Yashvendra Singh
Regional Executive Editor for India and Southeast Asia.

3 certification tips for IT leaders looking to get ahead

Jun 17, 2022

CIOs share key best practices for IT leaders looking to level up with a mix of technical and business credentials aimed at growing their CIO role.

certificate / gold seal certification
Credit: DNY59 / Getty Images

With the technology landscape in constant flux, getting certified on the latest tools and techniques can be a valuable way to advance your career — even for IT leaders.

Typically, CIOs consider certifications as a means for training up IT staff on vital skills around key initiatives such as cybersecurity, data analytics, AI, or the cloud. But certificates, even technical ones, can be an important part of any IT leader’s career journey, giving them hands-on experience, strategic insights into emerging technologies and methodologies, and the possibility to grow their peer network.

Saurabh Chandra, managing director at Boston Consulting Group, says, “Enterprises today demand customized solutions to meet their specific business needs. However, most CIOs have failed to keep pace with fast-changing technology. As a result, they procure solutions off-the-shelf rather than developing them in-house. This leads to IT not seamlessly aligning with business.”

Functions such as sales and marketing have all undergone a significant change, as has the technology needed for them to perform optimally. For instance, a lot of IT leaders don’t know that data today has three streams — sciences, visualization, and engineering.

“CIOs won’t get this knowledge from their peers. Certifications is a way through which CIOs can stay abreast with the latest,” Chandra says.

If leveraged properly, certifications can also assist IT decision-makers in their key leadership responsibilities. For example, Puneesh Lamba, CIO of Shahi Exports, an apparel manufacturing company, acknowledges that “certifications have helped him perform better in board meetings, thereby making it easier to get approvals on IT spending.”

“Typically, CIOs from large technology companies have strong IT skills but poor communications skills, while it’s just the opposite for CIOs in customer facing B2C companies. These technology leaders need to get certified in areas that they lack. While CIOs push their team to get certified, they need to come out of their comfort zones and follow suit,” says Chandra.

But the benefits of certifications won’t accrue automatically. IT leaders seeking to advance their skills and careers need to build a strategy aimed at squeezing the maximum value out of what certifications can offer.

Here, four CIOs share their experiences in pursuing certifications and offer advice on how to make the most of these valuable career advancement tools as an IT leader.

Create a personal learning plan

With IT pros increasingly pursuing certifications in a wide range of trending technologies such as AI and the cloud, it’s tough for an IT leader not to just go with the flow and seek out the latest hot credentials. But going with the flow is exactly what Lamba of Shahi Exports cautions against.

“Every CIO should create his or her individual learning path. Instead of joining the rat race, he or she should come up with a personalized list of certifications to complete over the next 18 months. The courses should be shortlisted, keeping in mind both the individual’s interest and the organization’s need,” he says.

Lamba has charted out such a certification plan for himself. “I am passionate about AI and data science, and have systematically acquired certifications in these areas,” says Lamba, who is set to pursue his third certification in data science.

And, given the value of your time as an IT leader, it is important to ensure the certifications on your short list are truly valuable, says Sunil Mehta, president and systems director for South Asia and Southeast Asia at advertising agency WPP.

“There are certifications, and then there are certifications that matter. Getting certified after attending one to two hours of a local online course doesn’t add true value,” Mehta says.

Instead, Mehta advises taking structured courses from recognized sources, such as top universities.

“While hiring, companies often shortlist candidates with certifications from renowned colleges and universities. Some specifically ask for certain globally recognized certifications. A CIO’s chances of moving up the value chain increase if he has such certifications under his belt,” Mehta says.

Mehta earned a Certified Information Security Auditor certification in 2002 when, he says, “there were only 1,600 such certified professionals globally.” In addition to the CISA, he has an ISO 27001 Lead Auditor certification and is currently enrolled in a Certified Information Security Manager course — all best-of-breed and globally accepted certifications.

Put your knowledge to the test

As is true for any IT pro, it’s vital for IT leaders to apply their newfound knowledge practically, or else the certification will end up being just a piece of paper.

Sourabh Chatterjee, president and head of technology, digital sales, and travel at Bajaj Allianz General Insurance, says, “At the end of the day, it is the content, faculty, and case studies of a course that cumulatively open the mind. Without implementing the knowledge thus acquired, a certification will only serve the purpose of self-gratification.”

Chatterjee, who has an executive MBA from INSEAD, has found an innovative way to apply this knowledge: He gets involved in projects, though not as a manager. “I take hands-on responsibility of a particular aspect of a project. It could be coding, designing, process flow, testing, or architecture. This not only helps me to put into practice what I learned in a certification course but also enables me to stay relevant by getting insights into crucial aspects of a project such as human behavior, technology, content, and motivation,” he says.

Similarly, Shahi Exports’ Lamba applied the lessons from his AI certification course to make a significant impact on production. In one of his earlier organizations, Lamba found a high rejection rate for a mid-product, which was moving ahead in the assembly line and impacting overall production.

“I had come to know about the disruptive power of AI through a certification course that I undertook from MIT Sloan School of Management. By implementing it, we were able to bring down the rejection rate from 6.2% to a mere 0.8%. This is also the best way a CIO can get the top management to sit up and take notice,” he says.

Move toward becoming a ‘business CIO’

Of course, IT leaders should focus not just on technical certifications but also on those that can enhance their roles as business strategists.

With technology so vital to every facet of the business today, CIOs need to think strategically in helping tackle the challenges confronting business units across the organization. This is where management development programs from reputable institutions can play an important role.

To strike a balance in his learning plan, Lamba keeps a 50:50 mix between hardcore technology certifications and those that hone his business skills. “For every AI and data science certification, I also undertake a business certification that helps in enhancing my behavioral and influencing skills, enables me to build a business case for technology, and aids me in transforming the IT department,” he says.

IT leaders should also consider broadening their knowledge of the industry in which they work, says Mayank Bhargava, chief technology and data officer at Pramerica Life Insurance.

Taking courses regularly in a particular industry domain can “lend an edge to a CIO,” Bhargava says. “If I have to remain in the insurance industry, I have to continuously build on my knowledge base.” This approach is similar to what several regulated or licensed professions require of their practitioners to ensure their skills remain current.

Bhargava has a Life Office Management Association (LOMA) certification, which provides information on insurance operations and products. To gain better understanding of how pricing and valuation work, he is planning to do a course in actuarial science soon.

“Completing LOMA certification and becoming a Fellow, Life Management Institute [FLMI] put me in the league of limited insurance professionals who had a global accepted certification for life insurance domain. This made me a preferred choice as a knowledgeable domain expert for my employer’s international life insurance clients, and brought better opportunities for growth, career enhancement, and further learning,” Bhargava adds.