The school of life

Q: I have a CPA and an MBA in technology. After business school, I was recruited into an information leadership program at a very reputable company. At this stage in my career, I am looking to acquire some "techy" skills through online or short-term courses. What is the best way to acquire this knowledge?

A: I suggest four possibilities: First, check out Microsoft's certification courses. The value of that is twofold--it will enable you to acquire techy skills that are in demand, and this is a program that most companies will recognise.

Second, find out if you can take individual courses from the computer science curriculum at a good university or technical school. Some tech schools have certification programs in computer science that are six months to a year in duration. The Chubb Institute, for example, offers a well-recognized program with a dozen locations around the country. Getting an additional master's degree is another avenue, but that's time-consuming and may be similar to your MBA in technology. However, it may be worth looking into a master's degree in information management.

Third, talk to some of the most technically proficient IT managers in your company. They may have recommendations for courses, schools or seminars that they highly regard.

Finally, have a discussion with your boss about your interests. He may be able to guide you to people both inside and outside the company for advice. If your boss agrees that the company will benefit from your taking specific courses, you might get your additional education paid for and ultimately find that you are included in projects that support your interests. This could be a nice win-win.

--Beverly Lieberman, president of Halbrecht Lieberman Associates

Q: In 1997 I was asked to manage an accounting department with a $7 million budget. I now wear two hats--I am both the IS director and the accounting manager. I spend my time working on financial projection, budgeting, forecasting, and support for the accounting and billing staff. With the assistance of outside computer support, I also plan and implement technology solutions. I have a bachelor's degree in computer information systems and a Novell engineer certification. I am planning to go to graduate school. However, I do not know whether I should pursue an MBA in finance or an MBA with an emphasis on technology.

A: Your background is somewhat unusual in that you have more accounting and finance experience than the typical director of IT or CIO. I see that as a good thing considering those are skills that will remain relevant throughout your career. From the perspective of a recruiter and employer, an advanced degree is always positive when considering candidates. I am a big advocate of an advanced degree as it indicates a willingness to sacrifice, improve and achieve, and more often than not distinguishes you from the competition.

Ask yourself the following questions: What are my primary areas of professional interest? What position do I hope to achieve? If the CIO position is your goal, you should consider the MBA with the finance concentration as that will enhance your current knowledge of finance and provide additional exposure to manufacturing, marketing, economics and management. The MBA also provides broader appeal as you move forward in your career. If you are concerned about a lack of formal technical training or large project management, you can supplement your MBA with excellent seminars and courses offered by vendors and business schools. If your aspiration is to become a CTO, then you may want to place more emphasis on an IT curriculum within the MBA offering.

Whichever path you take, make sure you are shopping for the right school. All MBAs are not the same and there are significant differences in curriculum, content and professional staff at each school.

--Gerry McNamara, partner of Heidrick & Struggles

Q: I'm looking into obtaining a certificate for chief information officers sponsored by the US Federal CIO Council and administered by the General Services Administration. Does this certificate give me any competitive advantage, or is it just something that is nice to have? Are companies looking to hire people with this credential?

A: I have yet to have any client inquire about, and certainly never require or even prefer, that or any other CIO certification. Official recognition and certification of specific knowledge and particular skills are widespread among the hands-on technical ranks in the IT field--and in many other vocations that require detailed expertise. But the idea of certification for a corporate organizational level or title is an anathema as a measure of senior executive preparedness or accomplishment. There is no such credential program for any other C-level position, and I think certification undermines the perception of the CIO as a businessperson and reinforces the impression of the CIO as a technologist. However, if getting your ticket punched in this way is helpful to you in securing a federal position, then go for it. But I recommend that you omit the certification from the version of your résumé sent anywhere in the commercial sector.

--Mark Polansky, managing director and member of the advanced technology practice at Korn/Ferry International

Q: I have a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in journalism, both obtained in China. After I moved to California, I got a master's degree in computer resources and information management (a "technical MBA"). I took introductory courses in networking, database management, systems design, project management and IT strategic planning, along with marketing, accounting and business communication. I have seven years of experience in international trade in China, and two years of experience in telecommunication equipment sales and business development. I was recently laid off and might go back to school to attend a certificate program in e-business that covers supply chain management, Web development and marketing to payments. Is this worth it, or should I stick to job hunting?

A: Assuming that the e-business certification program you are contemplating has a compelling curriculum and quality teachers, why not attend and continue to keep your job search active? You haven't mentioned anything about the program's logistics such as duration and time commitment, full time versus part time, cost and so on. If you enroll and then choose to accept a great opportunity that comes along during the course of study, perhaps you can adjust your academic and vocational workloads to accommodate both. If that's not possible, go for the great offer. I would anticipate that the time and money you will have expended on the program to that point will not go to waste, even if you don't complete your certificate. At the end of the day, you will have wisely used your "downtime" to study and improve your knowledge of an important aspect of doing business in the 21st century, even if you don't get a piece of paper that says so.

--Mark Polansky, managing director and member of the advanced technology practice at Korn/Ferry International

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More about Chubb Security AustraliaCIO CouncilCPA AustraliaFederal CIO CouncilGeneral Services AdministrationHalbrecht Lieberman AssociatesHalbrecht Lieberman AssociatesKorn/FerryMicrosoftNovell

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