IT certifications: Popular and valuable but not for everyone

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James Sutton (CC0)

In today’s IT profession, how important are certifications? Do you need them to do your job, stay relevant, or receive a promotion? Or is on-the-job training enough?

Some IT professionals get certifications because they are required, some get them for monetary reasons, and some get them for their own personal growth. At work, it’s a big topic of discussion. Here’s my experience and what I decided.

When I began my IT career as a network engineer, I was unfamiliar with certifications, but getting the CompTIA Security+ certification was a requirement for my job because of the sensitivity of my work. By getting the certification I would know more about securing networks and keeping them secure. I had to try three times before passing the exam because I had to learn how to take the test, not because I hadn’t mastered the material. That taught me to stay relaxed and reread the questions during the exam, and it taught me that persistence pays off.  Obtaining the Security+ certification gave me a level of confidence that I could obtain more certifications, so I decided to try for the CompTIA Network+ certification to increase my knowledge base about networking.

Going into my studies for that certification I felt intimidated. The material included mastering subnetting, and around the office water cooler subnetting was talked about as challenging and something to be avoided if possible. As I studied, though, a light-bulb came on; subnetting clicked for me. I got it. I could do this. When I passed the Network+ certification on my first attempt, my confidence level grew even more.

At work, I’d been studying at my desk during every spare moment. Seeing that, and seeing that it had paid off with success, motivated my colleagues to renew their certifications or to obtain new ones. This was good for my workplace because we were all gaining more technical knowledge. Plus, my managers noticed me applying the knowledge I had gained and gave me a raise.

I work in a Cisco shop, and after obtaining the two CompTIA certifications, I was convinced that becoming a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) would be beneficial, so I went for it. While studying, I found that most of the knowledge I had already gained studying for the two CompTIA certifications was part of what I needed to know for the CCNA. When I passed on the first attempt, I was ecstatic. In the profession, the CCNA gets a lot of respect, and obtaining it was my “I’m here now” moment as an IT professional. I was recognized in my workplace for my hard work with another raise. 

That was in 2019. I was planning to try for the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP), but I heard that Cisco was in the process of revising its certification program, so I decided to wait until the changes were finalized. Then COVID-19 happened. I took a study break to figure out what certification I wanted to obtain next and decided to go for the CompTIA Cloud+ certification. I choose it because organizations and companies are using cloud computing for storage, servers, software, and networking.  People were still working remotely, and most testing facilities were closed, so I had to take the exam at home. I had trouble with that unfamiliar test format, and I did not pass the exam.  I have not retaken the CompTIA Cloud+ exam and instead am studying for the AWS Cloud Practitioner certification. Once I obtain it, I will go for the CCNP Data Center certification. 

There are many valuable lessons to learn when studying for and taking IT certification exams. You will have high days and low days, but the key is to remain constant and persistent. Don’t quit. Keep studying and learn the test strategy as well as the technology. Reach out for help. I corresponded with Todd Lammle, the author of the study guides I used, and he was receptive. He was the one who gave me the heads up about Cisco changing its certs and advised me to wait to obtain my CCNP.

Remember, certifications make you more valuable. You will learn technical skills that might not be needed every day, but when they are, you will be the go-to guy. And, as I’ve noted, I received two raises directly related to my certifications. 

Studying for a cert is hard work and challenging to do when you already have a full-time job. When I decide to go for a certification, I schedule the exam in advance and set a study goal for myself. I study during downtime at the office. I study in the evenings and on weekends in the library and at Barnes & Noble. It’s important to put in the time.

Some network engineers might think certifications are not a good idea and are a waste of time and money. They think that on-the-job training along with experience is the best teacher. And they are at least partially right. On-the-job training does provide knowledge and expertise. However, learning must be constant in the IT profession, and to stay relevant you have to continuously learn the newest technologies. IT certifications can help by providing a structure for learning and documenting your achievement.

Given the personal growth, confidence, monetary reward, and respect of peers, that certifications can give, they are the right path for me, and could be for you.

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