The real value of IT certifications: Education

I got my first certification in the 90s on Windows 98.  I did it solely because I was tired of hemming and hawing when my clients asked if I was certified.  After all, I'd been working and playing with technology in various forms since the 1960s.  I didn't need to prove myself to anyone and besides, all certification would prove is that I had good test-taking skills.  I was surprised, however, after going through the preparation and testing process, at how much I learned on subjects not directly related to Windows 98.  Since then, I've added CCNA, MCSE, Linux+, MCT, and CCNA Security as a means of broadening my knowledge base and keeping my skills sharp.  I'm also pursuing certifications in non-IT areas for the same reason:  education.

Here are two rarely spoken benefits of certification:

1)  Broaden my overall knowledge base.

I realized that preparing for and taking the test forced me to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.  For example, I had very limited experience with NetWare, but the test had questions about IPX/SPX.  In order to pass the test, I had to gain a basic familiarity with Novell NetWare, so I got a trial copy of NetWare (I think it was 3.12) and began to experiment.  There were questions about Unix and even mainframe integration.  Admittedly, there weren't many questions on those subjects, but without knowing exactly which questions would be asked, I was forced to study each of the subjects enough to be comfortable with the fundamentals.  My overall knowledge base was increasing because I wanted to pass a Windows 98 certification exam.

2)  Narrow the gap between what I think I know and what I really know. 

I rarely know as much as I think I do on any given subject.  The certification process provides a reminder of the vast amount of information that is absent from my brain.

We've all read the myriad articles extolling the benefits of IT certifications:  Make more money, get faster promotions, earn the respect of your peers.  Many organizations reimburse testing fees and even offer pay increases when you achieve certification.  There's no doubt that certification has its benefits, but I've never read an article that discusses the real benefit of certification.  The real benefit lies in forcing me to follow a prescribed course of study, filling in gaps in my knowledge, and widening my overall knowledge base.  (This, by the way, is not about "paper" certifications where you memorize questions and answers and pass the test without having any real knowledge.  Please don't do that.)  Even if your employer doesn't pay for certs, most employers like having qualified people on staff who are interested in expanding their knowledge.

I had a client who said he didn't care if we were certified or not, but he did care that we went through the process of preparing for certification.  He wasn't talking about attending a boot camp or memorizing questions.  He was talking about sitting in a lab, experimenting with configurations, breaking things and troubleshooting, and fixing them.

I really don't like taking tests.  I'd rather do almost anything than take another certification test, but I know that the process of preparing for the test will make me a better trainer, writer, and IT person.  It's not about piling up a long list of initials after my name, it's about piling up the hours of study, experimentation, and real-world experience that those initials represent.  That way, when I design a system, it will usually work as expected.  Similarly, when some component fails, I've got a real chance at identifying the problem and fixing it. 

How do you see the benefits of certification?  Am I the only one who thinks of the certification process as having educational value?

I still don't know as much as I think I do, but preparing for and passing a certification exam gets my actual knowledge base a little closer to my perceived knowledge base.

Don R. Crawley is President/Chief Technologist at soundtraining.net, the Seattle IT training firm. A geek and nerdy kind of guy since sometime back in the 60s, today he pontificates at Computerworld, writes books for IT people, and speaks on command.

His full profile and disclosure are here. You can reach him at ftte@soundtraining.net.

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