In the IT profession, keeping your skills sharp and up to date is part of the job. Technology moves fast, and if techs become complacent, they risk obsolescence themselves. This makes upskilling is a high priority item for many IT pros.
Upskilling, which refers to undertaking processes involved in training and professional development, takes on various forms. Companies may hire external consultants to upskill inhouse staff whenever new technology solutions are deployed. Sometimes, in a similar scenario, companies instead encourage staff to upskill outside of work.
Both cases present advancement opportunities for IT pros. Regardless of whether the upskilling is sponsored by the company, tech professionals would be ill-advised not to pursue available avenues for skill-building. Doing so only adds value—whether that is recognized by the present company, or realized when a higher-paying job is taken down the road.
IT certifications build skills, credibility, and value
Certifications are the gold standard used by recruiters and hiring managers when looking for qualified candidates. Not only does certification help technologists get hired, companies tend to recognize their value. Certification holders earn 7.6 percent more according to Foote Partners, an IT analyst firm.
A company looking to improve talent retention for its IT staff might cover employee costs for gaining tech certificates. A 2018 report by Dice and the Linux Foundation found that around 55 percent of employers are willing to pay for certifications, a number steadily increasing year over year.
Recent graduates commonly start by earning broad category IT certifications. CompTIA offers several entry-level certificates that each provide a foundation in one of pillar categories of IT.
- CompTIA IT Fundamentals (ITF+) is a 101-level course for anyone new to the profession;
- Comp TIA A+ is designed for someone to get started in help desk support or field service;
- CompTIA Network+ covers concepts related to office networking and IT infrastructure; it’s generally recommended for someone already working in IT.
- CompTIA Security+ is the first step for technologists in any category that wants to branch out into cybersecurity specialization.
- Vendor specific training programs and certifications offered by major brands in business system infrastructure (Microsoft, Cisco, Linux, et al) are also useful to have early in a career.
Taking a targeted approach to advanced certification
Career development for IT professionals tends to progress along a specific track. Each track has its own levels of responsibility and skills requirement. Generally speaking, professionals start in one board area of expertise—networking, helpdesk or systems administration, software development, or cybersecurity—and progress within that track.
As an example, entry level networking technologists typically start as a network analyst. Duties consist of creating hardware and software configurations that improve performance and functionality of the office computer network. Analysts identify problems, test and troubleshoot, recommend solutions, and maintain standards and documentation. The prevalent certification is the Cisco Certified Network Associate, or CCNA, widely considered the first foundational step someone can take in a networking-focused career path.
The logical next step career-wise would be a network engineer, which builds on the background of an analyst. Engineers build solutions and may lead a team of analysts to help maintain them. Most engineers began as analysts; many larger companies groom analysts for eventual engineering roles. Learning complementary skills like scripting languages like Ruby, Python, and Perl adds immediate value to the work a network engineer does.
Each IT career track has its own set of certifications and adjacent skills. Typical arcs almost always involve moving from a generalist role into more something more specialized. IT pros while in an entry level role tend to identify what they are passionate about, or where the business need is, and pursue the certifications needed to specialize and advance.
Mentoring programs are a popular way for companies to develop and retain talent in-house. Traditional top-down mentorship involves pairing junior techs with senior counterparts. There are other interesting and nuanced approaches to mentorship as well.
Cross-functional mentorship involves pairing a technologist with someone from a different part of the company. That might entail working with someone in business administration or finance to gain a broader perspective about how the business operates. They might also benefit from mentoring with someone in a customer-facing part of the business, like marketing or customer support.
Mentorship programs can be formal or informal in how a company implements it. The benefits of an informal mentorship means that it happens organically where mentor/mentee relationships stem from a mutual chemistry. More formal programs where the relationship is mandated may lack that important component and fall flat as a result.
Learning from consultants
Any time a company adds new technology to its stack, bringing in an IT consultant to handle migration and setup is usually advisable. This presents an opportune time to upskill—especially if it’s going to be a long-term ongoing project or a project that requires specialized knowledge. It’s not uncommon for in-house IT to train under a consultant before taking over the day-to-day administration of the new equipment.
Add a training component to the standard of work agreement doesn’t always make sense. Projects like installing new storage infrastructure that is done once every five years, for example. There is no need to mire in-house staff in best practices for systems they aren’t touching on a day to day, or week to week basis.
In most cases, allowing in-house teams to shadow consultants installing new systems is a good use of time. Inhouse teams learn about the technology is being implemented and how it can be supported later down the road. It’s a win for the company, and appealing for IT pros looking to upskill.
Microlearning reinforces training programs
A recent trend in learning and development, microlearning programs deliver critical information in short, snackable nuggets of information. The idea is that workers typically have around one percent of their overall workday to dedicate to skills development. Microlearning programs deliver educational content inside an application or web browser, and lessons usually take 15 minutes or less. Employees complete the programming gradually and progression is tracked in the application.
Companies might employ microlearning solutions to reinforce formal training. Programs are designed for consumption on a mobile device, so that lessons and supplementary content are readily accessible whenever it is needed. Many include social sharing components, so knowledgeable team members can readily document and catalog training notes and resources. A gamification component allows management to incentivize progressing through the program with rewards and recognition.