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I'm currently working in an IT position, where I do predominantly security related issues/consulting (In the loosest sense of the term) In-House and for Service-Contract clients (as the only/acting CCSP [I guess I should say only person with Cisco experience] in my organization). I've professionally written Kernel Mode drivers for a gaming company. Among other things that I'm proud to put on a resume. I think of myself as very reasonably qualified as a System Administrator, With excellent Cisco experience, among other things I think would make a good addition to almost any IT staff in need of a new employee.

However, Something has always tripped me up - Human Resources.

Let me explain,

I decided to skip the university route - I'm immensely glad that I did, The computer science graduates that I've met and work with rarely know much of anything about Computers (Until they gain some 'real' experience), Even when asked about Theoretical Computing fundamentals they can rattle something off about Turing Completeness but rarely do they understand the mathematical underpinnings. In short, I think instead of going to college, I'd rather pick up some real world experience.

However, Apparently, Employers rarely think the same way. A quick perusal of jobs through the standard job search engine yields nothing short of a conspiracy to exclude anyone without 'A Bachelors Degree in Computer Science or Equivalent'. Interviews I've had in the past have almost always been entangled with - 1. My Age (Which I can't really change) and 2. Lack of Degree. Employers frequently disregard the CCNA/CCSP, The experience I've gained through internships, My extensive experience in x86 assembly and C, among so many other things I like to think are valuable to employers - In lieu of the fact that I don't have a piece of paper.

So, AS AN EMPLOYER - Is it even worth working on my CCIE? Or should I pad my resume with certifications that are easier to acquire (Like CISSP, MSCE, Network+, etc.). Or should I ditch the whole idea and head back to get a Mathematics or CS degree?

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Curious, do you want to continue doing network and security work, or are you looking to do software development? –  paxos1977 Feb 12 '10 at 1:16
    
I like security in general. I've done Secure software development in the past and I like it, I've also done Quality Assurance on Software and enjoyed it. I've not done a great deal of Sysadminning but I've enjoyed what I've done. Cisco can be a little menial at times, but as a whole I wouldn't mind pursuing it as a career. –  anon Feb 12 '10 at 1:20
    
You mentioned your age as a possible problem, how old are you? –  Ward Feb 12 '10 at 2:01
    
@Ward - According to his profile he is 18 –  MDMarra Mar 13 '10 at 11:40
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Get a shave and a haircut... –  GregD Nov 19 '10 at 12:25
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9 Answers

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If there are two candidates that seem to be equally qualified, but one has a degree and the other doesn't... my money is on the guy with the degree.

What does a degree mean? It doesn't mean the candidate is smart. It doesn't mean the candidate has experience. There are two things a degree conveys: (1) the ability to learn and (2) the ability to finish something. Those are two important traits for employees to have.

Another reason I recommend a degree is that it will increase your earnings potential far more than a certificate will. Of course a CCIE is probably worth as much as a bachelors degree to a network consulting company.

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It's not either/or. For sysadmin work, the certifications are very valuable. But, for almost any job, so is a college education. I'm speaking as someone who didn't complete their AS until age 30, but already had my MCSE and CCA (Citrix), plus a few others.

A degree shouldn't always be as much of a 'required' item, but the facts are that for large corporations it often is. @Ceretullis has it right - it shows that you can accomplish something big and somewhat difficult.

I'm also going to be a little picky for a moment. This doesn't apply as much if English isn't your first language, but your writing needs work. That's one of the things that a college education will teach you - to communicate clearly and correctly. Your random capitalizations in your post do not do a good job of presenting you as a qualified or polished professional.

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The capitalization thing has been stuck with me since I first picked up using CamelCase, Unfortunately I've never been provoked into change, throughout highschool it never bothered any of my English teachers so I never changed it. –  zv_ Feb 12 '10 at 7:41
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@Zephyr Pellerin - That doesn't mean employers won't. If you have a resume or cover letter with incorrect spellings or grammar, you won't get a call for an interview from me. –  MDMarra Mar 13 '10 at 11:43
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Let me start by saying that I also didn't go to university and have seldom regretted it. The few certificates I have are merely to impress during an interview but I personally put no store in them. On the other hand, I have a fair bit of hard earned experience in a number of fields to my credit.

I'm going to be a little bit brutal because when I read your "question" I saw a lot of the arrogance that is normal for youth generally and of which I was undoubtedly also guilty at the same age. Incidentally, I was happy when my own kids reached their twenties, because all of a sudden I was no longer an idiot in their eyes.

Your "extensive experience" is not as extensive as you believe. You are only 18, a mere hatchling. The only generally accepted means of compensating for such youth and inexperience is with formal qualifications, be they from a tertiary institution of from industry sources. You don't have to like that, I certainly don't, but that's life.

I suggest you take whatever jobs you can get into for now and spend the next couple of years picking up those bits of paper you and I don't value much but which prospective employers do. Start with the easy to get ones, just to give you a start, and work up from there. You don't have to stop working to do that. You can study on your own and in your own time. Many certification exams do not require you to have taken formal classroom courses, although I believe Cisco are an exception.

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I've gotten my CCSP without a day in the classroom. You can do any cert without ever getting in a classroom, At least for Cisco. I didn't intend to come across as arrogant, I think I'm pretty objectively qualified for the average Junior Sysadmin job (Feel free to disagree), and indeed thats a component of what I do now. –  zv_ Feb 12 '10 at 16:03
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You can get by on either route. The certifications would be my choice in your position for the following reasons:

  • Less time to qualify. With a degree you're in for 3 or 4 years and a single qualification comes out at the end. Any number of factors could prevent you completing fully. Contrastingly, you can throw 3 to 6 month at a few Cisco, VMWare, MS or similar qualifications and walk away with 1 or 2 very real certifications.

  • Entering higher education as a mature students is more often much harder on your personal life and finances. On the positive side, you'll have a much better work ethic than 99% of the non-mature students by virtue of having spent more time in the 'real' work world.

  • Degree qualifications are rarely tailor-made to a very specific subset of computing and tend to act as indicators of general ability in the field, rather than expert status in any one particular area of it. So the ideal path is get degree -> get some experience -> get some certifications -> moving on up (yeah!).

I'm a graduate with no certs, someone I work with on the same level as contract engineers has certifications and no degree. He's very capable and (I hope) so am I... we both have similar mindsets despite having followed very different paths in education. It's quite telling though, that I feel I will need to start earning some solid certifications within the next 12 months, just as he feels he has to catch up with the latest certs and keep current.

As for the HR problem directly yes, they're often focused on the hard qualifications without any real understanding of what they mean. This tends to be more of a case in larger organisations where HR will process you without much regard for what you really do... it's a square-hole job position and the question is 'are you the right shape block?'. Smaller organisations are where you're more likely to get instant face-time with the IT management, who will be close enough to their own staff that they can competently talk shop.

Final thought: I don't mean to be negative, but the assertion that extensive kernel/C++ programming ability would make you a valuable asset for an IT Administration role doesn't really scan with me. I've experienced extremely skilled coders that would throw a wobbly if they had to answer a straightforward server 2008 troubleshooting helpdesk call, and I've seen very skilled 3rd level IT administrators that don't understand operator overloading. It's good to have knowledge of both areas, but they're different disciplines.

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I absolutely agree that many programmers aren't apt IT Admins, but I wasn't limiting this to an IT admin scope, I meant to be more broad. On the flipside, I don't think the idea that you can be a competent Sysadmin without programming experience is all there. Its impossible to affirmatively account for security flaws and 'hacking' technique without having a solid background in at least C - but thats the security bias coming through. –  zv_ Feb 12 '10 at 7:48
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My experience is in a medium-sized company (150 total staff, later grew to 300), being the senior sysadmin hiring other sysadmins for the team. Most of the times we hired, I looked at every resume myself.

For me, and for others involved in the hiring, a degree - or lack thereof - wasn't an issue. Our ads usually said degree, diploma or equivalent, and we certainly accepted equivalent experience. That said, a diploma from the local technical institute was usually a strong positive factor because they had good programs.

I think the thing that degrees or diplomas implies is a good breadth of knowledge. In a 2-year diploma program, you know the graduates will have covered a lot of ground. Cisco and other certifications are positive factors, but they don't typically represent as much training time.

I'm writing this before hearing how old you are. Youth, combined with lack of sysadmin experience could be an issue for me, and game programming experience wouldn't carry much weight to counter that.

If you do go back to school, I'd go for engineering rather than CompSci, but then I'm biased with an EE degree.

EDIT: Ok, you're 18. The concern I'd have (and I think most people would have) is that that's very young to have a thorough understanding of a field. To compete against people who have a degree or diploma, you'd have to show that you have a broad understanding of the field.

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I'd also be interested in hearing Zephyr's age if he thinks that is a factor. I'm 24 which I've been told is pretty young, but I think I have a good amount of experience. I had internships and part-time jobs doing programming and some sysadmin stuff throughout college, and I've been at my current full-time sysadmin job for almost 2 years where they have me largely responsible for all IT functions for a medium-size company. I've always been curious how my age would factor in to how valuable I would be. –  Paul Kroon Feb 12 '10 at 2:54
    
To be less vague, I've never coded games, I've done something you might call a rootkit. Perhaps the 'gaming' industry was a bit of a stretch when I said it. I should say real world trading industry, bots which aren't detected by PID scanning or memdumping+diff, DLL caching or the like. –  zv_ Feb 12 '10 at 7:39
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You mentioned that some people with degrees lack practical experience or even some of the fundamental science behind computer science. That is all too common with a degrees. Different universities, colleges and trade schools have different programs and focus on different things. Hopefully the core elements are present, though certainly tradeoffs must be made in order to give more practical vs. theoretical experience. I think you need to look closely at what schools actually offer as part of the program and see if it matches what you think you (or potential employers) might want.

Personally, a degree is generally worth it simply because it shows you are willing to jump through the hoops of life and proves you can complete a non-trivial task. I don't think it will be the slam-dunk resume builder, nor will not having one preclude your opportunities necessarily. I would say that all else being equal, a 4-year degree is much better than about any single certification.

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Well, I'm in a similar situation. I have also had a hard time trying to decide what to do. Recently, someone told me about something he calls The IT Triangle

The IT Triangle is made up of:

  • Formal Education
  • Certification
  • Experience

This brought a better understanding to me. Rather than looking at your career development like a this or that choice, look at it as a triangle of what you need to improve yourself. Each of the three elements of the triangle are important in their own right. Learning and acquiring any of these will improve your career. The bottom line, all of these will make you even more successful.

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Besides the stuff that have been mentioned by other commenters if you're going the degree route, you will also learn how to write research papers during the university years.

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Certification will always be valuable, so it is not a question of certifications OR academia. You may or may not choose academia, but the certifications should be your goal either way.

That said, your real questions is if a college degree will be of benefit to you now and in the future. I believe the answer is YES...but not this very minute.

College is expensive and consumes a lot of time. To attend full-time you will probably have to find a part-time gig, which may mean leaving your current position, and may also mean finding a new job with crappy pay in exchange for a flexible schedule. If you try to do college part time you could spend the better part of a decade finishing your undergrad. You will probably go into debt and in the end you will get a piece of paper that will only make you slightly more employable than you are now.

But, with that piece of paper you will find more doors open up in the long-term, you will make more money in the long-term, and you will have more respect at all levels in the business field in the long-term.

The really difficult part is the saturation of the college market at the moment. Because of the recession many, like you, have decided to go back to school. Simple supply and demand, there is more demand on the market for college degrees, so the suppliers have raised the prices. A 4-year program that cost $50,000 in 2005 now costs almost $100,000. Same piece of paper.

If you decide to go back to school, shop around, make sure institutions are accredited and if it's possible consider waiting a few years until the institutions are more reasonably priced.

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