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IT Certifications: What's Right for Me?


February 28, 2003

The IT certification market is an ever-growing industry. It may seem to you that every time you turn around another vendor or organization has another certification that is available. The "alphabet soup" one can put behind their name is undoubtedly a growing phenomenon that can pose a confusing, time consuming, and expensive trail of decisions and hard work. You may be reading this article as a seasoned veteran of information technology or a person interested in joining this dynamic career field. Yet, people from both spectrums of the IT field may well have the same questions and concerns when it comes to the different certification tracks available and which direction they should take. Questions can range from whether or not to certify at all to if you do decide to certify yourself, which way should you go? Also, you must decide how will you fund this venture, choose between multiple resources that are available for study, and assess what kind of time commitments are you looking at in order to achieve your certification goals.

Why do certifications exist? One might think that they exist solely for vendors and organizations to get more money out of those who are interested in their products. Even though the training and certification market is a very profitable venture for many companies, certifications also exist as a measurement of learning and understanding of a product or technology. This bodes well for groups like Microsoft, Cisco, or Novell in that as they offer education and certifications for their products and technologies, they are guaranteeing themselves an educated work force that can implement and support their products and, quite possibly, a loyal following of their products. As people study and pass difficult exams, a sense of accomplishment and well being toward a group's technologies and products often develops. Ask anyone who has accomplished an MCSD, CCNA, or even passed their first MCP exam on a Microsoft operating system. Often you will find a knowledgeable person who is excited about the technologies they just spent many hours studying in preparation for tense examination periods.

Motivations for Pursuing Certifications

Now that you have seen some reasons for the existence of certification programs, why would anyone want to spend those many study hours and experience those tense examination periods? I touched on one reason above, and that is the sense of accomplishment one gets after successfully passing an exam or completing a full certification course. But, what was it that excited the person to start the course toward certification in the first place? Let's take a look at some of the motivations that lead people into IT certification tracks. Quite possibly some of these reasons match what you are experiencing as well.

Let's first look at some motivations and questions that may rise from someone new to the IT field who wants to successfully pass some certifications in order to build an IT career. Some come to the IT field because of a natural curiosity for computers and technology. Maybe you are a person who is working in an entirely different field, but you have an affection for computing and technology, and you have decided to pursue this as a career. Quite possibly you are a person who is working in a low-paying or unsatisfactory job, who wants more for yourself, and the IT field is the route you are considering. If you are a person in a situation similar to these, what avenues of certification should you follow?

First, honestly assess what areas of IT that may interest you. Talk to some people in the field and find out what their jobs entail. Would the responsibilities they take on each day be of interest to you? Would you see yourself in a programmer's position, Web development, computer repair and support, or maybe networking technologies? Answering these questions honestly and with thought will help you choose the correct path of certification. If you look to work in computer support and/or networking, you will be a good candidate for the CompTIA A+ and Network+ exams, as well as Microsoft's MCSE, MCSA, and MCP tracks. If this is the IT area you are most interested in, you may also someday look to pursue certifications in Novell, Linux, Security, and Cisco technologies. If Web development is an area you might be interested in, take a look at the Macromedia and Java certification lines. Finally, if programming is your favorite area, you might consider looking into the Microsoft MCSD and MCAD certifications or the Java lines of certification as well. We will take a look at some of these certifications more specifically in later articles, but maybe this can help you gather some direction and develop some questions that you can ask yourself before choosing the path you take.

Possibly you are reading this article as a person who is currently working in the IT field. What are some possible motivations that may drive you to pursue certifications? Not everyone in the IT field is certified in an area, while others have many certifications, but certifying yourself is a means of professional growth. This is a strong motivator for those who are committed IT professionals. You may be a computer support specialist, but you are pursuing Microsoft MCSE or Novell CNE status to grow into a network engineer or administrator position. A second reason you may pursue a certification track is to move into another field of IT different from the one you are currently in. For example, maybe you are a network administrator who has found that you really want to study programming and move into software development. Others may pursue certifications required by a consulting contract possibility. A contract that requires a certified MCDBA to be on the contract staff will certainly have the contracting person or company getting someone MCDBA certified quickly. Finally, you possibly do not want to leave the IT field you are in, but you notice that your peers who are certified make more money than you do. As cited in the Exam Cram 2 book IT Certification Success" by Ed Tittel and Kim Lindros, on average certified individuals can earn from 10 to 25% more in salary than their peers. In the end, staying current with new technologies and skills and passing certifications that test on these technologies and skills will keep you more marketable for open positions and advancement opportunities, especially in harder economic times like now.

Time and Funding Considerations

Whether you are new to IT or you have been in the field for some time, you need to be aware of time commitments and funding issues related to pursuing certification. Before jumping into study for one exam or for a full certification course, such as the MCSE, be sure you understand the time you will need for study and exam preparation. This amount of time will vary among people and among the types of certifications you will pursue. For instance, to gain a MCP certification from Microsoft you only need to pass one exam where completing the entire MCSE certification you must pass seven exams. Also, you may require more time to study and prepare if you are relatively new to IT versus a certification candidate who is a seasoned IT professional who has IT fundamentals well understood.

The second item you must strongly plan for and consider is the funding of the certification program you are pursuing. Depending on the method of study you choose to follow, you could be looking at a cost of several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars invested. If you choose to attend classes at training centers specializing in IT training, you will face prices of approximately $800 to $2,500 dollars per class for instructor-led training. This instructor-led training can easily total approximately $5,000 to $10,000 (or more) for larger certifications, like the MCSE. Some training companies can beat the higher prices by offering blended learning solutions that use computer based training (CBT), Web based training (WBT), and possibly some instructor led training. If you choose to follow the path of using study guides, you can reduce costs significantly. However, you will not have access to trainers who can answer questions or a community of peers found within a classroom setting. The exams you take also cost money. Exam prices can range from $125 to as high as $450 depending on the exam you take. Be sure to check the Web sites for VUE Testing or Sylvan Prometric to stay current on exam prices for the test or tests you are looking to take. Sometimes the exam's vendor or supporting organization can give you specific exam prices as well.

To obtain funding, some training centers and technical colleges have financing possibilities set up within their organizations. Others have working relationships with financial institutions, such as Sallie Mae, to help you fund your training. You may also work for a group that will fund your training or offer tuition reimbursement assistance for training as well. There certainly are ways to fund your training ventures, so be sure to check all avenues to find the method that helps keep your costs to a minimum.

Best Practices for Study and Testing

As you deliberate the many considerations of your certification venture, be sure to seriously consider how you learn best. As you just learned, training and exams can be very expensive. So, be sure you don't pay for a lot of training only to find out that you don't learn as well in a classroom setting primarily made of lecture and labs. Do you prefer to learn by doing? You would be considered a kinesthetic learner, and computer based labs and training might be good for you along with instructor-led training with lots of labs. Are you an auditory learner who prefers to hear material as the best way to learn? You might work best in an instructor-led class. Maybe you learn visually. Books, labs, and instructor-led training may all fit your tastes. Lastly, don't forget to look for online communities and support groups designed for the certification you are pursuing. These can be handy outlets for questions and support in times you need answers.

If cost is a major concern for your training, find the most economic way to learn but tailor your experiences to best fit your needs. For example, you may only be able to afford books and practice exam software for study. If you are an auditory learner, find a quite place and read aloud to yourself. If you are kinesthetic, try to get trial versions of the software you are testing on or sample pieces of the hardware you are studying that you can manipulate and work with as you read. If you are a visual learner, make graphs, charts, outlines, etc. of the material you are reading.

Above you have been introduced to study resources such as instructor-led training, CBT and WBT, as well as study books. One resource you will want to absolutely find and use is a practice exam engine. You will want to find some practice exam software that will challenge your knowledge and help acclimate you to a testing environment. Many use test engines from PrepLogic, Transcender, and from other smaller test engine creators. Make sure the questions are challenging, that you are provided plenty of feedback for incorrect answers, and that you get a breakdown of the areas you are strong and weak in. Once you are able to pass practice exams with regularity, you can be confident that you are most likely ready to tackle the real exam.

When you are ready to take the exams you have long studied for, you will need to call an exam center to setup a time to go in and take the exam. Typically, IT certifications are offered through VUE Testing Centers and/or Sylvan Prometric Testing Centers. Contact one of these testing companies to set a place and time to take your exam. Typically, you need to sign up at least one day in advanced; I recommend more time if possible. Also, be sure to find out about any cancellation policies from these groups in case you need to cancel your exam. Once you have signed up for an exam, you will have selected a place near you to take the exam. Show up on the day of the exam at least 15 minutes ahead of time so you can gather your thoughts, use the facilities, and prepare your mind for the exam. You will be led to the exam room and, in many cases, the only items you will be allowed to have in the exam room are a writing utensil and a blank sheet of paper. Most exams are heavily monitored either by camera or an exam proctor. If you have further questions about the exam environment, I suggest you call the test center you will be attending and ask further questions or ask for a tour if possible. The more comfortable you are with the environment you will be testing in, the better you will concentrate during the exam.

Finding Work after the Exam

As you consider a certification track, you will want to be sure the skills you obtain are marketable. You certainly do not want to invest a lot of time and money in a certification to only find that the demand for a person with your skills is minimal. First, do plenty of homework as to what IT employers need. Check job placement Web sites, such as monster.com and dice.com, to see what jobs are available. Do this over a period of time also. Checking the sites only once or twice before embarking on your certification course will not give you a good representation of market trends.

Also, do not underestimate the value of hands-on experience. Many employers, especially in an economy where people with IT skills and certifications are out of work, require hands-on experience along with a certification. Increasingly, many certifications are seen a baseline knowledge level required to even get into an area of IT. If you are new to IT, one way of supplementing your certification studies is to take on entry-level IT jobs to gain experience. Others have taken on volunteer positions in IT departments while working toward a certification. It is vital to be able to show perspective employers that you can perform successfully many of the tasks you are learning in a certification program.

Lastly, be realistic with salary and placement expectations as well. Many enter a certification program with the idea that getting a certification will give them a high paying job with lots of prestige and responsibility. This is a fallacy that many need to watch out for. Yes, some certifications will get you into a nice salary bracket and a position of great respect. These positions, like in any other field, are hard to get, and you often have to "pay your dues" before getting them. It is more important to enter your certification program knowing this is a field you want to pursue as a career because you like it rather than jumping into a certification program on long-shot hopes of attaining a huge salary.

Final Thoughts

As an employee for Que Certification Publishing, I am very close to this exciting, yet intense, field of certification. I recommend finding an IT field you can be happy with for a long time. After all, this is a career decision, and you want to be happy in your career. Check out the Web sites for some of the most popular certification tracks to learn more. Microsoft, Cisco, Java, Oracle, and CompTIA offer some of the most highly sought-after certifications. See what the requirements are and see if these groups offer you a career that you can be happy with. Check out some of the available study guides at your local bookstore to gather an idea of how in-depth the knowledge required to pass a certification is.

If you are considering certification and would like more general information, I recommend buying a copy of our Exam Cram 2 book IT Certification Success" by Ed Tittel and Kim Lindros. This book will cover specific exam lines in more depth.

Finally, tune in the coming months for more articles on the some of the specific certification programs you can pursue!

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