How to Find the Most Useful IT Certifications to Enhance Your Career

earing an online certification

 

Key Takeaways:

  • There are several criteria you should use to evaluate potential certification programs.
  • Consider the costs, time required to complete the coursework and other factors.
  • There are several sources you can turn to for independent evaluations of particular programs.

 

As we move toward working more from home, one of the more interesting options is to obtain additional training through the use of a certification course. However, trying to sort through the hundreds of different IT certifications is daunting. There are courses sponsored by most of the major vendors, including Cisco’s Learning Network, Microsoft’s TechNet and Developer Network and a variety of courses from VMware. And there are programs from independent training outfits or industry associations such as COMPTIA and the SANS Institute. 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.

Costs and Requirements

Costs. What exactly will it take you to complete the overall program and get that credential? Certainly you probably already know the cost of taking the particular training class, but there are lots of other elements of a program. For example, you might need to purchase hardware or software licenses to run the actual product as you take the class too.

And don’t forget about routine maintenance once you get your credentials. “Most credentials run on two- or three-year cycles, and require at least some kind of related activity and expenditure every year,” says training expert author Ed Tittel. You’ll want to understand how often you’ll need to renew your credentials and what activities will be necessary as part of that process. Some programs, for example, require you to pay an annual membership fee in a professional association as part of the credential, and these fees can be pricey. “You will want to keep track of these requirements when you get your initial credential so you can schedule the necessary continuing education requirements and any retaking of the exams,” says Tittel.

Then there is the time to complete the coursework and obtain your credentials. Some programs can be done quickly, in a matter of a few weeks or a month, while others might take the better part of a year or more. Granted, there could be a lot of variation in the completion times, and this can depend on your particular circumstances. Are you going to still work at a full-time job while you pursue your education? Will your employer give you some comp time during the period that you prepare for the exams? Once you obtain your credential, are you expected to stay working for your existing employer as part of some quid pro quo or written employment agreement?

Finally, there is the interlocking web of which credentials depend on others that can make the average college course catalog simple by comparison. For example, one of the top Cisco credentials depends on a candidate obtaining a valid Cisco Certified Design Expert credential, which has its own series of requirements of written and practical knowledge tests. Then, candidates must submit an application and participate in an interview. Once approved, candidates will be given an architectural challenge, which they will defend before a live board review. This all adds up: the program costs thousands of dollars and takes several months even for the most qualified candidates.

Calculating the Benefits

There are various ways to calculate the benefits of having a credential, as we mentioned earlier. What expectations do you have about your job circumstances if you obtain this credential? 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 that you calculated above? Will you be in a better job position, however you define that situation?

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.”

woman learning online

Evaluating Each Certification Program

Once you calculate the costs and benefits, you need to look closer at the particular program and ensure that it will deliver the goods. There are three good places that you can look for independent evaluations of these programs. The first is from GoCertify, which has an online evaluation tool that asks you a series of questions, such as what subject area you are interested in and whether you need to renew your certification or obtain a new one. They will recommend a course of action, and they also offer a handy cost calculator on their site to tally up the various fees. A second place is a listing of the 29 most valuable IT certifications from headhunter Robert Half. The reviewers break these down by specialty and purpose.

A third resource comes from Tittel. He has links to his numerous articles published on Pearson’s education site about the certification process. While some are outdated, there is a lot of great advice here. He also goes into detail about how to evaluate training programs, including examining their independence from the sponsoring vendor, the size of the program, how much in demand is their certification and what kind of support you can expect.

Summary

While working from home is a nice way to carve out some time to improve your training, realize that you will need to also invest some time into figuring out your best path. In the end, the certification is “just one data point in evaluating the worthiness of a training program,” says Tom Hart, the COO of Eliassen Group, a major IT staffing operation based in the Boston area. “It isn’t where or how someone has been trained, but what they really retain and how they apply that knowledge to their job’s daily responsibilities. Just because someone got a computer science degree from Harvard doesn’t mean they are a better programmer than someone that was trained online or at a local community college.”

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 line.
Cisco Certifications A wide variety of paths and certifications that cover the waterfront from basic networking to more advanced design and operations subjects.
Google Cloud Certifications
Developer Certifications
Two different tracks with multiple certifications that cover a wide variety of topics, mainly for engineers and developers.
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 Wi-Fi 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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