IT networking certifications and career paths for aspiring professionals

Here you'll find network career training and Cisco certification guidance for the aspiring IT professional. Find a career path for you before and after earning your degree, with these expert responses.

Breaking into the IT networking field can be a daunting prospect for any aspiring professional. Whether you're just starting your education, choosing a certification path, or weighing the benefits of a networking career versus other IT options, our training and certification experts, Ed Tittel and David Minutella, show you the steps you can take to gain a foothold in the networking field. Learn from these expert responses what it takes to make the cut as a networking pro and how to choose your career path.

I would like to get my Bachelor of Science in information security systems. In the near future, I would like a networking security career. Do you think this is a good degree? Otherwise, what can I do to get into the security field?

Ed Tittel's response: If there are entry-level jobs in Infosec to be had -- and they do come up from time to time -- that's about all a Bachelor of Science in information security will get you, job-wise. But interestingly, there aren't as many entry-level Infosec positions as you might think. I'd urge you to also acquire a CISSP through their "Associate of CISSP" program, where you take and pass the exam sooner and become a "real CISSP" when you meet their combined education/experience requirements.

You should probably also be willing to work a while as a network administrator because most Infosec professionals come from these ranks, irrespective of degree, and because this is an arena where entry-level jobs are much more common. If you still have some flexibility in selecting coursework and curriculum, you might want to balance across these two areas in order to maximize your short-term, just-out-of-school job prospects, as well as your longer-term desire to toil in the Infosec fields.

I am getting my bachelor's in computer systems engineering, and I'm in my third year. I have taken courses like CCNA, CCNET, C++, Java, microprocessors, databases, systems programming, logic design, and computer architecture. I am not a good software programmer, so I am looking for a career path related to computers that is not software programming but will still pay well in the future. Which paths could I choose to pursue my further education?

Tittel's response: The best way to garner this kind of information is to look at IT salary surveys across a broad range of publications. If you were to do so, you'd see that numerous non-programming technical specialties in IT pay extremely well (but they also take years of experience, which you'll need to acquire on your way to such lofty compensation):

  1. Information security
  2. Networked storage technologies (NAS, SAN, etc.)
  3. Enterprise resource planning software (especially SAP)
  4. Network convergence technologies (voice, video, data and high-speed QoS infrastructures)

In short, there are many paths to a good career that don't involve programming. What you need to do is to find some topics where your interests and good opportunities coincide. You should probably be able to get some help from your college or university recruiting/placement office or staff in this regard as well, and you may also want to talk to some of your professors about this subject while you're at it.

I would just like to know why it is so hard for people just coming out of college with no IT experience to secure an IT position. Jobs always require six months to five years of experience. There is never something for new graduates!

Tittel's response: Primarily because available IT jobs come with so many requirements and such a mix of skills and assignments, companies tend to look for people with appreciable experience to fill such positions. Look for help desk or support tech jobs as stepping-stones into the IT area. By helping you acquire some or all of the experience and exposure necessary to switch to an IT position, they can prepare you to make that move when the opportunity presents, and you've got the right number of years in harness to meet their requirements.

That said, you can also look for entry-level IT positions, though they are pretty scarce and are more likely to come available in large metropolitan markets (NYC, LA, Chicago, DC, Houston, Dallas, etc.) than in Anytown, U.S.A. A "foot in the door" approach through help desk or support positions is your best way to move yourself toward an IT position. On the other hand, if returning to school for a master's degree is an option, that might help to open more doors for you when you return to the job market.

I would like to break into networking by taking the CCNA. I prefer hands-on training but wondered where I could gain this experience. I have no background knowledge.

Dave Minutella
David Minutella's response: Getting into the networking field is definitely an uphill battle from scratch, but it's not impossible by any means. However, with no networking experience, the CCNA may be a giant first step. You may want to consider taking an intermediate course such as CompTIA's Network+, which will discuss the networking fundamentals. Once you have that knowledge under your belt, you can tackle the CCNA. My other recommendation is to take some training with hands-on access to the equipment, such as the courses we offer at the Training Camp. There, you can even handle the equipment (some providers have only virtual access to the equipment). Finally, there are some excellent software simulators, such as Boson NetSim, to let you practice on configurations while you are preparing for (or after) the exam.

I'm doing my CCNA and hope to take the exam in the next couple of months. After that, I'm considering specializing in network security. Would you recommend that I get a CCSP or stick to CCNP?

Minutella's response: My answer depends on what type of Cisco equipment you are planning on working with in the future. Essentially, if you are planning on working on many of Cisco's security appliances such as PIX firewalls, Cisco VPN concentrators, Cisco IPS, or Cisco ASA devices, then the CCSP is definitely the track for you. However, if you are looking into understanding security implementations using only Cisco ASA devices or using the Cisco IOS firewall feature set on Cisco routers, then the new CCNP has an Implementing Secure Converged Wide Area Networks (ISCW) exam that covers these topics as well as configuring and troubleshooting site-to-site VPNs. Both are equally rewarding tracks and full of great information for the real world -- so good luck whichever endeavor you choose!

I am a recent graduate of information technology with a degree in data communications. I've been advised to select a path in networking, systems, database or programming. My questions are: How do I know what the correct path is in the field of IT? Can you be a system administrator and network administrator at the same time?

Minutella's response: Choosing your path is like choosing a major in college. Essentially, you have an idea of what you like and what you want to do, and you pursue it. Often, you realize that you may not like your initial choice and switch to another. In other words, pursue the field that appeals to you and your occupational and financial goals.

To answer your second question, the answer is unequivocally yes. This is truer today than ever because the lines between networks and systems are completely blurred. Both fields are essentially converged these days since both are ultimately dependent on each other. Thus, pursuing both is advantageous because you are exposing yourself to both of these fields and securing the vast amount of positions that entail system and networking knowledge.

This was first published in May 2009

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