Congratulations! You’ve made the decision to move your IT career forward in a knowledge-based economy by obtaining a certification that will set you apart from your peers. Certifications identify you as someone who has achieved a certain level of knowledge and expertise in defined IT knowledge centers, skills, concepts, and technologies.
Making the decision to obtain a first or new certification is only the beginning of your journey. Certifications come in all styles, levels of skill, difficulty, commitments of time. Some certifications, such as the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS), require little time commitment to obtain that credential. Conversely, many professional IT certifications (the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert or CCIE, for example) take many months or even years to obtain, and they may be intense in terms of the time commitment and difficulty required to earn such credentials.
Keep in mind that for many IT professionals, such certifications are often obtained post-graduation after entering the workforce. While you might be lucky enough to work for an employer that pays for your certification training and time away from the job while you prepare for an exam, the majority of IT professionals have to climb their certification ladders on personal time, and pay all costs out of their own funds. As such, it becomes essential to create and establish a good certification support system as you work to reach your goals.
Just as certifications come in many varieties, so do support systems. And a good support system can often go a long way towards obtaining a sought-after certification. Look for support in several different areas, such as:
- Work environment: Employers are often overlooked when candidates seek certification support. Many employers like having employees who possess specific credentials, so it’s worth communicating your personal certification goals to management. Your employer can open many doors for you, including:
- Access to internal training programs
- Possible funding for training courses or even the certification exam
- Mentoring from subject matter experts who’ve already been through the certification process and can provide guidance, advice, and training
- Special assignments or shadowing to boost skills in areas covered by the certification exam (useful if a lab exam is associated with a certification as with the CCIE, for example)
In some instances, particularly if a certification benefits a company’s strategic goals, employers may be willing to let employees study during work hours, or attend training during company time without taking leave. Some companies may even be willing to pay for the training necessary to obtain a certification. Though this may not be true in your particular case, it’s always a good idea to ask!
- Formal groups or associations: Formal groups, organizations, and other professional IT associations are a great source of support as you prepare for any certification exam. Such organizations often lead or sponsor certification training sessions or formal instructor-led exam study sessions. Professional organizations frequently have relationships with vendors that enable them to obtain study materials, preparation guides, and even samples tests at discounted rates (and in some cases, even free). As you put together your support system, check with your local professional associations to see what resources they offer.
- Vendor-sponsored activities: Vendor companies frequently offer resources to those seeking certification on their company websites. For example, persons seeking any of the Cisco certifications such as the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) or CCIE credential may want to join the Cisco Learning Network. There you’ll find discussion boards, forums, blogs, information on certifications, social networking opportunities, and more. Vendor-sponsored social networking can be effective in bringing like-minded certification seekers together for study and preparation. Many vendors also host certification groups on business-oriented social networking sites like LinkedIn. For example, you can join groups on LinkedIn geared toward Cisco, CompTIA, Microsoft, and VMware certifications, to mention a few.
- Study groups or special interest groups: Study groups or special interest groups are generally informal and based on need. Often, you must go looking for such groups or create them. To form your own certification study group or to join one, look to online communities, technical schools, junior or senior colleges, and universities. Don’t neglect your workplace your colleagues may also be seeking the same certification(s).
- Formal training: Formal training is always a great way to prepare for any certification exam. Such training is specifically designed to help you master the objectives covered in a specific exam and to pass that exam. Formal training comes in numerous flavors ranging from in-person courses, to instructor-led online courses, to formal self-paced courseware. Although any such course can help you reach your goals, try to attend instructor-led (live, in-person courses are a personal preference) courses whenever possible. Instructors are subject matter experts who are generally only too willing to share their knowledge both in and out of class. It’s not uncommon for instructors to meet with students after hours for impromptu Q&A sessions. Many even supply students with their personal email addresses and respond to questions long after the course has ended.
In putting together a support system, explore as many avenues you can. All support systems have their unique blends of strengths, so take advantage of as many of them as possible as you prepare for your exam. When working with support groups or study groups, meet regularly and frequently. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of instructors, mentors, co-workers, and those who’ve walked the certification path before you. When it comes to your certification, there are no dumb questions! Also, remember that your certification quest impacts those around you. Make certain your family is aware of the time commitment involved, and help them understand the potential impact on everyone’s daily routines. Asking for their support from the beginning[md]and making them feel like an important part of the process[md]will go a long way toward meeting your goals.
Certifications, especially advanced certifications, take time and commitment to obtain. Despite the commitments involved, certifications are very achievable, can open doors, and can move your career to the next level. Always take time to create your support system and use the resources around you in seeking your certification. After all, more and better support usually produces a more positive certification experience!