Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

Major career moves, bad career moves, contracting, and certification

This month, answers to the questions: How do I make a career change? How do I broaden my knowledge range? And how much is certification worth?

December  1997
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Read how one brave soul plans a drastic career change and learn the pros and cons of contracting in the computer industry. Also, find out how to broaden your skill set. Finally, we ponder the value of corporate certification and the possibility of listing a firing on your resume. (1,900 words)

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How much is certification worth?

Dear Edgar,

I have worked in home interiors (floor and wall covering) for 20 years and decided to make a career change. I've found I have an innate talent for learning computers/systems, and after much research, decided to pursue my MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer). I am hoping that when I pass my certification exams I can find my first position. However, I'm concerned because so many of these jobs require a degree in computer science or experience in other systems such as Unix. Do you think an MCSE will be enough to start my career as an NT administrator?

Fast Learner

Dear Fast Learner,

Although this is a smart start -- especially considering the radical change you're orchestrating -- be aware that, ultimately, the most important thing to get your career in computers moving is practical experience. The MCSE on your wall won't make you a shoo-in for a high-level position. This kind of training is, in and of itself, not a ticket to a top job. But if you want to be an NT administrator, it is a clear step in the right direction. It's also a good way to get something computer related on your resume.

The MCSE may be enough to get you an entry-level job in this industry. Will it be enough to help you get a job as an NT administrator? Probably not. This is a highly competitive market, and most of the people you will be going up against are skilled engineers with years of practical experience. With this piece of paper you may be able to find a position as an operator, working with an NT administrator. Your next step will be to learn from the people that you work with and attempt to bridge the gap. If you have the aptitude and drive, this is a very attainable goal.

Don't forget to use classes as a people resource. Meet your fellow students and talk to them about where they are and how they got there. You have a long road ahead of you, and you have a lot of catching up to do. But it's an exciting industry, and if you're up for the learning, it should be an exciting trip (and a lot easier on your knees).


Switch to contracting


I am a sysadmin with a large consulting firm. I make a reasonable salary and enjoy my work. However, I work alongside several contractors who have the same responsibilities as I do, but earn much more. I am interested in moving into contracting. (I am single and don't need the extra security of a salaried position.) How do I get started? Who would I contact? Also, I need to do this discreetly, so that my managers don't know I am looking around.

Looking for contracts

Dear Looking,

The market is currently booming, and there is a real demand for skilled engineers. Going into contracting can indeed be a lucrative career move. Just be sure that you take a step back and look first at your career as a whole. Contractors are hired to do specific work that they know, for the most part, how to do well. I often warn people against this move if their skill level is lacking somewhere, as it will be difficult to round out your skills once you've made the move. Also, if you ever want to get back to the full-time market, it can be difficult -- particularly when times are lean.

Once you decide the time is right, begin feeling out the market by talking to friends in the industry. Find out if their companies hire contractors. Find out if they've ever done contracting and if so, ask them what it entails. (There are extra concerns with regards to the handling of taxes and paying your own medical insurance.) A good source of information can be a recruiter -- for both information on contracting and specific job leads. Just be sure to stipulate that you are only to be contacted at home or via private e-mail.

The right technologies

Dear Edgar,

I am currently employed as a Q/A manager in a company that provides software for casinos. We work on the IBM AS/400 platform. Although I enjoy my job immensely, I feel the need to improve my skills in a broader area.

I have seen quite a few positions posted for Q/A engineers requiring experience with automating testing tools and other programs that I am not familiar with.

I would like to remain in the quality assurance field, but all of my experience revolves around the AS/400. Can you offer any suggestions for classes that would fit me into the "mainstream" competitive market?


Dear Competitive,

Although the AS/400 is still pretty widely used, it's not a particularly adaptive skill. It's a proprietary technology and, more and more, the AS/400 is becoming a niche market. Most of the companies running this platform are not involved in leading edge technologies for just this reason. In terms of finding work, some niche markets are very successful and will continue to be for some time. But you seem to realize that it's in your best interest to break out into the more open standards that are currently -- and for the foreseeable future -- dominating the market.

The computing industry is dominated by client/server technologies. We're seeing Unix or NT on the back end, with desktops running Windows.

The phenomenon of the Internet (which is also based on Unix and open standards) is incredibly hot and will only continue to pick up speed. Find out the names of some of the more important programs and automated test tools for these platforms. For specifics, I recommend that you read trade magazines or look on the 'Net for leading companies that are developing client/server applications in the Q/A field. Most of them are sure to have Web pages as well as certification programs. Or better yet, find yourself a job within a company that uses the AS/400 and is moving to client/server technologies.

Important papers?


I do not have a college degree, but am amassing a rather long list of corporate certifications. These include Sun, Microsoft, Oracle and others. My tenure in this industry is only about three years old so I can back up these certifications with a marginal amount of real world experience. How valuable are these pieces of paper outside of the U.S.? What about in the U.S.?


Dear Certified,

Think of the degree hanging on your doctor's wall; she needs it to practice medicine, and you may be impressed by the credentials, but only until she begins her work. When she starts to ask questions and run tests you'll really begin to assess her competence and know-how.

Certificates are often invaluable for getting you in the door. Both in the U.S. and abroad many hiring managers like to see that you have training in the specific technologies that you're using. All the same, be aware that you will always have to back up those little pieces of paper with real world experience.


Dear Edgar,

After working five years as a Unix sysadmin in San Jose I decided to accept a position with a county government as a microcomputer tech. I know this was a devaluation of my skill set, but I made the switch to be closer to my family. Eight weeks later, I was sacked. The only reason given was that it wasn't a good fit.

Without going into greater details, I was wondering how I should reflect this unfortunate circumstance on my resume? I don't want to mention it because I worked there for only a brief period of time.

I've never been sacked before, and I am feeling less than worthy at the moment.


Dear Sacked,

One can't knock the fact that you want to spend more time with your family. We all want that. But you also have to think about your career. It is simply not wise to take a job that is a step down. Every job should be a strategic step in a larger plan that aspires to greater learning, achievement, and success. Taking a job that is below your skill-level can only be characterized as career suicide.

You say that you do not really know why you were fired. I can't really conjecture on that, though it seems clear that you were not a good match in the new position. You knew you could handle the work. But without the prospect of learning new things and moving up, I can't imagine how you stayed motivated. It's important never to underestimate a job. If the people around you were not overqualified for their positions, and were working hard to advance their careers, they might have found reason to question your motives. At the end of the day, if you really have no idea why you were sacked, call your former manager and ask him flat out.

If you feel that you have a strong technical background, a viable option might be to look into contracting work. There are some good engineers out there who manage to find themselves profitable, part-time work -- leaving time to pursue other meaningful goals.

This would require marketing yourself as a consultant. Realize, also, that the consulting lifestyle is generally not very conducive to growing and learning in new technologies. For such jobs, you will be brought in to do a specific task and will generally be paid good money for particular skills that you already possess. It's not an advisable route for everyone, but it's far better than droning away at something far below you.

Whether or not to mention this brief episode in your resume is a tricky call. My general advice is to always play it straight. But if you do decide to leave it off of your resume, be prepared to account for that time.

Don't let this blip in your career shake your confidence. It was clearly a poor decision to take this job in the first place. Consider your termination a blessing in disguise. Time to move forward.


About the author
[Edgar Saadi's photo] Edgar Saadi is senior vice president for Pencom Systems Inc., the largest open systems/advanced systems recruiting firm in the U.S. He specializes in guiding advanced systems careers and helping employees explore all staffing alternatives. Reach Edgar at

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