So You Want to Get Certified — Here’s Where to Start

Carl King
Senior Engineer I

So you want to get certified.

Nearly every technology vendor you can think of offers a certification program. You might have a few different reasons for wanting to get certified, and vendors have just as much incentive to get you certified in implementing and supporting their platforms.

For you, an in-demand certification validates your skills and abilities, and makes you a hot commodity in the IT world. An acronym or two on your resume says a lot to a prospective employer or client. For those in consulting, it proves that you can provide services the client can trust.

For the technology vendor, all business reasons aside, certification speaks to the personal investment industry professionals have in their technology. We all love high tech, and a product that works reliably and implements well certainly helps us maintain our work-life balance. But, we can also be highly critical of a product that constantly breaks — even if the after-hours calls contribute to our job security. All in all, certification is a win-win situation for everyone involved.

If you’re pursing certification for a particular platform, what’s the best way to prepare? Here are some tips.

Lost in the cereal aisle at the super market

Remember that scene in “The Matrix” where Neo calls up a program with rows and rows of guns and ammo before he and Trinity go into the big shootout in the lobby? They have an endless supply of arms, but they can only carry so much at once. That’s exactly what choosing a certification training method can be like in today’s market.

There’s a myriad of paths and products available to help you achieve your certification. It seems like every company has a class you can attend or a video series you can watch, practice exam software you can use, flash cards, online labs for practicing on real equipment, simulators, or the tried-and-true book method. Some of us will even buy our own equipment if we can afford it.

Developing a personal training strategy with a combination of any of these tools can be a daunting task. This is where it pays to know how you learn best. Personally, I’m a tactile learner. I do best with hands-on. I’ve bought, used, and resold lab equipment a few times over the years. The combination of books and hands-on practice has served me well. Rote learning at its finest.

A very classic method is attending a class, but it’s a dying practice. With the availability of lower cost instructor-led videos, they’re becoming less common. The portability of tablets and higher-powered smart phones means you can conveniently fit video training time into your own schedule, but at the cost of losing out on interacting with your instructor and other students. In a classroom setting, you can ask questions and you’ll hear others ask questions you may not have thought of asking. You can all share in a pool of collective experience as well.

Whether you’re reading a book, watching videos, or viewing slides in a classroom setting, unless you have a photographic memory, you’re going to need some lab time to get through some practical exercises. Your certification exam is going to reference screen shots in some questions, so you’ll need to know how to navigate the menus and configuration dialogs to know where to change a setting.

There are loads of places online where you can get access to real or virtual lab gear. Read the reviews, see what kinds of limitations might be inherent to each one, and choose what you can afford. Using online labs is certainly more cost effective than purchasing equipment. The only reason you’d want to buy equipment would be if it can be used for a progressive series of certification studies, and if you would be able to resell it while it still has a useful life. If you do decide to buy gear, make sure you understand hardware capabilities, licensing, and operating system feature sets that will meet the requirement before you break out your card.

So how do you gauge your retention and comprehension?

After spending weeks of free time in the evenings and on weekends learning, you need to measure what you’ve learned before you bite the bullet and schedule your exam. Or do you?

There are a few schools of thought on that. Some people like to purchase practice exams, some of which may contain very skillfully written questions, while others aren’t a good comparison to the real thing. I know many who are adamant about taking the more expensive road to certification and just registering for an exam to measure their training against the real thing. They might take the exam two or three times without regard to passing or failing.

The real reason you want to measure your retention and comprehension is to recognize the topical areas where you need improvement so you can review, review, and review some more until you have it down. Don’t get caught up in the trap where you just keep using the practice exams until you know all the right answers. If you find yourself using mental snapshots of the question page and automatically selecting the right answer because you’ve been through them all ad nauseam, you need to get rid of the practice exam set and start over.

In the end, your objective needs to be getting through the process with a mastery of the topic. You want to understand the technology well enough to be able to critically think through some tricky questions on the real exam. The answers to straightforward technical questions will become self-evident because you understand the topic.

You can’t be fooled.

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