Most valuable certifications for infrastructure pros

If your quest is to earn the most money, focus on the most valuable certifications and training possible. Experts share tips on how to do that.

Certifications have always been important career accelerators for IT pros. They still are. But these days it can be tough to figure out which certifications and training will net you the biggest paycheck. That is partly because changes in data center infrastructure happen almost continuously now, making it hard to predict what skills are needed next. 

It's also a function of employer mindsets that appear to change on a whim and a dime. To get that employers are often clueless one only need look at job boards—where jobs often require more years of work experience with a particular tech than the tech has been in existence. 

Moreover, many employers suffer from vendor lock-in and persist in chasing that vendor’s certifications in applicant resumes. "Vendor-driven certifications, like Cisco ACI, Juniper, etc., seem to be the focus of mid- and small-scale customers [of those vendors] and companies too afraid to do anything else," says Russ White, a member of the architecture team at LinkedIn. He’s also the author of several books, the latest being The Art of Network Architecture: Business-Driven Design, published by Cisco Press.

The three kinds of data centers

Three data center categories are currently shaping the skill-set market, according to White:

  1. Vendor-driven
  2. Software-defined
  3. Disaggregated

The last category means different things at different companies. For Microsoft, it means using vendor equipment, but with open standards architectures. For LinkedIn, it means using white-box hardware and open source software. For Google and Facebook, it means using white box with in-house sheet metal and in-house software. 

White says software-defined data centers are a relatively small market, driven by vendors like Big Switch Networks. The more interesting developments are in the disaggregated category, particularly in white-box scenarios.

 "White box with open source, such as we have at LinkedIn, is an immature market but starting to get organized," White explains. "It's something I'm working actively to build. White box with in-house sheet metal and in-house software is like what Google and Facebook are kind of doing, but they're not as much in this camp as they'd like you to believe."

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What this means for IT certifications

Given these trends, what certifications do IT staffers need to win more pay? Keep in mind that vendor certifications tend to limit you to jobs with those vendors' customers. That said, here are some certification plays you should consider

"I would argue for a CCIE, JCNIE, the VMware expert line of certifications, and, without a doubt, what I consider the broadest certification out there right now on the network engineering side: the CCDE/CCAr," says White.

"The CCDE covers much more than data center, of course; it's design across the entire network. The CCIE/JCNIE are going to be hardware vendor-focused, while the VMware stuff is going to be NSX-focused."

What certifications are on White's "don’t bother" list? "The ACI/Cisco-specific market is not growing, and the Juniper DC market is something they're really just starting to think about," he says.

In terms of software-defined data center certifications, White recommends looking into offerings from the Open Networking Foundation. And for disaggregated data center certifications, he points to certifications in the security (CISSP), privacy (IAAP), and Unix spaces, along with route/switch certifications like JCNIE, CCIE, and CCDE. 

 "I would say some combination of CISSP/IAAP plus CCDE plus some sort of Unix certification are the most viable set right at the moment, though different folks look for different things," he says. "Google doesn't like certifications at all, for instance, and most hyperscalers don't really pay attention to them on your resume."

 And, yes, college degrees are good too. In many cases, a degree is valued because it proves you have the technical chops to learn more. In other areas, notably data science and analytics, the degree fills a specific business need.

In-demand IT skills and pay trends

So how do certifications impact pay? "There is really a lot of churn in the skills markets," says David Foote, a tech industry analyst specializing in global tech workforce trends. 

Some of this churn is specific to local areas. For example, Foote says Charlotte, N.C., "was considered quite sluggish in the way of data centers until Microsoft, Google, and Amazon moved there and spiked talent competition."

Companies that were already in the area tended to lock pay in set ranges or bands, which made it difficult to retain or attract talent. "The way around that was to offer a 'skills premium' or retention bonuses outside of base pay so that talent could earn the same or more than they could at the big companies moving into town," says Foote.

Although that sounds clear cut, data center skills can be hard to quantify because they cover a wide range of technologies, from mainframes to blade servers and multiple solutions. Foote Partners' IT Skills and Certifications Pay Index sheds some light on pay trends as they relate to skill demands. The index is a survey of premium pay and market demand forecasting for more than 814 technology skills and certifications. The firm has continuously tracked and reported quarterly market values since 1999. 

Extra pay for certified and noncertified IT and business skills—referred to as skills pay premiums—rose 1.8 percent overall in 2016. Of that, 417 certified skills gained 2.6 percent in market value, while 476 noncertified skills gained 1.2 percent. In the last three months of 2016, 100 certified and noncertified tech-related skills gained market value while 92 lost value, yielding a relatively high volatility index of 22 percent.

Here are five data center certifications that gained 10 percent or more in market value in the last three months of 2016, listed in descending order:

  1.  Architecture, project management, and process certifications – Certified in the Governance of Enterprise IT (CGEIT)
  2.  Database certifications – Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate: SQL Server 2012
  3.  IT security certifications – CSSLP, CCSE, ECSA, GCIH, GISP, and GSNA
  4.  Networking and communications certifications – CWNA and JNCIA
  5.  System admin certifications – CCA, HP/MASE (all), LPIC (Level 3), Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert: Business Intelligence, RHCA, Red Hat Certified System Administrator in Red Hat OpenStack, RHCSA, VCAP, and VCP 4/5/6

"Despite renewed interest in certified skills, employers are willing to pay 20 percent more on average for a single hot noncertified tech skill compared to a certification," the report notes. “And that’s for 476 noncertified skills compared to only 417 certifications.”

In descending order, here are the hottest noncertified data center skills (those that gained 10 percent or more in market value in the last three months of 2016):

  1. Database skills – OpenEdge ABL (Progress 4GL), Oracle Applications Server, Oracle DB 9i/10g/11i/12c, and Sqoop
  2. Management, process, and methodology skills – Marketo, Microsoft SQL Server Analysis Services, QlikView, and Quantitative Analysis/Regression Analysis
  3. Operating systems and systems software skills – Linux, MacOS X, Unix (all), Windows Server 2012/2008
  4. Systems and networking skills – Ansible, Apache Flume, Cisco IPCC, Cisco Nexus, Cisco UCCX, Citrix XenApp, Citrix XenServer, IaaS, intrusion prevention and detection systems, Juniper, Microsoft Application Virtualization (AppV), and Rackspace Cloud. 

Data architecture, data governance, prescriptive analytics, and The Open Group Architecture Framework (TOGAF), an enterprise architecture standards attempt, are the highest paying noncertified IT skills, followed closely by big data analytics, complex event processing and event correlation, cybersecurity, risk analytics and assessment, and security architecture and models.

"There are nearly 900 skills that employers find worthy of extra pay," the report notes. "For many of these skills, either certifications don’t exist or the ones that do exist are perceived as too easy to attain or not valuable unless the person also has considerable on-the-job experience."

Keywords still play a central role in sorting job applicants, and certifications play nicely with that trend. However, keywords are less crucial to advancement on the job. Thus, IT staffers have more latitude in choosing which degrees and certifications to pursue. Start by taking a look at what skills your employer rewards with premiums or bonuses. Also study job listings on job boards to see which certifications are most often requested, preferred, or required in positions you would like to apply for or hold. 

Last but not least, the most valuable certifications are peer-reviewed tests that are available only to proven professionals such as the VMware Certified Design Expert 5 – Data Center Virtualization (VCDX5-DCV) certification. Find a mentor or colleague who can help you score the necessary qualifications.

A less costly and potentially more certain path to a bigger paycheck is to acquire noncertified hot skills too, and beef up your soft people skills. The ideal is a well-rounded resume that balances experience and training along with hard, soft, certified, and demonstrable noncertifiable skills.

Top IT certifications: Lessons for leaders

  • Legacy certifications do retain value, especially for employers with large single-vendor installations (such as Cisco networking products).
  • Some of the biggest pay gains come from noncertified skills such as Linux, which can bring anywhere from a 7 to 12 percent pay increase (10 percent on average).
  • The biggest paycheck comes from hands-on experience combined with in-demand skills.

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