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IT career training, experience can help you shine in salary talks

For those looking to advance, the best IT jobs require the right experience, along with a healthy dose of salesmanship.

IT pros who are looking to push their careers -- and salaries -- to the next level must sell more than their IT training and certifications. They must also market their experience and be prepared to demonstrate how their performance can help a business.

"I always coach people to be as specific as they possibly can be," said John Estes, vice president of Robert Half Technology, an IT recruiting firm. "If you have anything that has impacted expenses, revenue, or increasing customer service or satisfaction, that's what people are looking for."

That means the success of an IT professional is tied to the success they bring to the company, which can sometimes be a tough calculation to show, he said.

"I get, 'John, I'm a network admin, I don't impact the bottom line.' But every job has metrics and standards," he said. "For a help desk, you have specifics in the number of calls you take a day, number of problems you solve, your resolution rate. Be as specific as you can be."

The focus on past results, Estes said, was one of the biggest changes he had seen in IT hiring practices in the past two decades, and it came partially as a result of greater accountability in the post-dot-com-bubble world.

"In the late nineties, it was all about technology infrastructure -- build a better mousetrap," he said. "Now it's all about business outcomes."

That focus has hurt the value of many common certifications. According to a quarterly survey released this month by Foote Partners, IT certifications across the board lost 2.5% of their market value over the past six months.

Some certifications, however, have weathered the storm: Security-related certifications climbed marginally (0.4%) over the past months, with some specific certifications faring quite well and other niche opportunities opening.

"There's a mounting body of evidence that specific kinds of information security certifications, for example, are required to get work for the Department of Defense or even DoD contractors," said Ed Tittel, a training and certification expert and author.

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Tittel recently blogged about the Department of Defense's Directive 8570, and the opportunity it gives IT professionals to boost their career options.

"Even though [a security certification] might take a year to earn … it could provide handsome dividends," Tittel said. "On the other hand, things like virtualization -- I'm not even aware of that many certifications in that area."

Another skill that might not come as naturally to IT professionals, but could prove equally or more valuable than certifications, is communicating the value of what they do at their current position, and making a business case for themselves.

"Certification doesn't take the place of experience or, now, accomplishments," Estes said. "It used to be enough to have three years of Java or .NET. Now, it's what applications have you built and how has that impacted the return on investment?"

Estes offered some specific guidance for professionals seeking to maximize their salary:

  • Make known your metrics: Boil your work down, at some level, to hard numbers that can prove your value. "If this person is fielding 50 calls a day and the average call volume is 30 calls a day," Estes said, "then you've got the case that you're doing a lot more work."
  • Know when to negotiate: Those metrics not looking too pretty? Try setting yourself up for future success by building benchmarks. "If it's the other way around, you might want to go to your boss and say, what type of performance level would it take for me to achieve this goal, or another goal, and then it's a two-way conversation and not someone coming in and demanding an increase," Estes said.
  • Specify the soft skills: "One major trend we've seen in the past few years is it's not just about tech skills," Estes said. "More and more companies are interested in people with interpersonal skills, business skills." That includes working well with others, multitasking and project leadership.

    "Now, you have to have the complete package," Estes said. "We're not saying you have to have an MBA or be a project manager, but think like one."

Tittel said that IT pros should never forget to think about job satisfaction while building and advancing their careers.

"You've got to run a career for years," he said. "Too many people are looking for what's going to get them the most money. … Being interested in what you're doing means a lot more for a much longer time than salary."

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