, I saved the department a ton of money as, at least in my region, no one had to walk to each computer to test the machines. From that point on, I was one of the go-to guys and was allowed to try things.

During my time with the government, I started as low as you could get, CS-1 Step 1, and eventually moved up to Acting CS-4. Fast forward to January 2006: I quit the government and started working for Enhansoft Inc. By this time, I was recognized as an IT community lead and a senior SMS resource. The first contract that I was asked to bid on with Enhansoft Inc. was a contract to upgrade from SMS 1.2 to SMS 2003, and I was turned down as I didn’t meet the mandatory requirement of having my MCSE 2003. About six months later the exact same company asked if I had any time available to help them upgrade but by then I didn’t have any time to help them, as I was managing two or three contracts.   

In April 2007, I was recognized as an SCCM MVP, which lead to me helping write the SCCM 2007 course. As such, I felt that I needed to take the beta exam for SCCM 2007, which I did on December 11, 2007. This started my next wave of exams; I took a total of 14 exams and one upgrade exam and got my certified trainer status, too.

From this point forward I have yet to be bounced from any contract work due to not having the right certifications. I could tell you about all the cool things that I have worked on but that is not the point of this post.

Now I can hear some of you saying that my experience is the exception not the rule. And again I will disagree with you. The reason is simple; I have helped run several study groups. For the first few, we didn’t arrange for anyone to take the exam. We had more than 40 people in those groups and only one person took the exam. Very little changed for those who didn’t write the exam and as such they didn’t get noticed at their offices.

The user group executives made a decision that starting with the Vista exam 70-620, (yes I took that exam) we would include an exam voucher with the cost of the study group. We had 20 people in the study group and 18 of 20 passed the exam within two weeks after we completed the study group! This started a wave of people wanting to join our study group, and on top of that every one of the members that passed the exam has seen some improvement in their career.

  • Five of those members have been recognized as leaders in their respective technical areas.
  • One member, who wasn’t working while studying for the exam, has gained full-time employment.
  • A few have changed jobs for better working hours, shorter drive to work, and more money.
  • Most have seen a job promotion or better and more interesting projects to work on.
  • Most went on to get their MCITP: Enterprise Support Technician on Windows Vista.

The last and most important career change I’ve noticed is that all of them are happy with what they have accomplished.

So what is stopping you from taking your first exam?