To certify or not to certify is a big question for anyone pursuing an I.T. career or trying to specialize in a given area. The process can seem intimidating to anyone who has not gone through it before so, as someone who has obtained certs in various subjects and helped others do so, I thought I’d offer some pointers here.
Is certification worth It?
Let me state one thing up front – simply having a certification will not get you a job in most places. It doesn’t hurt and it might get your resume an extra few seconds of attention or even an interview but not the job itself.
Interviewers and hiring managers are more interested in whether you actually know the material, can think through problems on the fly and present yourself well than what paper you have to your name. The term paper tiger actually refers to someone with a list of degrees and certifications but no ability to apply the knowledge. This is something that any smart hiring manager will recognize quickly.
So, why certify? My personal belief is that, if done correctly, certification is an effective way to obtain a structured base of knowledge in a given area. Certifications identify the essential points of knowledge that you need in a subject such as networking or security. Studying for the cert and ensuring your understanding of those points can provide you with a foundation upon which to continue building your experience.
That’s the trick, though. Without the continuing experience, that foundation won’t enable you to do much and will even crumble as you forget what you learned; use it or lose it. On the other hand, experience without the roadmap of learning that a cert can provide might leave someone with gaps in their knowledge that can put them in a disadvantage during an interview. Certification also provides a goal and reward that many people find helpful for motivation.
In my view, if your aim is to gain enough knowledge in a subject to be employed or even to specialize in it, then the ideal course is a combination of systematic study and continuous experience. Whether the study is based on obtaining a certification or on the completion of a manual or online course is your decision and should be based on what best motivates you.
What should I certify in?
Of course, this depends on your particular interest in I.T, whether it’s hardware, network security, programming or database management. There are some popular certifications that are almost industry standards that you might consider.
- CompTIA A+ – This is a basic certification that might be required if you’re going to work on a helpdesk or repair shop. It covers such things as hardware components, operating systems and troubleshooting.
- CompTIA Network+ – This covers concepts related to computer networks including security, operations and troubleshooting.
- CompTIA Security+ – Cybersecurity will continue to be an important field in I.T. as new threats to networks and users develop. The Security+ focuses on the ability to identify and counter these threats.
The three CompTIA certs above are sometimes obtained together as part of a college program or training course. Together, they offer a great foundation for working in a support or network position. CompTIA is perhaps the most well-known certification authority for entry-level I.T. professionals but it’s not the only one.
- The Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification is offered by (ISC)², a non-profit organization for information security leaders. It’s intended for people who will be managing cybersecurity operations.
- Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) – Cisco Systems has long been a leader in the computer networking field and offers their own entry-level cert in network technologies.
- Microsoft offers a wide range of certifications for technologies and specific products with certification pathways based on the role that you want to pursue. The Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) certs are a good way to start out with and combine specific skills. The Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certs provide a foundation for your Office skills. The paths can take you through all the necessary skills to earn higher certifications such as the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) or Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD).
- Project Management Professional (PMP) – There’s more to I.T. than technology. The PMP establishes your skills in managing projects within an organization.
Certification organizations often emphasize multiple certs to help people advance along a specific career path but you can also add single certifications to train on a specific skill. The following are a few examples:
- Oracle Certified Associate, Java SE 8 Programmer
- Programming in C# (Microsoft Exam 70-483)
- CompTIA Linux+
How do I get certified?
After you decide on the certification you want, you need to decide how you’re going to study for it. My preferred method is to find a good study guide on Amazon.com and work my way through it but that’s not for everyone.
The company that’s offering the certification will probably suggest a number of training options from software to online or in-person courses. Some of these might cost hundreds of dollars or more and you need to decide if they are worth it in terms of the benefit you’ll be receiving. Many exam vendors offer lists of practice questions which are based on the types of questions you’re likely to see on the actual test and these are very valuable. Mindhub.com and uCertify also offer online practice tests that you can buy for a specified period of time.
Whatever resource you use, you should try to find a list of objectives for the exam(s) you’ll be taking and ensure that your study materials cover all the items. These objectives are often provided on the official site for the certification. Also be sure to work through as many examples and exercises within the material as you can; there is no substitute for this when you’re learning a new subject.
Once you have your study program in place, the common wisdom is that you should actually set a date to take the exam. This is supposed to keep you focused on the task. Some resources will also advise you to schedule when you’re consistently getting a specific score on whatever practice exams you’re using. I prefer the second option because life happens and I don’t like the pressure of a deadline if I don’t have to deal with one. It’s up to you.
Pearson Vue is, the most common testing agency for I.T. exams from the various companies such as Microsoft, Cisco, CompTIA and others. Pearson partners with local schools and other organizations to set up testing centers where the exams are administered. Again, you will need to follow the instructions through the official page for the exam you’re taking to set up an account with Pearson and schedule the exam at the most convenient testing facility near your location.
Prices for exams vary according to the company and the specific exam. Microsoft exams cost as little as $127 while the CompTIA A+ is $219. When you purchase an exam, you’ll generally be buying a voucher for the exam which you will present to the testing center when you schedule. The voucher system is used so that schools, companies and other organizations can buy them for their students and employees. It’s worth checking with your school or workplace to see if they are able to provide you with a voucher so that you don’t have to pay for the exam yourself.
Taking the Exam
The official exam site and the Pearson Vue site will provide you with complete instructions for scheduling and taking the exam so there’s no need for me to go into that here. Exams are usually presented as a series of multiple choice and True / False questions using software at the exam facility. You should know as soon as you complete the exam whether you passed and what your score was. The passing score also varies based on the exam and might be anywhere from 60% to 80%. You will generally get a certificate and information on how you can access your credentials online.
If you’re the type who gets really nervous at the very thought of a test, there’s not much I can tell you except that it’s just a series of questions that you’ve already practiced anyway. Relax, forget that you’re being graded and just answer them. Exams often have re-takes available in case you don’t pass the first time.
I have never been asked by an interviewer what my score was on an exam. It’s fun to compare scores when you’re talking to someone else who’s taken the same exam but if you passed, you passed. Again, what counts is your ability to continue building and using the knowledge afterward.