Before writing this article, I posed a question to many certified individuals. The question I asked was, “What was the hardest part of your certification journey?” You would expect to hear that the hardest part was the exam(s) themselves. However, many people responded that the most difficult challenge was that they simply did not know how or where to start. They would describe how they heard of a certification, bought a book and started studying. There was no research performed, no plan established, and no evaluation afterword to debrief and learn from the experience.
When I created the seven steps to success outlined below, I did so to help guide myself through my day-to-day activities and work; certifications played no part in the creation of any of these steps. However, over time I noticed that these steps could be applied to the achievement of I.T. certifications. Although these steps can be used with any day-to-day activities, it is my goal to provide you with a structured agenda to assist you in the achievement of your certification goals.
It should be strenuously noted that nothing compares to actual hands-on experience. Studying using books, computer-based training videos, and even instructor-led training should only be a supplement to working with the product and technology you are hoping to be certified on. Certifications are designed validations only. Being certified in a specific technology only means that you have successfully negotiated the required exam(s) as prescribed by the vendor. In short, your certifications should compliment your proficiency, not substitute for it.
One question you should ask yourself before traveling down the long and costly road of I.T. certification is, “Why do I want this certification?” What is the end result you desire? Many individuals new to the I.T. field hear about certifications and seek to acquire them, with little thought about why they are doing so. Without asking this basic question, you run the risk of wasting valuable time and resources on a certification that may not serve your needs. This pattern can prove detrimental to both yourself and the certification program. Certifications do not carry any promise. By achieving them; you are not guaranteed a job, a promotion, or even respect. Your proficiency (combined knowledge and experience) is your money card. Without that, certifications are only worth the paper they are printed on.
The second step of this process will help you determine if you qualify for your desired certification. Almost every certification vendor lists an audience profile on their website. This profile provides information to candidates outlining recommended experience in order to see if they are qualified. If you do not have the recommended experience with this technology, it is possible to still pursue it, but it is not recommended. Remember, experience leads to certifications – not the other way around. With that said, let’s begin reviewing the seven steps to certification success.
1.)Start. How often have you said, “I’ll get around to it”? How many times have you procrastinated in doing the things you actually want to get accomplished? Starting is a huge step and one that many people fail to do. Ironically, your chances of failure are the highest during the Start and Finish steps of this agenda. The failure rate is high during these stages because we try to Start and Finish everything in one enormous motion. We look at a single ominous task and come up with every excuse in the book to not get started. These are normally excuses made out of laziness or fear of failing, because starting something means you’re committing yourself to a project.
2.)Research. I spend a great deal of time in the public and moderated Microsoft newsgroups. Many individuals new to the certification world post the same questions day after day. I do not mind answering these questions, but the questions baffle me because it is so much easier to review a vendor’s website than to post questions on a newsgroup. I highly recommend that you visit the vendor’s website for the certification(s) you are interested in achieving. By doing so, you can obtain key information such as recommended experience, required exams pertaining to your desired certification, and other vital information to help you make an informed decision. Do the research beforehand, and then ask questions to confirm your findings or clear up confusion.
A popular question that floods the newsgroups is, “What is the best study material?” This is a question that is open to interpretation and opinion. What works for one may or may not work for another. Some individuals can read through technical books without much effort, while others cannot get past one chapter without rereading it three times. If you are interested in technical manuals or training kits, visit amazon.com or your local bookstore and examine the differences between the publishers of training kits. Keep in mind that books contain errors. It would be wise to visit the publisher’s website to check for an erratum. An erratum is a list of errors and their corrections inserted in a book or other publication, usually on a separate page or slip of paper.
Classroom instruction is always an option. However, there is the issue of time, cost, and what institution to consider. If Instructor-Led Training (ILT) sounds appealing to you, open the yellow pages and see what centers are in your area. Visit these facilities and talk to some of the students, instructors, and Account Executives. Make sure that these centers are accredited or certified learning partners with the vendor of the certification you are interested in achieving.
There are also “virtual classrooms” known as CBT (Computer Based Training) videos. With CBTs you can learn at your own pace and on your own timetable, revisit lessons that you did not fully understand, and skip lessons that you already understand. Although you can enjoy the comfort of viewing the courses ‘on demand,’ they can be the same cost as classroom training without the benefit of a live instructor to answer questions. Visit the websites of a number of CBT providers and check out their demonstrations. If they do not offer demonstrations you need to decide whether you want to invest your money in a product that you cannot sample first.
Research can be performed without spending a dime. Asking questions and performing research will save you time, money and frustration. Remember, at this point, you are simply researching – nothing more.
3.)Plan. I am certain you have heard the saying, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Achieving your certification(s) will not happen overnight. There is a lot of information to consume and process. Take the time to properly plan your studies. Unless your employer has set a specific date to achieve your certification(s), there is no rush. So grab a calendar, open up Outlook, or get out your day planner and map out a reasonable timeframe to complete your studies. You might want to consider scheduling your exam(s) at this time. You increase your odds of passing by 50% by simply scheduling your exam(s). One thing to keep in mind concerning your plan is that it should be fluid, meaning it can change and adapt. Allow for this and adjust accordingly, because there will be times when life will interfere. Situations that are not conducive to studying will come up. This is where proper planning comes in. When your scheduled plan hits life’s potholes, do not toss out your entire plan; simply adjust to the changes and keep moving forward.
4.)Perform. This step involves executing your plan. You have started a project, researched your goals and options, created a plan, and now know what needs to be done. Just do it.
5.)Finish. This is another step individuals forget to perform. They may start, research, plan and perform but never finish. One reason people never finish is because they are scared to. If you finish, that means you must “know it all, and be ready to take the exam.” That is when self-doubt creeps in. You begin to question if you can pass the exam(s) because you don’t “know it all.” Therefore you adjust your plan to reflect your fear of sitting for the exam(s). When this happens you begin thinking, “This sucks. I will never learn all of this. I might as well just quit.” By not planning to finish, how can you finish your plan?
6.)Test. Now comes the big day – the event you have been working toward. What last minute advice do you need? Simply put: relax. Remember the Karate Kid, “Win, lose no matter. You make good fight.” Here are the facts – you will either pass or fail. If you pass, congratulations – pop the bubbly. But what if you fail? When planning, you need to consider that you may not pass the first time — and this is okay. You evaluate your score, find your weaknesses and start again. Failing an exam is only truly a failure if you do not learn from it.
7.)Evaluate. This is another step individuals seem to skip. You have started, researched, planned, performed, finished, and tested; now you have to evaluate. Sit back and reflect on what went right and what went wrong. Learn from your experience and use that experience to assist you in your next goal. Evaluating forces you to debrief. Performing this crucial step allows you to review, tweak, change, or adjust your future plan for your next goal.
Well there you go – the Seven Steps to Certification Success. Obviously I cannot promise you that by utilizing this process you will pass every exam every time. However, it will help structure your studies and relieve stress by having an organized process to follow. Each one of the steps relies on the one before it and the one after it. How you perform each step is up to you; however, I recommend that you use all seven steps in order. I designed the steps themselves as mini-goals for you to achieve – providing satisfaction throughout the entire process. By completing each step you move closer to your desired certification with the confidence of knowing what has been accomplished and what needs to be done. By using the Seven Steps of Certification Success, you know instantly where you stand on the path to completing your certification.
I truly hope you have found this article inspirational and informative. My goal has been to help you assess and achieve your certification goals by providing you with a structured process to assist you along the way. The road to certification will not occur overnight, and it will not come easy. Remember that certifications are merely by-products of your proficiency. Respect the integrity of the certifications by not cheating the program or yourself by taking shortcuts just to be certified for the sake of being certified. By doing so you devalue the certifications, your trade, and yourself. Good luck and passing scores…
Michael D. Alligood,
MCITP: Enterprise Support, MCTS: Vista Configuration,
MCSA, MCDST, MCP, A+, Network+