On The Job: From Paper To Pro

On The Job: From Paper To Pro


September 18, 2000

Deb Shinder

You poured through thick books and obscure articles. You devoured Help files for breakfast, memorized TechNet, and downloaded half the Internet to prepare for those excruciating certification exams. You spent your hard-earned dollars on study guides and practice tests, stayed up late nights studying and worrying over whether you were really ready. You finally bit the bullet and sat yourself down at that Sylvan or Vue testing center and subjected yourself to screen after screen of tricky, complex scenario questions that left you mentally wrung out by the time you reached the end and saw - to your delight - the famous green bar indicating you passed!

Congratulations. It's official. You're an MCP or MCSE or CCNA or CNE or A+ or Net+ or - well, anyway, you have something to show for all your effort: a nice piece of paper to frame and hang on the wall. But that's only the first step.

Being certified is good. Being hired is better.

Presumably, your pursuit of the former was intended to expedite the latter. Assuming that's true for you, how do you parlay your certification into a job?

There is a great deal of talk in the IT industry (little of it good) about so-called "paper" certs. The business is full of tales about the MCSE who doesn't know how to save a file to floppy, the CCNA who has never touched a router, the CNA who read a book on NetWare and passed the exams without ever seeing a Novell server. Human resources people at tech companies shake their heads and laugh over all the certified newbies who come in expecting to land their dream jobs the day after they pass the last exam. "He/she's just paper" has become a familiar derision applied to someone who has the "book learning" but no experience.

In this article, we'll discuss the hard truth - and the myths - about the "paper certification" phenomenon, and how you can overcome it and move from the "paper" category to the "pro" category, in a few easy steps.

We'll take into consideration the following:

  • Almost everyone starts out as "paper"

  • Is your certification worth the paper it's written on?

  • How to build and maintain a professional image

  • Summary: you've got the paper to prove it

Deb Shinder

Almost Everyone Starts Out as "Paper"

Some regard "book learning" with such distain you would think no professional ever needed to, or should, consult a printed reference. It's important to remember that most occupations require a mastery of two very different components: knowledge and skill. The first can be obtained from books; the second comes only with "doing."

Doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers - all professional education models start with theory and then move into the skills area. Physicians in training cannot be put into a clinical setting before they've acquired the knowledge to interpret what they see there. Attorneys-to-be cannot be thrown into the courtroom and expected to represent a client before they've studied legal concepts and cases.

In most fields, you must get the "paper" (diploma or degree) before you're allowed to practice in the field. IT in some ways is unusual in that it's still possible to learn on the job, and acquire the "paper" later. However, this doesn't mean it's the only - or even best - way to do it.

When IT pros talk about "paper certifications," the term doesn't mean the same to everyone. Some use it to refer to a newbie who has studied in the classroom or on his own, passed the exams, but has had no hands-on experience with the product. Others use it to describe anyone who obtains a cert without having held a paying job in the tech industry. Still others define it more narrowly, applying it only to those who obtained their certifications by "cramming and dumping" (memorizing answers to test questions from "exam cram" guides, "cheat sheets," certain practice tests and so-called "brain dumps" - all of which attempt to find out the exact questions and answers on the certification exams and provide these for "study" (sort of like back in high school when someone stole a copy of the final and passed it around before test day; you know, what we used to call "cheating").

The first and second meanings above should not be considered derogatory. They merely describe a person who is still in the early stages of their IT training. The third definition definitely is considered a "slam." That's the kind of "paper MCSE" that you definitely don't want to be - and the kind no employer wants to hire.

Deb Shinder

Is Your Certification Worth the Paper it's Printed On?

The third type of "paper professional" is to blame for the devaluation of many IT certifications. At one time, hiring authorities were impressed with the MCSE. It was a difficult certification to obtain, and few people possessed it. If you had it, you were presumed to have a higher-than-average grasp of Microsoft networking technologies, and capable of walking in and going to work competently administering an NT-based network.

Today, many employers still desire certified employees - but the piece of paper is no longer enough to prove that you know your stuff. Now along with the certifications, companies want to see documentation that you've had experience in working with networks in the real world. You can thank "Mr./Ms. Paper" for that.

As brain dumps and cheat sheets became widely available, and "boot camps" sprang up that purport to teach everything you need to know to be an MCSE in two easy weeks, more and more people passed the exams without ever really learning about the product. Employers got burned when they hired MCSEs, expecting a high level of IT knowledge and skill, and discovered their new "network administrators" had never formatted a hard disk.

The piece of paper that was once worth so much lost its allure when it could no longer be counted upon as a measure of a person's ability to do the job. Microsoft and other vendors (Novell experienced the same problems with their CNA/CNE program, and Cisco's CCNA has fallen prey to the same phenomenon) have taken steps to tighten exam security, make questions more difficult to memorize through the use of scenarios and simulations, rotate new questions into the pool more frequently, and otherwise bring the value of certification back up.

The vendors can't do it alone. It's up to each of us as certified professionals to protect the value of our certifications by complying with the Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) when we take an exam, by refusing to support the "dump and cram" model of "training," and by supporting the vendors' efforts even though it may make it more difficult for us to obtain and maintain our own certifications.

Deb Shinder

Building and Maintaining a Professional Image

What, besides experience, distinguishes a "professional" from a "paper" certification? One of the most important factors is the image you project. I have taught many MCSE classes and have seen many students venture out into the IT workplace. The piece of paper they have is the same - but there are some glaring differences between those who succeed in quickly getting a job and getting subsequent promotions, and those who don't.

Most of it boils down to the image you project to a potential employer. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you come across as someone who is easy to get along with, or do others see you as whining, demanding, and/or self-absorbed?

  • Do you focus in job interviews on what you can do for the company, or is every question you ask concerned with how the company will benefit you?

  • Do you project a professional image?

What are the elements of a professional image, you ask? Interestingly, it's often the little things that count, that brand you as a pro - or not. Just a few things that I, as a hiring authority, see as important in a candidate I'm considering for a position include:

  • Your Language and Demeanor

  • Your Professional Presentation

  • Deb Shinder

    Your Language and Demeanor

    Language and demeanor: you may be the whiz-bang tech genius of the century, but if you don't represent yourself, by your language and demeanor, as a professional, you'll damage your chances of being hired. This means:

    • Avoid slang and of course, profanity. Yes, "those words" are commonplace in the workplace, on television and practically everywhere you go these days - but a job interview is not the place for them.

    • Don't be irritating. This includes all complaining and whining, whether about your former employer, the job market, the weather, or anything else. It includes going into much more detail than necessary about your personal life and especially your personal problems. Employers want to hire people who are pleasant. This is a job interview - not a therapy session. Irritating behavior also includes "nagging" the interviewer for a decision at the end of the interview.

    • Spelling and grammar count in written communications. That includes e-mail. Of course, your ability to spell has little to do with how technically competent you are. However, it says a lot about how careful or careless you are. With the spell-checkers that are built into most email clients and word processors today, there is no excuse for misspelling words. The fact is, if you send a message, letter or risumi full of misspelled words and incoherent sentences, the impression the reader will get is that you're dumb - even if your IQ is at the top of the scale.

    • Deb Shinder

      Your Professional Presentation

      Professional presentation: this includes the manner in which you present yourself, whether in person, online, over the phone, or on paper. Those "little extras" are what make you stand out and get the (positive) attention of the hiring authority. For example:

      • If sending printed material, use a high quality paper stock. What does that have to do with your qualifications to do the job? Nothing. Again, it shows that you care. Caring is something employers look for in potential employees.

      • Make sure your answering machine greeting is professional. More than once, I've heard of an employer calling a candidate back for a job interview, only to be put off by an offensive "humorous" message on the machine. When you're in the job market, you must present a professional image on all fronts if you want to increase your chances of being hired.

      • Ask yourself what image is projected by your email address? Like it or not, an AOL address, to many IT professionals, screams "obnoxious know-nothing." This may not be fair, but it's the way it is. There are legitimate reasons for using AOL's service (for instance, if you live in an area where there are no local ISPs). However, there are numerous free email redirector services that will provide you with a "better" address and redirect the mail sent to that address to your AOL mailbox. It goes without saying that you should not select one of the remailers that uses "cutesy" domain names, such as blinddrunk.com or psychofreak.net. Also, consider not just the domain name but the user name you've chosen for your email account. Does hotchick@mailserver.com or bigstud@ mailserver.net really project the image you want out there when you're looking for a job?

      • Another "little thing" that can make a positive or negative impression is the way you choose to sign your name. I know you're proud of all those hard-earned certifications - and you have the right to be. But please, please, please, don't include them all in your signature. "Joe Blow, A+, Net+, MCP, MCP+I, MCSE, MCSE+I, MCT, CNA, CNE, CCNA, CCNP, CCIE ad naseum" just reeks of "paper." It's like the new rookie cop who plasters "Police R Us" bumper stickers all over his car and flashes his badge everywhere he goes. Simply, it's bad taste. Put all those nice certs on your risumi, but for your sig line, choose one or at the most two that are most relevant to the position(s) for which you're applying.

      • Pay close attention to the "photographic evidence." If you enclose a picture with your risumi or on your job-related website, make it a photo that shows you in a professional pose and dress. Although some men make the mistake of using a snapshot taken when they were wearing a Budweiser tee shirt and baseball cap, this is an area where women more often violate the "unwritten rules." Glamour photos are popular and nice for the ego, but heavy makeup, fluffed up hair and low-cut ballgowns are not appropriate dress for a job interview, and they're not appropriate for a risumi photo, either (unless you're applying for a very different kind of job).

      • Deb Shinder

        Summary: You've Got the Paper to Prove It

        You may rebel at the thought that you have to "play the game" to get the job of your dreams. You may wonder why you can't just bounce into the interview in cut-off jeans and a tank top, plop down and impress the interviewer with your brilliance, knowledge and skills. Maybe you can. Stranger things have happened.

        But most employers do care about the image you project, and it's always better to err on the side of too professional than to appear to be not professional enough, if you want to convince a stranger that you've got more going for you than just a few pieces of paper.

        Deb Shinder is an MCSE, certified trainer, and networking careers instructor and consultant. She and her husband, Dr. Thomas Shinder, operate their own business and have published numerous computer-related books and articles. Deb also worked for several years as a personnel director for a municipal government, and has participated on many hiring/interview boards and search committees. She has helped a great many MCSE candidates get the piece of paper, and watched them grow into true professionals.