What is your career strategy for certification?
Posted on
June 19, 2017

This feature first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

To succeed in IT and properly make use of certification, you need to have a solid career strategy in place.

If you get a lot of tech certs, then you may (or may not) have considered the following question. If certification is new to you, then it might have only crossed your mind in passing. Sooner or later, however, everyone who gets certified to one level or another has to decide:

How far am I going to go with information technology (IT) certification?

Perhaps you are wondering what considerations to weigh when determining where you want to end up in your IT career, and how much you should rely on certification to get you there. What is your career strategy? How does one even put a career strategy together? You're in good hands with me because I share out of my professional experience.

For example, I have worked in most areas of the IT industry since 1997, earned more than 30 IT certifications, and partnered with many of the major certification vendors and cert study publishers. If you're going to ask the question, then asking it of someone who knows the tech credential realm inside and out is a good place to start. Let's do this!

The CompTIA IT Certification Roadmap

CompTIA is a nonprofit trade association that publishes its own suite of vendor-neutral certifications. CompTIA also provides helpful educational resources on IT certification in general. I encourage you to download CompTIA's IT Certification Roadmap (available online at certification. comptia.org) because I plan to use it to anchor this discussion.

In the roadmap, you'll see dozens of IT credentials arranged into four categories:

  • Beginner/Novice
  • Intermediate
  • Advanced
  • Expert

You'll note that CompTIA doesn't attach experience durations to those categories. Instead, each certification vendor typically has its own suggested metrics for gauging prerequisite experience.

A more vendor-neutral and popular way that I've seen IT certifications classified is:

  • Associate/Entry
  • Professional/Expert
  • Master

For example, Microsoft has the Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA) credential for IT industry newcomers with little to no prior experience. The Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) credentials are a step up in terms of experience and complexity. Credentials in the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) tier are for experienced IT professionals, and the (now retired) Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) credentials demand (or formerly demanded) documented, long-term product expertise and experience.

Cisco does something similar to Microsoft: They offer the Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) for beginners, the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) for mid-level Cisco admins, the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) for experts, and the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) for master-level candidates.

Some certifications, like the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and the Project Management Professional (PMP) credential, require documented work experience in addition to passing an exam. By contrast, most vendor-specific and vendor-neutral certifications have only suggested prerequisite guidelines, which means you could theoretically get certified on technologies for which you possess only conceptual knowledge. This explains why some hiring managers show disdain for IT certifications.

Where to begin?

To succeed in IT and properly make use of certification, you need to have a solid career strategy in place.

"Whoa!" you may think. "With all these choices, where do I start?" Great question — to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, let's start at the beginning.

IT newcomers should begin with an associate credential. If you are fresh out of school, or if you're a midstream career-changer just getting into IT, then you should pursue an entry-level IT certification that matches your:

  • Subject matter interest
  • Aptitude
  • The amount of time you're willing to invest in learning

For example, let's imagine you've always been handy with electronics, and you've decided to enter IT as a PC repair technician. In this case, the most popular entry-level cert choices are most likely the following:

  • CompTIA A+ (computer hardware and software support)
  • CompTIA Network+ (basic network support)

One reason CompTIA credentials are so popular with IT newcomers is that they are vendor-neutral. This means you aren't overly specializing your skill set at the outset. Nonetheless, some popular entry-level vendor credentials include:

  • Cisco CCENT
  • Microsoft MTA

I've long considered IT certification study worthwhile because, if nothing else, the study process forces you to ��deep dive�� into technologies that you might otherwise know nothing about.

You'll also find that some jobs you pursue have mandatory or optional certification credential requirements. In those cases, you either must have the credential to be considered for an interview, or you can use your certification as a competitive advantage over other candidates.

Determine Your "Bottom Line" Limit

Let's face it: preparing to earn an IT certification can get expensive. Consider the CompTIA A+ credential. In order to become A+ certified, you must pass not one but two exams:

  • 220-901 (hardware exam): $205 per attempt
  • 220-902 (software exam) $205 per attempt

That's more than $400 to sit for the two exams — and if you need to retake one or the other then you can tack on $205 increments, because retakes cost as much as the initial attempt. Be aware that many IT certification providers offer exam registration discounts. You should check their websites periodically to keep apprised of offers.

Most IT certification candidates use one or more books, instructor-led training classes, and/or computer-based training (CBT) lessons to help them firm up their subject matter knowledge. Once again, these services generally aren't free.

Finally, hands-on experience is crucial to almost every IT certification. You may need to purchase hardware, tools, software licenses, and so forth, for your cert study use.

I say all this to encourage you to plot your "bottom line" in terms of how far you're willing to go in order to accomplish your IT certification goal. Your financial limit is only one metric here: You also need to consider time and effort as well.

In a worst-case scenario, you may decide either to pursue another industry altogether, or you may determine you need to put your IT certifications on the proverbial shelf for weeks, months, or years until you can free up the necessary time and money to support your goals.

Align your professional passion with your employment environment

I've known people who entered the IT field because they heard the field offers good money and good job security. However true that statement may be, you have to ask yourself, "Do I honestly enjoy the work I do?" If not, then do you want to spend week after week, year after year, sacrificing that time just for financial reward?

If you're already in IT as, say, a systems administrator, but your professional passion is actually in software development, then I say, "Don't wait!" Get to work on certifying and pursuing employment in that IT market sector.

If you are doing the work you enjoy and your employer requires you to attain certification for compliance reasons, then go for it — it should be a joy, and it's always nice when your employer pays for exam registrations!

By contrast, if you discover that your employer's goals for your career trajectory don't map to your own, then I suggest you follow your heart and begin by deep-diving into a certification program that is fulfilling to you.

Studying for a certification gives you an excellent opportunity to "test drive" a new and/or different kind of IT. This is a great way to confirm whether you should change your career course.

ROI from an expert-level certification

To succeed in IT and properly make use of certification, you need to have a solid career strategy in place.

Thus far we've spoken mostly of the associate level of the certification spectrum. Let's close by considering the question of whether pursuing expert-level certification makes sense to you and your career.

I've found going after expert-level certifications to be valuable in the following scenarios:

  • You're making a case for a job promotion or compensation increase at your present place of employment.
  • You're "buffing up" your resume in search of a senior-level position elsewhere.
  • You're increasing your credibility with your clients and customers.

The amount of your time, money, and effort that's required is why you should think long and hard before pursuing an expert-level credential.

Specifically, evaluate the return-on-investment (ROI) possible with an expert-level title. For example, earning a Microsoft MCSE in Windows Server requires that you pass at least seven separate exams!

Something else to consider that applies to any IT certification program is expiration. Most IT certifications have expiration/recertification requirements. The purpose of exam recertification is twofold:

  • You're forced to demonstrate continued competency with the technology.
  • The IT certification vendor gets more money. (I'm being at least a little bit snarky here.)

In closing, I'll reduce my entire argument to the following pseudo-programming expression:

if (IT certification ROI > interest + time + money + effort)

{ ‘Certification is worthwhile.’ } else { ‘Certification is not worthwhile.’ }

About the Author

Timothy L. Warner is an IT professional and technical trainer based in Nashville, Tenn. A computer enthusiast who authored his first BASIC program in 1981 on the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III, Tim has worked in nearly every facet of IT, from systems administration and software architecture to technical writing and training. He can be reached via LinkedIn.

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