Is certification a reliable means of learning new IT skills and concepts?
Posted on
September 16, 2019

This feature first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

There are lots of ways to get reliable education on IT concepts and skills. How does certification stack up?

Earning a technology certification requires some significant investments of both money and time. Candidates purchase study materials, pay tuition for training programs, and renew certifications with annual maintenance fees.

Pursuing a new certification typically requires hundreds of hours of preparation, while maintaining existing certifications requires participating in and documenting professional development activities. Is this investment worth it? Are certifications an effective and reliable way to learn new technologies and demonstrate that knowledge to potential employers?

The fact that you're reading Certification Magazine probably means that you're somewhere along your own certification journey. Perhaps you're considering picking up a new certification, or just keeping track of changes in an evolving field as you maintain your existing certifications.

As you reflect on your certification path and plot next steps, let's try to answer a core question: Is certification the most effective way to learn IT? As we do that, we'll explore the reasons that people pursue technical certifications, outline the benefits of certification-based learning, discuss the relationship between certification and experience, and look at the types of certifications available in today's market.

Why get a certification?

People pursue certifications for many different reasons, but there's typically one core underlying rationale: to demonstrate mastery of an area of IT knowledge, usually for an employment-related purpose. Individuals pursuing certifications may be building their résumés as they prepare to enter the job market or pursue an internal promotion.

It's not uncommon to see job postings that call for specific technical certifications as either a direct requirement or a preferred qualification for new hires. Some employers may even require existing technical staff to earn specific certifications, such as the Department of Defense's requirements for information assurance staff. Whatever the motivation, the certification journey almost always has a direct relationship with an individual's career aspirations.

At the same time, certifications also offer candidates a sense of personal satisfaction as they earn external validation of their technical knowledge and skills. Some people choose to pursue technical certifications as a path to learning and acquiring new skills in a structured manner.

Of course, certifications are only one way to learn these skills, as technologists could certainly take technical courses, read books, or partake in many other professional development opportunities to build out their skills. So, that leaves us still pondering our core question: Is getting a certification the best way to learn technical skills?

Certifications offer structured learning

There are lots of ways to get reliable education on IT concepts and skills. How does certification stack up?

The answer to that question is a resounding, It depends! That's not a very satisfying answer, because the question itself is complex and depends significantly on the individual's specific situation, learning style, existing skillset, and purpose for learning. The strongest selling point of certifications as a learning tool is the structure that they provide.

Every technical certification is based on a series of learning objectives, which often specify the knowledge to be acquired with a high level of detail. For example, the exam objectives for CompTIA's Security+ certification come in the form of a 20-page document that specifies the knowledge expected of a certified individual. Let's isolate a single section from that document, Section 5.5, which outlines the knowledge of digital forensics that is required for Security+ certification.

You will need to understand:

  • Order of volatility
  • Chain of custody
  • Legal hold
  • Data acquisition, including the following subtopics: capture system image, network traffic and logs, capture video, record time offset, take hashes, screenshots, witness interview
  • Preservation
  • Recovery
  • Strategic intelligence/counterintelligence gathering, including the following subtopic: active logging
  • Track man-hours

That's a great roadmap for anyone seeking to learn about cybersecurity. Walking through each one of the objectives and learning the material will leave you with a broad knowledge of the field. As an added bonus, there are many wonderful training resources available for most popular certifications.

Anyone pursuing the Security+ credential can choose from a variety of books, video courses, practice tests, and other resources, all designed around those same learning objectives. The certification path is well-trod, and these resources make it easy to follow the curriculum.

Of course, other people may prefer not to pursue a certification and instead opt for other methods of building their skills. For example, taking training courses also offers the structure of certifications, without the pressure and expense of a certification exam.

The certification process, on the other hand, provides a very helpful structural framework for building knowledge and offers a relatively inexpensive and effective set of educational resources. Technologists who prefer to learn on their own will likely find that certification programs offer a rigorous framework for that self-paced learning.

There's a flip side to pursuing self-structured learning, however. If you're pursuing certifications without any external job-related pressure to do so, then you will also need to maintain your own motivation to continue the journey and earn the certification at the end.

One effective technique that I encourage students to use is to develop a personal training schedule and then actually register for the exam at the beginning of your studies. That date marked on your calendar can be a wonderful motivator to continue your studies as test day draws near.

Getting certified without experience

Some certification programs have direct experience requirements, mandating that candidates prove they have met experience criteria before granting them certification. For example, the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification requires at least 3,500 hours of project management experience, while the Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP) certification requires five years of work experience.

There are a large number of certifications, however, such as the A+ and Network+ credentials from CompTIA, that have no experience requirement. Just bear in mind that even though hands-on experience may not be a direct requirement of a certification program, it's always a good idea and will help make your learning journey more concrete.

When you pursue certifications without related experience, you run the risk of accumulating what IT professionals derisively call paper certs. These are certifications held by people who passed the exam, but don't have the ability to apply their skills in the real world.

In an ideal world, you'd have direct job experience in the realm where you're pursuing certification. This gives you not only the required technical skills, but also the contextual knowledge to apply those skills in a reasonable manner.

We all know that it's not always possible, of course, to have that ideal situation and that many people are pursuing certifications to help them land that first IT job. In those cases, it's important to gain some hands-on experience, even if it's not real-world experience. If you're earning an application developer certification, then make sure you spend some time creating apps! Aspiring network technicians should likewise get hands-on time with some routers and switches, even if it's only in a lab setting.

When I was a college student, I decided that a career in IT would be an exciting way to work in a technical field and offered some great employment opportunities. I thought that a professional certification would help me stand out from my peers and give me an edge when I entered the job market. So I went to the bookstore and browsed the shelves, looking for my first target.

I wound up buying a book on the Certified Novell Administration (CNA) certification, even though I had never used NetWare and didn't have access to a NetWare environment. I tried to learn the material by reading through that book, but the effort was futile. I wasn't passionate about NetWare and didn't have the opportunity to reinforce my reading with hands-on practice.

Needless to say, that book sat unused on my shelf for years. Don't make the same mistake. Pursue certifications in fields where you have deep passion and the opportunity to get some hands-on practice!

Certifications are effective across technical fields

The structured approach offered by certifications provides technologists an appealing path to build their professional knowledge in new areas, as well as demonstrate their existing skills. IT professionals who pursue certifications that align with their passions will likely find the experience highly rewarding.

The self-paced approach to certification-based learning may be more or less effective, depending upon the nature of the certification. I like to group certifications into two major buckets: those that cover general knowledge, and those that apply to a specific technology product.

General knowledge certifications include credentials in project management, cybersecurity, auditing, quality assurance, and other broad technical disciplines. They are typically vendor-agnostic and don't require hands-on experience with any specific technical tools. These certifications are ideal for self-paced learners because they often can be learned entirely from books and videos without any specialized technical resources.

That doesn't mean that real-world experience in these fields isn't a critical aspect of building professional knowledge. It does, however, make the learning process easier for individuals who lack access to expensive technologies.

Certifications covering specific technologies do cover tool-specific content. For example, if you pursue a Tableau certification, then you better have hands-on experience with Tableau! Don't try to walk down the same path I did 20 years ago and attempt the modern-day equivalent of earning a Novell certification without ever using NetWare!

There are lots of ways to get reliable education on IT concepts and skills. How does certification stack up?

If you're aiming to use a certification that addresses a specific technology as part of your learning journey, then do it with that technology at your fingertips. If you don't have access at work, then see if the vendor offers a demonstration license or student learning environment that might give you free or discounted access.

Certification for the win

Let's return to our root question: Is getting a certification the most effective way to learn IT skills? I believe that it is, particularly for individuals who want the structure provided by certification objectives and have the discipline and motivation to complete their studies on their own.

I've earned quite a few technical certifications since my failed attempt at the CNA credential two decades ago, and I can proudly say that I've learned many new things each time I've pursued a new credential. Best of luck to you on your certification journey!

About the Author

Mike Chapple is Senior Director for IT Service Delivery at the University of Notre Dame. Mike is CISSP certified and holds bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in computer science and engineering from Notre Dame, with a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Idaho and an MBA from Auburn University.

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