Experience, Certifications, or Degrees – What Matters Most? Part 1

Are you looking to break into a career in Information Technology or Cybersecurity?  I have been working as an instructor in this field for several years, and I have trained many people, and helped them study for professional certifications so they could do just that.

There is a huge demand for IT and cybersecurity workers, and many job openings go unfilled for long periods of time.  But getting in the door for your first IT job is not a slam dunk.  There are three factors that matter to employers:  experience, certifications, and degrees.

I do not have a college degree myself, and I have not found that the lack of one was an impediment to enjoying a long, successful career in information technology and cybersecurity.  I made it work without a degree.  I will admit that I am not a big fan of college or degrees.  There is way too much pressure from parents and high school counselors pushing kids into college.  Many of the college bound are not really ready to make good decisions about their college education.  Many would be better served at a technical school, getting prepared to work in the building or other skilled professions, where there is a huge supply of available high paid jobs.  For students looking for an IT job would find a tech school has more appropriate training and hands on skills building.

Additionally, college has become ridiculously expensive, and in my experience most colleges do a poor job preparing students for a career in IT.  Nevertheless, if you do it correctly, college can lead to an IT job.  Just expect it to be an entry level job at the help desk, desk-side support, or the hardware repair depot.  Based on the two interviews I share below, as well as my own personal experience, you can expect your search for a first IT job will take six months or longer.  You just have to keep at it, and most importantly, do something to get that all important experience.  We will discuss this later in the series.

I met a student a few years ago, and he was pursuing a Master’s degree in Cybersecurity , after completing two years of course work in Computer Science.  This young man really impressed me.  He did a lot of professional networking, which is how I met him.  He was a leader of the college IT club.  He seemed like a man going places.

I followed up with him recently to get his input for this article, and was happy to see he had a great job in a large IT department with a major corporate employer.  I asked him if he thought college was worth it, and this was his response:

“I don’t think there is a silver bullet when it comes to IT education, but I happen to believe that a university-level education is preferable in general. I advise students to focus on learning as much as they can outside of class and to network in the industry. Certifications are good as well as they build a baseline of theoretical knowledge. A lot of the benefits of a bachelor’s or master’s degree are realized later in someone’s career, especially if those more abstract benefits of a college education are put into practice on the organizational level in addition to the technical aspects.”

He shared with me the difficultly he had getting his first job, even with the experience of an internship and a significant certification.  For him it was worth it.  But he was actively pursuing this goal from high school on, and did a lot of extra work to prepare for his career.  I will discuss some of these important activities later in this article.

Another student I know personally is Michael Schroeder. He worked for me as an intern and support technician while in high school, and recently graduated with a BS in Computer Science from a college in Wisconsin.  Based on his interests and direction of his IT career path, I recommended a tech school, but there was an expectation for him to graduate from college.  He has recently found his first IT job in the repair depot of a major IT retailer.  I asked him to share his experiences for this article in an email interview.  This is what he had to say

Bob – Tell me about your college experience, and how it may have helped, or maybe didn’t help you find your first IT job.

Michael – “To comment on my college experience I’ll write kind of a list and try to put in as much as I can.”

Bob – What helped:

Michael – “I would say college helped me learn how to better interact with different kinds of people and how to be better in a social setting. It also helped me learn how to learn by myself and do things on my own due to professors not being of much help. (Your best friend in college is Google) I would also say that college helped me learn time management and how to set goals and get projects done. Lastly college taught me how to put up with some of the less favorable things you will find out in the work world such as unrealistic expectations and co workers who don’t exactly do their job well or at all.”

Bob – What didn’t help:

Michael – “As far as what college didn’t help with. I would say college did not teach me any skills that relate to IT or cybersecurity. I have learned more in one month at [my new employer] than I learned in 5 years at [college]. Also one of my main gripes with college is that half of my college career was spent like most people’s taking general education classes that are basically repeats of what you took in high school. So I would consider that time that could have been better spent teaching me more things in my field.

Then when I did take classes for my computer science major a good portion of them were spent coding in Java and for the most part the rest of the classes were a bunch of math that I most likely with never use and more coding of random stuff. There were almost no hands on classes for working with computers or networks. We had one networking class that taught us some of the basics but as far as hands on classes go that was the only one. So yes I learned quite a bit in college but the large majority of it was coding and how to write good code. I guess college thinks if your getting a computer science degree your automatically going to be a coder.”

Bob – What were the deciding factors that got you hired?

Michael – “What did not get me hired was my college degree at least not for this job. My college degree didn’t hurt but I’m pretty sure it didn’t help that much. The things that got me hired were my experience building computers and also the work I did with you as well as some of the other IT related stuff I have done.”

Bob – What other IT jobs have you had since college?

Michael – “This would be my first IT job since graduating college. I had done some odd jobs here and there like going to peoples houses to install stuff or transfer data but as far as a real 40 hour a week kind of job Micro Center is my first. Lots of time after graduating from college was spent applying and getting rejected.”

Bob – Did your experience working for WyzGuys help at all?

Michael – “Yes my working with you was one of the things that helped the most. It taught me quite a few things as far as actual technical knowledge and it also looks really good on my resume. My boss asked me quite a bit about what I did with you over that summer and I think was quite impressed that I worked for someone who owns his own company.”

Bob – Did you pursue any certifications, or are you planning to do so?

Michael – “I have not yet but I plan on getting my A+ as well as my Apple certification soon. In fact as part of getting hired at [my new employer] I have to get my A+ within my first 3 months of working there. After applying around and going through quite a few interviews I would say having some certifications is really important if you want to do anything in the IT field. They are probably more important than a college degree at least when you are starting your IT career.”

In our next two articles, I will be exploring and expanding on this subject, and suggesting a road map that I think will get you the best of all possible results for the long-term health of your cybersecurity career.

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About the Author:

I am a cybersecurity and IT instructor, cybersecurity analyst, pen-tester, trainer, and speaker. I am an owner of the WyzCo Group Inc. In addition to consulting on security products and services, I also conduct security audits, compliance audits, vulnerability assessments and penetration tests. I also teach Cybersecurity Awareness Training classes. I work as an information technology and cybersecurity instructor for several training and certification organizations. I have worked in corporate, military, government, and workforce development training environments I am a frequent speaker at professional conferences such as the Minnesota Bloggers Conference, Secure360 Security Conference in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, the (ISC)2 World Congress 2016, and the ISSA International Conference 2017, and many local community organizations, including Chambers of Commerce, SCORE, and several school districts. I have been blogging on cybersecurity since 2006 at http://wyzguyscybersecurity.com

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