The Best IT Certifications to Maximize Your Personal ROI

account_circle Network Solutions Team

Key Takeaways

  • You need to understand your potential personal return on investment (ROI) when looking into IT certifications.
  • It all starts with deciding on the purpose of taking a given class.
  • There are many ways of obtaining online training, and our tips will help you pick the right method for you.

 

As teaching methods advance, online learning is starting to approach a physical classroom experience, and it’s great for conceptual learning. A good online learning experience should include not only content, but should also feature practice drills, integrate with real-world case studies, and contain a social component to make learning more effective.

Online training carries several other advantages: convenience, customization, compliance and credentials, such as IT certifications. Certainly, online classes are convenient. They are also somewhat customizable, which means they can be tailored to a particular learning style (more on that in a moment). They are useful for helping companies remain current with compliance regulations and requirements. Not to mention, new skills and credentials help increase your own marketability.

First, Pick a Purpose

Ask yourself these kinds of questions when deciding what type of class to take:

  • Are my programming language skills rusty?
  • Do I need to learn new development environments or cloud platforms?
  • Do I need hands-on experience with specific products or online services?
  • Am I missing industry credentials such as a Cisco or Microsoft certification?
  • Am I light on business management or more technical skills?
  • Do I want to improve my soft skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving and creativity?

 

What Is the Best Way to Learn Online

The answers to those questions determine the type of online education that makes the most sense. Three broad categories of training are available:

  • those that involve typically free coding academies, 
  • those that involve university instruction and
  • those that revolve around vendor-backed certification in using their products.

The old adage of you get what you pay for doesn’t really apply when it comes to online learning. There are now hundreds if not thousands of free classes that are offered on a wide range of topics, many of which are very suitable for IT workers. There are consortiums of colleges and others that offer an impressive array of free instruction, including:

There is lots of information available from these providers directly. These online classes cover a broad range of topics both in and outside of computer science, are free and start at specific dates, just like their physical counterparts. For example, you can take a five-week-long class taught by two University of California at Berkeley professors on understanding Software as a Service software engineering. They will teach you agile programming techniques using Ruby on Rails and how to deploy it in the cloud using Github and Heroku. Each class has a short intro video explaining what else you will be doing. This is a hands-on class and comes with coupons to use Amazon’s Web Services too. Some of these consortia offer certificates of completion. The advantage of using one of these classes is that they are very polished and taught by some of the best college professors in the world. They come complete with homework assignments, hands-on labs, discussion forums and other supporting materials that make the learning process rich and useful.

Google and Mozilla have dozens of free classes on various programming topics, languages, tools and techniques. Some are full-blown classes like Google’s HTML5 that go into a lot of detail while others are more informal study groups or meetups or just glorified slide decks. While it is great that they offer such a wide variety of free content, the downside is that someone who is a subject matter expert who may not be the best teacher is running your class. They also might not be the best places to learn something from scratch or if you have no technical experience prior to taking the class.

While these providers are the more traditional approach to improve your skills, for the purposes of this blog post we will focus on the more traditional vendor-backed training. 

 

Understanding the Benefits of IT Certifications

There are literally hundreds of IT-related certification courses that are currently available (see the chart below for a few of the typical ones). Each one has a complex set of exams, prerequisites and study materials. Before you dive into a particular program and start studying for your certification, the first step is to consider the overall costs and benefits of the target program.

There are many ways to calculate the benefits of having a credential or the knowledge you will gain from this training. For example, what expectations do you have about your job circumstances if you learn these subjects? Will you get a raise, and if so, how much income over the next two or three years? How does that rise in income match up with the costs (we’ll get to these in a moment)? Will you be in a better job position, however you define that?

Another way to calculate benefits is to keep track of those in your department who have already received training and have been promoted or moved into more valuable positions. Or to use this listing of the 29 most valuable IT certifications from headhunter Robert Half. The reviewers break these down by specialty and purpose.

Training expert Ed Tittel has a very simple metric that he uses: “A certification that costs tens of thousands of dollars to earn had better also improve its holders’ income potential by at least one-third of those costs in yearly compensation increases.” Why one-third? Tittel assumes that the typical lifetime of any certification is just three years, so he wants to see a payback over that period. “Otherwise, the cost-benefit argues strongly against shelling out the cash for somewhat less salary gain.”

How to Evaluate a Training Program

As you examine these programs, keep in mind a few checklist items you can use for matching what they offer with what you need. These include:

  • Does the company that grants the certification have independent training vendors offering training programs? The more choices of vendors that provide training, the more valuable the certification and the easier you can evaluate which study program makes the most sense for your particular needs.
  • How big is the program in terms of the total population of IT certificates and how long has the program been in operation? You don’t want to be part of a program just to jump on a bandwagon for a new trend or topic. The ones mentioned in the chart below are well-established certifications.
  • What are people saying on social media about the program? Examine various social media sites and other places where techies hang out, such as Reddit, and see what the buzz is on particular certifications. And find any personal recommendations from someone who has taken the class as well.
  • Is the certificate in demand? Scan job boards to see if the certificate is mentioned in job requirements, along with job surveys and other industry-wide data to see how much demand there is for the credential. In addition, the program and the credentials should be frequently mentioned in various IT B2B publications and other major online news sites too.
  • What kind of peer support is out there? Does the class come with a peer study group or other online discussion forums to help?
  • How current is the program? The better programs are keeping up with what the vendors are doing with their products, and not just testing you on stale knowledge or versions of these products which are several years old.
  • Finally, what is your learning style? We all learn in different ways: some of us require to go through the actual tactile experience. Others learn better through more visual or auditory cues and need materials specializing in these methods. Depending on your learning style, you may wish to focus your attention on online programs that offer those types of materials so you can learn the information and retain it better. You can use this short quiz to figure out which kind you are. For example, if you are an auditory learner, you may wish to use tapes or recorded lectures so you can rewind key portions of the lectures and make sure you understand what is being presented. Tape recorded lectures can help you fill in the gaps in your notes. In any event, while you are listening, you should take written notes and review them frequently. Make sure you have the volume set correctly so you can hear the instructor well. Another helpful hint: after you have watched a portion of the lecture, summarize it and recite it aloud. If you are more of a visual learner, then by all means be sure that you look carefully at all study materials. Use charts, maps, movies, notes and flashcards. Practice visualizing or picturing words/concepts in your mind. Write out everything for frequent and quick visual review. Finally, if you are a tactile learner, trace words as you are saying them or think about other ways that you can involve more of your senses besides just watching a particular lecture. Facts that must be learned should be written several times. Sequences of items, such as the steps to access a particular software feature, need to be experienced several times before they can be memorized. Keep a supply of scratch paper or open up a word processing app on your computer for this purpose. Taking and keeping lecture notes will be very important. Make study sheets and refer to them often. Look at programs that offer more interactive components to the lectures too.

 

Leading IT Certification Programs

Vendor

Certification/URL

What is Available

COMPTIA

Certifications

Four series that cover 13 different tracks, including security, cloud infrastructure and networking.

Amazon

Certifications

Three major tracks that cover architects, developers and administrators of their various Web Services product lines.

Cisco

Certifications

A wide variety of paths and certifications that cover the waterfront from basic networking to more advanced design and dev/ops subjects.

Google

Cloud Certifications

Developer Certifications

Two different tracks with multiple certifications that cover a wide variety of topics, mainly for engineers and developers. Most of this content is free too.

Red Hat

Certifications

More than 30 different certifications that cover virtualization, various DevOps tools and practices, and security topics.

Adobe

Certified Expert

More than 25 different certifications in various Adobe products, along with a variety of other supplementary learning tools.

VMware

Certifications

Four different levels, designed for administrators, engineers, and architects, on different aspects of their products and tools, along with other learning tools.

SANS

Certifications

Four different security-oriented tracks, including software security, web apps, and application penetration testing.

CWNP

Certified Wireless Networking Professional

Nine different specialty tracks covering various aspects of WiFi networking, including design, security and administration.

Microsoft

Certified Solutions Expert

Five different specialty tracks, including mobility, core infrastructure and business applications.

 


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