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March 22, 2013

My decade in IT: Keys to advancing your career

By man jumping

Editor’s note: In this two-part series, IT pro Ashraf Al-Dabbas (VCP, ITIL® v3 Certified, 3X MCSE, MCITP) shares some of the key lessons he’s learned during his first 10 years working in the industry. Want to ask him a question to address on our blog? Submit yours by filling out the form here or emailing

Once you land your first IT job, proving yourself within the first months is extremely important. Organizations often hire people for a probation period to make sure that they are a good fit for the position and the organization’s culture. When you first start working at a company, it’s not only important to secure the job, but you almost must make sure to make a good lasting impression. Studies shows that the first six months are critical to your career path because by then management and colleagues believe they have a complete picture of who you are and your abilities.

Part of proving yourself is showing that you’re proactive in furthering your knowledge and gaining new experiences.

Stability is comfortable, but do not stand still for too long!

I made it a rule to change jobs (even internally) every two to three years to gain new skills and learn new experiences. My goals have shifted with time, but I have always sought after the most recent certificates in my desired field of work, even before my company started to think about migrating to the new technologies:

  • I had my CCVP when IP telephony was a new thing in my country (Jordan), which goit me some good offers as soon as organizations stared to adopt the technology.
  • To study for the CCVP I had to install some call manager servers, which initiated my interest in virtualization.
  • Having some virtualization knowledge opened a position for me as a systems admin, which has been a great jump from IT field engineer, and it got me involved in a data center consolidation project.
  • I had my VCP4 training as soon as VMware introduced the newest version at that time (it was actually the first vSphere 4.0 course to be taught in the region), which also got me some good offers.
  • I used TrainSignal’s videos to study for the upgrade to VCP5 as soon as it was available, which got me my current job.
  • In addition to other certificates I have, I have charter status in MCSA: Server 2012 and Both MCSE: Private Cloud and Server Infrastructure. So, finally after four years of running actively after certificates, I managed to get ahead.

If you stay in one place for too long doing the same thing, it will be like you are frozen in time. In most jobs, if you spend five years in the same position, you will not end up with five years of experience.  You will end up with the equivalent of one year repeated five times, and this is a dangerous situation for you to put yourself in.

Avoid the “Groundhog Day” position at all costs: If you cannot move to another position, try to change the position itself. After spending two years as a general system admin that was dealing with both IT infrastructure and applications support, I have managed to convince our director to split the team along those lines. This helped me focus my skills and opened up a new team leader position that I was chosen to fill.

Less than three years later, I decided to change my employer because I didn’t want to get stuck doing the same thing for two more years before a promotion or a major change was offered.

“Chances favors the prepared mind”

The main reason that I have my MBA today is that I was lucky enough to have decided to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, exam a few months earlier. My employer at the time offered a number of MBA scholarships that required passing the TOEFL or being a U.S. or UK graduate. I didn’t make it to the selectee list at first because I didn’t have five years of experience. However, five of the selectees were unable to pass the TOEFL, and there was not time to ask someone else who fulfilled all the other requirements to take it. Three of the five people chosen as replacements were U.S. graduates, the fourth studied in the UK, and I was the only person in 4,000 employees to have the TOEFL ready— just in case.

Point is, being proactive and thinking ahead to which certifications and exams are relevant to your career can only help you. Getting my MBA partially paid for was a great opportunity that I am glad I did not miss.

“Doctors have it easier than us”

In of one of his motivational speeches, an IT manager I had was talking about the need for continuous learning in IT and said doctors have it easier than us; knowledge about the basics of the human body stays the same, but in the IT industry, we have to keep reading, studying and learning each day to avoid being obsolete.

Vendors are pushing you very hard to stay up-to-date. Microsoft released Windows Server 2008 in 2008. Soon after, it released R2. And in 2012, it released Server 2012. In between, it updated Exchange and SharePoint to 2010 versions and now system admins have to learn the new Exchange 2013. Microsoft alone requires full-time study just to keep up, but there are other vendors that you probably have to deal with in your job, like VMware, which releases a complete upgrade to its product range every year. “What’s new” courses are becoming longer and richer with information.

Customers also force you to keep learning. For instance, BYOD forced me to deal with Windows 7 in an Active Directory environment earlier than I would have otherwise, and that made me upgrade an SMB domain controller ahead of schedule. Now they require AD integration with Apple Mac OSX, a task which I have offloaded to someone else, as I can no longer cope with requirements and developments on all fronts.

The importance of certificates

A lot has been written about the importance and value of IT certification. As everything else in IT, it depends, but in this case it depends on you.

I use certification exams as a way to learn a new technology. Preparing for an exam means that I hit the books cover to cover, visit every useful resource, and watch every video I can afford. More often than not, it involves doing my own lab testing. Each exam I passed built my confidence in my skills, and self-confidence is priceless.

I wear my certificates like badges of honors because I know that I worked hard for each one I got. This is the kind of confidence that helps secure your dream job in the interview. Your certificates may help you reach the interview, but your confidence and knowledge will land you the job. And remember that there’s nothing worse than claiming to know something on your resume and then failing to answer basic questions about it in the interview; this will raise doubts about the legitimacy of the rest of your listed experiences.

Certificate exams, brain dumps and exam questions are a long complex subject, which I plan to write a later article about. It will be focused on my recent experiences with Microsoft exams and what changes were made in their style, so stay tuned.

See part 1 about getting started in IT.

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About the Author

is vExpert, VCP, 3xMCSE, MCITP, CCNP, ITIL v3 Certified and an MBA holder. He has 10+ years of diverse experience working in a large organizations in systems infrastructure support, leading corporate wide IT initiatives, organizing and conduction projects and social activities. For Ashraf, IT is a passion not a profession. He is self-motivated, persistent and full of positive attitude. Exploring new technologies, learning new knowledge, visiting new places and meeting new people are the things that drive him forward. He likes to write, share ideas and interact with different people. As part of his upbringing in the Jubilee School for gifted students (Amman, Jordan), Ashraf learned to understand, accept then debate all points of view objectively and respectfully.