How to Choose the Right IT Certification

 In TCM Post

The question I get asked most about certifications… which one should I get? Most people that ask this question expect someone to tell them exactly what the answer is so they can go knock out a cert and they don’t have to think about it again. If you’ve been reading all of my articles, the best approach to choosing certifications is to plan and do your research about your interests. You have to work hard on your career. Here’s an outline of how to research and what to look for when choosing a certification to advance your IT career.

Part 1 – Requirements and Plan
Before you get started on Google surfing “IT Certifications,” pull out your notebook and look at your career plan or the notes you’ve been keeping. If you don’t have a career plan start by writing down your immediate goal, your 6-month goal, and your 2-5 year goal.

What is your goal?
If you’re thinking and planning about certifications and they are a significant part of your immediate goals chances are you are getting started in IT and looking for a job, or you have a couple years’ experience and are looking to move up in a technical role, or trying to get a better job. In all of these cases, your choices are pretty small and subsequently safe bets. These certifications are considered “Required” in some industries or basic certifications that most people that work in IT have. If you’ve been working for a couple of years, the certifications are usually the “advanced” version or next level of the intro certs you have.

What industry are you targeting?
After defining and understanding your goal, you should have a decent idea of what certifications you are looking to achieve. You should have a short-list that looks something like:

  • Network +
  • Security +
  • CCNA
  • CEH

This list is a pretty good start and narrowed enough to move to the next step of the analysis, what are the required certifications in your industry? The US Department of Defense REQUIRES you to be certified to perform in any IT position. Here’s a good list:

So, considering the list you built for yourself and if you’re trying to get a job as a US DoD Employee or with a Government contractor, anything but the Microsoft certifications will meet the requirement. So, it’s an easy decision. Don’t get your MCSA for Windows Desktop support. It just won’t help you with your immediate goal. It won’t get you where you NEED to be at this point in your career. Start with any of the other certs on your short list.

What does your employer require?
What do employers want or require you to have? You started with your goals and your list. Then you verified and narrowed it down to the industry you are targeting. Now, narrow it down to the employers you are targeting. Continuing the example of the US DoD IT Industry, search job postings for relevant positions. Check the REQUIRED section (not the “nice to have” or “bonus if you have” parts, but the section that says you MUST have these skills, certifications, or degrees. Most Government contracts will state that you have 8570/8140 compliant certifications not which exact cert.

What do you want to do? Immediate Career Goal?
The final cut is to decide what direction you want to take personally. If you can’t focus on a specific area of IT, stick with the basics, either Network+ or Security+. If you are going the network engineer route, choose the CCNA or CCNP. If you want to get into cybersecurity, choose the CEH. Those options will check the Industry and employer requirement box, and they also check a box in your area of interest.

Part 2 – My Thoughts
The first part of this article was the analytical way to go about choosing a certification path. Next is my opinion on the value of certifications, which is probably the second-most asked question I receive.

The value of certifications has trended up and down over my years in the IT industry. Most technology companies have recognized this and certifications are generally more difficult than they were 10-20 years ago. In general, certifications display your understanding of a subject area but not necessarily that you have a working knowledge. Though this depends on the specific cert and level of the cert, the company, and also the industry.

Just a reminder: My general advice is that you don’t pay high fees for training to obtain a certification only for training to acquire a skill. Many free or very inexpensive resources can get you past an entry-level certification exam.

Expert Hint: Relax. Nobody is going to quiz you on the Network+ test when you get a job. It’s merely a requirement that you have the cert, not that you know the practical application of the material. For this reason, study to pass the exam in order to check the box in your job-seeking, career-improving goal. You should be either learning in class, learning on your own, or learning on the job to build your skillset, not studying the material in-depth. Certification exam prep is not the place to learn the skill.

For instance, a CCNA is a standard networking cert and validates you understand book-learned networking, but a CCIE is a pinnacle cert and demonstrates hands-on ability to deliver network services in the enterprise. There’s little chance you can pass the CCIE exam without years of hands-on experience. I’ve seen good, seasoned, network engineers fail portions of the CCIE exam. An AWS Solutions Architect Associate is easily attainable by studying the AWS material, but an AWS Solutions Architect Professional cert requires hands-on use. It is difficult and proves you’ve worked with the technology versus merely studied test prep.

Be wary of collecting certs merely to have them which can get expensive and provide limited value, especially if you’re the one paying for training. Go back and read the “Curator of the Certification Museum” section in my previous article. However, a well laid out plan on a proper path can display that you have the base skills to attain an entry level position or that you’ve achieved the correct certs during your career growth to validate your knowledge. For example, pairing Network+ with CEH is a good indication that not only do you are familiar with necessary cybersecurity skills, but also essential networking skills. They pair well together.

Value First
Always focus on what the value of the certification will provide to you. Do some ROI analysis as well. If you get this cert, you’ll be able to land a job that nets you $X more than you were making before.

Part 3 – No Certifications
Finally, the third-most common scenario/question that I hear as a mentor is that of people that don’t believe in certs, diminish their value or straight-up tell you don’t get them because they are worthless. My first response is to not be so black and white on the answer. Sure, there is a valid point that having a cert doesn’t prove you know the material. I am confident that having a certification will not do two things: 1) Guarantee you a job 2) Confirm your knowledge about the subject area. However, it will get you past many gate-checks by recruiters, just like having a degree will check a requirement box.

I have seen many people in the industry that don’t have certifications and are incredibly successful. On the same hand I have seen (myself included) people that know a ton about an area of IT and don’t “need” a certification. Eventually, though they go back for the certification for a business requirement (their company needs the certification.) This scenario is prevalent with consulting organizations that are either Microsoft or Amazon Web Services Consulting Partners. Part of the requirement of a company to be a partner is that their staff be certified.  I obtained Microsoft certifications for the same reason. Cloud was a new thing in 2010, and by 2012 the big companies started pushing partnership and certification, so my company naturally joined in which meant I was required to get new certs in both AWS and Microsoft Azure to advance organizational goals, which in-turn advanced my skillset.

The Bottom Line
Know yourself, know your industry and the companies you want to work for, the requirements of your position, and finally the value of the certification to your career advancement or salary. Work hard on analyzing what is required and best for YOU, then go out and DO IT!


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