IT Certifications and Mentorship: Keys to Career Success

An IT system support specialist in Alaska talks about how IT certifications and a strong mentoring relationship helped her design her career path.
Mariah Sexton sits in her office and talks about how IT certifications and mentoring have helped her advance her career

People who live in Alaska’s interior region call the rest of the United States “the outside,” a place for adventure and exploration. IT system support specialist Mariah Sexton is about to take a big leap from her small-town life in Fairbanks, Alaska, to the outside — an adventure made possible through on-the-job experience, top quality mentoring and challenging IT certifications.

Life as an IT System Support Specialist

Sexton started out in PC diagnostics and now, as an IT system support specialist spends most of her time on integration and domain administration for all the students, administrators and teachers in Alaska’s second-largest public school district.

The Fairbanks Northstar Borough School District has three different tech departments under one chief information officer:

  • Business information systems
  • Student information systems
  • Network and computer services

Sexton created a tech niche outside of these three departments as the sole technical specialist for the teaching and learning department. She likes to joke that she’s the middle bar of the Swiss flag, a bridge between the IT departments.

As a one-person operation, she gets her own office.

“I work in a converted custodial closet,” she said. “I call it my little bat cave.” As part of the negotiation for this role, she’s able to borrow people from the larger IT department for big projects, like audit remediation for the G Suite domain.

When the other departments are short-handed, she has the skills to step in, like the weeks-long coverage she offered when an IT pro was out on paternity leave.

“Our department is small enough that nobody gets their feelings hurt when I jump in,” she said.

How Mentoring Helped Mariah Find Her Way

Sexton earned her CompTIA A+ certification in July 2012, which connected her to the CompTIA Communities and a mentoring program for women. The value in Sexton’s mentoring relationship with Nellie Scott of SAS is clear.

“She didn’t have a lot of experience in the IT market, so we had to figure out how she was going to communicate an eagerness to learn and a passion for IT in a business setting, and in business terms,” Scott said when Sexton first started her IT journey.

Since then Scott has helped Sexton access a network of women, understand how to negotiate in challenging situations and build a job description that gave her room to grow.

When Sexton first applied for the Fairbanks Northstar Borough School District position, the job listing was extensive. It was also a union job, with no room for bargaining on pay. She reached out to Scott for help.

“We talked about how in the real world this job would be done by 2.5 maybe 3 people,” Sexton said. Scott suggested they rewrite the job description and bargain for a training budget. “I would build the job description and rewrite it into something I could do, and they would pay for technical training that I was interested in.”

Growth Through IT Certifications

Sexton said in Alaska the technology economy has different challenges compared to the Lower 48.

“It’s usually a workforce shortage, where tech companies can’t find enough people. In Alaska we have a whole bunch of university graduates and military transfers,” she said. “People are overqualified, but the jobs don’t match up with the population.”

To differentiate herself, she has earned IT certifications to build up her resume. In addition to CompTIA A+, Sexton holds CompTIA Security+ and Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). Next up, Sexton will sit for CompTIA Cybersecurity Analyst (CySA+). 

“I think IT certifications still have a pretty strong value,” she said. “There are people who say, ‘Oh, the people in HR don’t know what they’re doing so you have to have this piece of paper to be granted an interview,’ but I think people should look at it differently.”

Earning IT certifications is about more than resume building, she said.

“It’s a confidence boost when you realize that this has paid off, and even if you don’t know everything, you know a lot,” she said. “IT certifications are an opportunity to learn things you don’t know. I like to go down this rabbit hole when there are things I just don’t understand. I like to research and read and figure it out.”

Her Next Big Move

Sexton is looking for work in digital forensics and forensics investigations as a career field while eyeing Portland, Oregon, as a potential destination for her next big move. Seeing some tech pros pick up phones at thrift stores and pull off hidden data proved to be a digital forensics demonstration that inspired her to get into the field.

“It’s impressive what they can pull out of thin air,” she said. “There was all this information that people thought they had wiped off these phones. A horrifying amount of stuff. That was the start for me. I thought that was the neatest thing ever.”

Practically, she’s looking for work in a security operations center (SOC) and planning to specialize from there while taking a certified ethical hacking class to lay some tracks. Sexton is counting on her mentoring relationship with Scott to help her through the next step, too.

“One of the reasons I plan on sitting for CompTIA CySA+ is that it’s a lot more technically focused,” she said. “CISSP is more a mile wide and 2 inches deep. CompTIA Security+ and CompTIA CySA+ have a lot more technical depth in a narrower field.”

What’s your next move? Check out our new career roadmap for inspiration and how to get there.

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