Certificates; Where Does Your Path Lead?

I have been involved in a good many conversations lately about the need for vendor certifications. I’ve tended to resist the “need” for an advanced certificate. Heck, I’ve even started and stopped over the last few years because I just can’t keep a solid argument for getting oneā€”and when life gets in the way, it’s real easy to set aside the studies. If you’re in this position, I may have some things to consider to help you on that path.

Wasn’t Really For Me

Some people are list-writers. You put your daily tasks on a sheet of paper and at the end of the day you count success by the number of checkmarks’s you have. If you’re considering a certificate you may want to jot some pro’s and con’s on a list. I’ve never been much of a journaler but something occurred to me as I recently considered my certification goals. A certificate was never required when I was an engineer on the commercial/enterprise side. I didn’t want to stay in that sector customer/enterprise side for the rest of my career; transitioning to the Value Added Reseller (VAR) or vendor space became the focus of my attention and skill-set needs.

That is an interesting perspective that I don’t hear many people talk about. The perspective change draws your attention to a goal; decide where do you want to take your career, and then live your life backwards. If you are considering the VAR space in 3-5 years, certifications become much more important and you need to create a roadmap to take you there. We all know VAR’s receive discounts and vendor clout based partially on the number of employees with advanced certificates. If this is what you want to do, you may want to add certs to the “pro’s” column of your worksheet.

These pros and cons help you weigh what’s important in your life. We have finite resources. Money. Time. Emotional capacity. All of these change how we do our work.

I only completed a vendor certificate to get “into” the industry. Way back in 1997, while engaged to my wife, I made a tough life decision and dropped out of college. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in school and I was spending too much money on an education that I had no passion for; I was basically lost. When I got engaged I knew I needed to do something to care for this lovely lady who agreed to marry me.

At the time, I was working for a technical training company and started to take an interest in computers. I leveraged some SMEs I worked with and they were happy to help a fledgling computer engineer get started. My first few months of marriage followed a regular schedule. Wake up early in the morning and lab/read/study for the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer tests, go to work, come home and study some more. Earning the MCP got me my first true-tech job with Cannondale up in Bethel, CT. I had passed the Windows NT 4.0 Server, Server in the Enterprise, and Exchange exams and was working on SNA when I decided I wanted to go down the networking path.

Certificates mean you live your life backwards.I have never earned a network-centric certificate and it never hurt my career.

Reading Cisco white papers was a major benefit to my technical advancement! Those helped me understand architecture and protocol specifics by giving not only technical details but also how the technology was best applied in the wild. That effort and dedication helped me land my first, dedicate, network job at a dot-com back in 2000. I say effort and dedication because even without a network certificate I was able to address network concerns with the potential employer.

That is the shortcoming of a vendor certificate, and I’d add that to the “cons” side of the ledger. It’ll teach you certain things but can’t prep you for the random question you’ll get in an interview or see in a production environment. You may know 802.1x inside and out, but if you can’t determine WHY it’s needed for a particular business, you’re really just a cert-queen and are devaluing the paper you earned. As I gained more experience I really couldn’t see needing a piece of paper explaining to someone that I “knew” how to do my job. I was also never required to have one, either.

Certifying My Path; What Changed?

Why am I looking at certificates now? Well, it goes to my career direction and choices. I’d mentioned that VARs and vendors want certified employees; it really doesn’t matter if it’s PMI or technical, but should focus on your job function. Both VAR and vendor gain clout through the certificate, assuming the engineer isn’t a paper tiger. I was growing tired of working in the enterprise space. I love working with technical people to solve technical problems and help explain those solutions to the business-types. Network design and implementation is rewarding for me and I was sick of babysitting corporate networks and languishing on technical advancement. That’s why I focused on vendor/VAR roles.

As I have now transitioned to a VAR I want to not only help my employer be the go-to company for solutions, but I also believe that having the certificate will shore up some of my skills that have atrophied. A colleague I had been rooting for on Twitter had more than a few scars attempting the CCIE lab. When I mentioned I was starting down the CCIE journey, Tony told me one of the great benefits of these exams is it teaches you to troubleshoot more efficiently. That statement really resonated with me. It seems that you can be a great network architect, know all the tech-part numbers-and bits and bytes of a topic, but if it takes you twice as long to fix a broken network then you’re not much help to your employer or customer.

There is another encouraging factor that quite honestly surprised me. During my job search I had been turned down for several opportunities because I didn’t have a vendor certification. These were companies that seemed to fit, interview went well, the people were great and it looked very promising…right up until the corporate recruiter asked, “Are you Cisco certified or anything?” The certificate was required for the position. That was an eye opener for me. It hadn’t been an issue in the years prior but something in the industry had changed and it made certs much more valuable.

How is that “encouraging”? Just as a cattle prod keeps the laggers of the herd moving, continuing education and certificates keep you from getting left behind.

I still hadn’t earned one when I landed with SHI but it’s a line item for my annual reviews. Another motivator!

Are Certs Necessary?

Depending on your career goals, yes, certificates are necessary. If you’re on the technical side of the house, I’d say they’re as necessary as an MBA for the management track. What do I mean? On the business side there comes a time where you hit the glass ceiling without the additional education. You may reach a director level role but can never quite make that jump to a Sr. Director or VP because the “competition” has gone through the master’s level work at a university.

Technology is the same way. Having that advanced-level certificate can move you into positions beyond the Sr. Network Engineer title. Putting in the time for the CCIE, JNCIE, or any of the others can help you land that global solutions architect role you’ve always wanted. Granted maybe not with your current employer, but it certainly opens doors with other companies and opportunities.

After a long career I have to say the landscape of certifications seems to have changed. Companies are placing more emphasis on them, they do enable career growth, and they round you out as a technical professional. Mileage may vary for your particular needs, so choose your path wisely.

Where Does Your Path Lead