As a Windows NT professional, you are part of a select group. Media attention to the release of NT 4.0 and major NT implementations at high-profile companies such as General Motors proclaim to everyone that NT is the place to be. In fact, the media (not to mention your local Microsoft Authorized Technical Education Center--ATEC) may be quick to tell you that if you have NT experience and a certification or two, your success is assured. "Relax," they say, "the future is bright!"

Demand for NT developers, network administrators, and support professionals has been steadily growing during the past year, creating unprecedented numbers of job opportunities for those with the right skills. But what are the right skills? And how can NT professionals prepare for jobs in the future?

The NT Professional: Out of Beta, but a Recent Release
With version 3.51, NT established itself as a mature and robust operating system. However, the labor supply of NT professionals is still in version 1.0, and far from mature. Historically, the number of job opportunities available for any given technology tool specialist derives from that technology's market share. In the recent past, many technology managers chose such then-popular tools as Novell, UNIX, and OS/2 for their networking and software development needs. These technology choices have led to a highly fragmented market for operating systems and the emergence of a large number of multiplatform environments.

To survive in this environment, many technology professionals have become jacks-of-all-trades. Although such professionals may have some experience in NT, few truly seasoned NT programmers and administrators are in the job market. For key positions, recruiting professionals today are finding a short supply of veterans with more than two years of experience, especially in the area of network management and support.

"NT continues to ship more product, and those shipments are finally turning into an increased number of NT shops," observes Jeff Skrentny, president of the Chicago-based technology recruiting firm, The Jefferson Group. His outlook for the future of NT professionals is optimistic. "I believe the trend of more NT installations will continue, providing an increasing number of job opportunities for those with hands-on NT experience."

Technology consulting and contingent technical workforce providers were first to feel a temporary shortage of NT professionals as their clients developed pilot projects. Jennifer Casek, staffing specialist at Interim Technology in Oak Brook, Illinois, has seen the need for experienced NT professionals build rapidly over the past year: "Demand for NT professionals has definitely increased. Even a year ago we did not have the demand for NT consultants that we have today."

Experience and Certification
These recruiting professionals emphasize that hands-on experience is the key requirement for today's NT job opportunities. Advanced product certifications, such as the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) or Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD), are now seen as strong resume entries for those seeking new positions. Although recruiters rarely state that certification is a requirement for NT-intensive positions, many companies are willing to pay a premium--as much as $5000 in additional base salary--for those who have invested their time in certification programs. Awareness of the Microsoft certifications is growing, and will add significantly to your credibility in the long term as you seek advanced positions. (For more information about the value of training and training alternatives, see the July issue of Windows NT Magazine.)

Salary premiums aside, experience is still the driver for technology recruiting needs. "The Microsoft certifications are a plus, along with work experience," says Casek, "but not a substitute. Given a choice between the two, I would be more likely to hire the person with more experience." My informal poll of 10 technology managers in the Chicago area advises that entry level NT networking technicians and developers will gain more job growth potential with their companies from a year of hands-on experience than from a year of certification classes.

The Right Skills for Long-Term Career Growth
Technology recruiting specialists suggest a balanced approach to skill building, emphasizing a discipline-based, rather than tool-based approach to professional development. Discipline-based skill building means seeking a thorough understanding of key concepts and methodologies rather than specific technology tools necessary to do your job: Be a network architect, not an NT network architect.

The corporate trend to find the right tool for the right job, rather than depending on one platform as the solution, will likely continue; recruiting will reflect this trend. If you think about the underlying why of what you are doing rather than the step-by-step how, you will be best positioned to learn the next technology du jour.

Demand for Windows NT developers, network administrators, and support professionals has steadily grown during the past year, creating unprecedented numbers of job opportunities for those with the right skills

"Many shops use Novell, OS/2, UNIX, and NT solutions," maintains Skrentny, "and those professionals with skills on each platform command more interest from my clients than those with only one skill set on one platform. My recommendation to any NT professionals, obviously, is to make sure they are experts in NT, yet be aware of how other solutions can be integrated into NT environments."

Forecasting technology job-market trends is a risky business. Five years ago, predicting the current popularity of NT would have been nearly impossible. Little evidence today indicates that you can focus on one right technology that will make career planning a breeze. Current recruiting trends show that NT and its successors will have a prominent place in the corporate technology toolbox for years to come.

Building your hands-on experience around NT and focusing on a conceptual understanding of how to use it is a good formula for success--in the near term. Remember, however, that the only thing constant in information technology is change, and flexibility is perhaps the single best predictor of your long-term career success.