This feature first appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Anyone who watches TV or goes to the movies could probably rattle off a half-dozen examples of the scene or scenes in a favorite show where a key character or team doggedly prepares to accomplish some difficult goal, sweating out various exercises, or committing key data to memory, or rehearsing specific actions or activities. There's even a phrase for it: the training montage.
There's almost always rousing music and rapid cutting between various stages of intense preparation. You don't even need a movie, or a full-length TV episode, to have a training montage. One of the best examples ever committed to film is from a 60-second Nike commercial released in 1999. Legendary Atlanta Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, jealous of the fawning attention directed at super slugger Mark McGwire, resolve to become home run hitters.
The point of a good training montage is to communicate that the heroes of our story have earned their subsequent successes. Glavine and Maddux don't just start cranking pitches over the fence. They have to undergo strength training, improve their stamina, bulk up, sharpen their hitting technique, and (naturally) get better shoes. After that they can triumph. (Thanks to YouTube, we can all still bask in the smug glory of Maddux's supremely self-satisfied epilogue — as well as chortle at the mild retort from actress Heather Locklear that takes Maddux and Glavine out at the knees.)
Any training montage, of course, also addresses a slightly more subtle imperative: to cut the boring stuff. We don't want to actually watch the days, weeks, and months of hard work. We just want a clear and succinct demonstration that that stuff actually happened. We want the bullet points, not the blow-by-blow.
For everyone who has to live and work in the real world, alas, there is no such thing as a quick and slick montage to skip past the boring stuff and go straight to workplace success. Certification takes real effort over an extended period — even for those fortunate enough to be in a situation where they can learn on the job, instead of finding time to study and train away from work.
It's also generally true that more advanced IT certifications have more advanced training and preparation timelines. In some cases, there are yearslong work experience requirements that have to be met before an exam can even be scheduled. And while it's far from true that all IT jobs require certification, there are certainly situations in the industry where you can't be hired for a particular position, or work on a given project, without first being certified.
For this issue of Certification Magazine we have zigged out of our established pattern of conducting a survey of certified professionals aligned with a particular IT discipline. Instead, we concentrated this issue on the preparation phase that precedes certification across all specializations. Rather than exploring the realm of cloud or networking certification, for example, this time around we concentrated on the study, practice, and review phase that precedes a certification exam. How do certified IT professionals handle that all-important interval that sets the stage for completing the certification process?
(For the most part, certified IT professionals is who we were speaking to: 96 percent of survey participants have at least one current IT certification.)
What's your certification timeline?
Determining how much time you need to accomplish your certification goal is an important first step to nearly everything that comes after. Some IT certifications are routinely earned during the high school or college phase of formal education, with little to no practical professional experience backing them up. On the other hand, many individuals work in IT for years before seeking out certification.
The survey turned up an interesting mix of both trends. A substantial 21.6 percent of survey respondents worked in IT for less than a year before getting their first IT certification, while 23.5 percent are at the other end of the spectrum, having worked in IT for more than 10 years before getting their first certification.
Those in between lean toward early certification: About 43 percent of those surveyed worked in IT for either one (7.8 percent), two (12.3 percent), three, (9.3 percent), four (5.9 percent), or five (7.8 percent) years before getting certified. That leaves roughly 12 percent of respondents who picked up between 6 and 10 years of professional experience before getting their first IT certification.
Another major element of timing is attempting to determine how much time is required to learn, practice, and review before it's time to go get certified. There is of course no way to assign a length of time that applies in every case. It can be helpful, however, to look at overall trends, if for no other reason than to get a sense of where most people fall on the spectrum.
We asked survey respondents what length of time, from less than a week to more than a year, they generally set aside for study and review before taking a certification exam. We'll start at the back end of that range, in case you're worried that we didn't give people enough breathing room: just 1 percent of respondents said they typically plan on devoting more than a year to study and review.
Everyone else generally plans to spend a year or less on study and review, and for more than half of those surveyed, it's a lot less: 53 percent of respondents said they typically need two months or less to go from zero to exam. The fastest 4.2 percent of those surveyed can be ready in one week or less. It takes more than a week but less than a month for 9.9 percent of respondents, and 12.6 percent need about one month. A further 11.5 percent of respondents set aside more than one month but less than two, and 14.7 percent need about two months.
That leaves 11 percent of those surveyed who need more than two months but less than three, and 26.7 percent who need somewhere between three and six months to study and prepare before attempting their exam. Only 8.4 percent of those surveyed typically plan to set aside somewhere between 6 and 12 months to prepare.
Learning vs. practice
Broadly speaking, there are two phases of preparing to take a certification exam (or at least one that has no professional experience requirements). The first step is to spend time either learning new concepts or catching up on changes to technology. Sticking to the language from our previous couple of paragraphs, we'll refer to that period of time, however long it takes, simply as study.
Once study has been completed, the next step is to practice what you've learned, typically through some combination of labs, practice exams, flash cards, and other drills that cement concepts in your mind and prepare you for the live test. For simplicity's sake, we'll call that period of time, however long it ends up being, review.
The balance between study and review is different for everyone. Some individuals, for example, whether through years or accrued knowledge or by virtue of recent professional experience, may feel confident that they already know almost everything they need to, and devote most of their preparation time to review. Others, perhaps more or less starting from scratch, may devote weeks or months to study before even thinking about review.
We asked survey respondents how they divide up their preparation time between study and review, and it's clear at a glance that the majority tend to lean more toward study than review. A bit more than half of those surveyed generally spend more time on study than on review. They divide up their time as follows:
90 percent study, 10 percent review — 6.3 percent of respondents
80 percent study, 20 percent review — 12 percent of respondents
70 percent study, 30 percent review — 19.4 percent of respondents
60 percent study, 30 percent review — 16.8 percent of respondents
In the middle, we have 23 percent of those surveyed who typically divide their time evenly (a 50-50 split) between study and review. That leaves about a fourth of respondents who focus more heavily on review than on study. They divide up their time as follows:
40 percent study, 60 percent review — 6.8 percent of respondents
30 percent study, 70 percent review — 8.4 percent of respondents
20 percent study, 80 percent review — 3.7 percent of respondents
10 percent study, 90 percent review — 3.7 percent of respondents
What to study?
There's an entire industry devoted to providing study and training materials — whether books, online courses, labs, or whatever else is out there — to IT certification candidates. There's no need for anyone to attempt an IT certification exam without ever consulting study and training materials specifically tailored to that exam. And, by and large it would seem, most IT professional don't even consider that.
A telling 68.8 percent of those who participated in our survey said that they always use training and study materials when getting an IT certification. A further 22.6 percent said that they often use study and training materials, while 6.5 percent said that they sometimes use study and training materials. Just 2.2 percent of those surveyed rarely or never use study and training materials when getting an IT certification.
It's quite commonplace, then — bordering on guaranteed — for many (if not most) IT professionals to rely fairly heavily on study and training materials to help them prepare for certification. That being the case, how do IT professionals evaluate the cornucopia of options available to them? What factors weigh most heavily in the selection of this guidebook, or that online learning platform?
We asked survey respondents to rank the following six decision-influencing qualities of study and training materials:
Comprehensiveness (How fully and deeply do the study and training materials address exam content?)
Convenience (How portable, available, and easy to use are the study and training materials?)
Function (Do the study and training materials align with my preferred style of learning?)
Reputation (How well-reviewed and trusted are the training and study materials by others who have used them?)
Source (Who created the study and training materials?)
Out of those six factors, the top consideration, by an a narrow margin, is Comprehensiveness. In other words, IT professionals preparing to get certified want to be prepared for anything and everything. Study and training resources that address the entire range of exam topics are almost certain to be strongly preferred.
The second most influential consideration is Reputation, figuring comfortably ahead of Cost. Did other people who have used these same study and training materials consider them effective and trustworthy? Market research across a range of goods and services often indicates that consumers are most heavily influenced by other consumers. It would appear that such is the case here as well. And cost is a key factor in most purchasing decisions.
Rating hard on the heels of Cost, the next most influential consideration, No. 4 out of 6, is Function. There is clearly a degree of importance attached to whether study and training materials are well suited to individual learning styles, but there's also some willingness on the part of IT professionals to adapt.
Source rated almost as highly as Function, but still landed in fifth place. There are companies large, mid-sized, and small that provide study and training materials for IT certifications that are administered by someone else — and it would seem that IT professionals are happy to patronize so-called "third-party" study and training providers.
Somewhat surprisingly, what everyone seems to care about least is Convenience, which ranked last by a fairly wide margin. Despite the fact that we live in an age when ease of access and ease of use are practically demanded of many goods and services, IT professionals are clearly willing to sacrifice a degree of personal comfort when it comes to IT study and training materials.
Schedule your exam
It probably goes without saying that actually taking a certification exam is not part of the preparation process. Unless maybe your preferred mode of operation is simply to take the exam until you pass it, money be damned. On the other hand, many certification gurus do recommend picking a date for the exam, and even going so far as to directly register for the exam, before you actually start your study and review.
So we decided to get a sense of how committed IT professionals are to this particular piece of advice. You might call it the "burning your bridges" approach. The only way to go is forward. Since merely picking a date doesn't get one directly invested in the exam itself, we settled on actual exam registration. Once you've actually reserved a slot and paid your fee, then you have skin in the game.
You can only register so far in advance to take most certification exams. As we've already seen, however, quite a few IT professionals don't tend to feel that they need a whole lot of time to prepare. In our first grouping, 20.4 percent of survey participants typically register to take a certification exam as close to the actual date of the exam as possible.
Notwithstanding that some of these same people just told us they generally need less than a week to be ready for a certification exam, it seems unlikely that everyone who registers for the exam at the last possible second is taking their window for preparation into consideration. We'll assume that some of them aren't using registration as motivation, and simply register for the exam when they feel ready to take it.
Next up are the 28.8 percent of respondents who typically register less than one month prior to the date of the exam, and the 24.1 percent who typically register one to two months prior to the date of the exam. That's more than half of the survey population right there, and it is possible (and seems likely) that quite a few of these folks are playing the registration as motivation card.
A comparatively unhurried 15.7 percent of survey respondents typically register between two and four months prior to the date of the exam. It seems highly likely that both these individuals and the smallish handful who remain after them — 8.9 percent who typically register between five and seven months prior to the exam, 1.6 percent who register between eight and 10 months prior to the exam, and 0.5 percent who register as far in advance of the exam date as possible — are "registration as motivation" true believers.
There’s more information to come from the Certification Training Survey. Over the coming months, we’ll be posting additional findings online at CertMag.com, where you can also find ongoing dispatches from our 2023 Salary Survey. And speaking of the annual Salary Survey, the 2024 survey is available online right now. Go take it, please. And thank you!