How much knowledge will I gain by studying for a certification?

November 25th, 2008 | by Ivan Pepelnjak |

I received an interesting comment on one of my knowledge/certification-related posts:

“I used to think that certifications were a useful indicator of knowledge or at least initiative, but I’m changing my mind. [...] I feel like I’ve gotten a lot out of studying for certifications, especially CCIE, but I’m starting to wonder if that’s the exception.”

I guess a lot of prospective internetworking engineers are thinking along the same lines, so here’s my personal perspective on this issue.

The answer most commonly heard in the Cisco ecosystem applies here as well: “It depends.” If you’re pursuing certifications purely to enhance your career chances, increase your salary or get access to better jobs, using any means necessary to get there (including brain dumps), you won’t get a lot of knowledge out of that process.

Maybe you’ll remember some of the memorized answers long enough to be able to serve them during a job interview, but unless you’re a hidden genius (in which case you wouldn’t have to cheat anyway), you won’t be able to arrange the building blocks covered by the certification topics into a meaningful picture that would help you to understand the underlying principles needed to design, configure and troubleshoot networks.

However, if you want to build your long-term career around the internetwork technology, pursuing a relevant certification is a good way to increase your knowledge. I like to compare certifications to academic degrees: they provide a comprehensive roadmap that gives you well-rounded knowledge in multiple areas that you can later enhance with on-the-job experience and further focused study. As with the academic degrees, some of the topics will be highly irrelevant, some of the others covered only sporadically or not to the depth you’d like to see, but that’s the reality of any structured curriculum; it cannot address all personal needs and wishes. Plenty of material and learning aids are available to help you increase your knowledge, including classroom training, e-learning, remote labs, simulations, computer-based training, recordings and books. If you approach these learning materials with the attitude “I want to understand what’s going on,” instead of “I want to pass the exam at any cost,” you’ll increase your knowledge dramatically while getting the certification almost as a side effect.

Let me conclude with a highly biased personal opinion: if you really want to gain knowledge (and you can afford it), don’t use the “exam preparations,” even if they come from reputable sources. If you go to a certification center and pass the exam without ever seeing a sample test question (which you should be able to do if you’ve invested enough time in your studies), you’ll dramatically increase your confidence and self-esteem. If you fail, you can still fall back to the “proven” methodology and prepare for the next try with hundreds of practice questions.

  1. One Response to “How much knowledge will I gain by studying for a certification?”

  2. By Scott V on Nov 28, 2008 | Reply

    I agree with this sentiment Ivan. In fact, I just spent nearly two months (pretty much full time) preparing for R&S recertification so that I could thoroughly review all topics, with an emphasis on those I haven’t touched since my lab prep days.

    I also think it’s important that people not “over certify.” On one of the mailing lists, we’ve been hearing from some young chap who certified R&S with zero years/months/days of industry experience. And he noted his extreme boredom during lab prep, which I think is telling as far as where his passion likely lies. Cisco and other vendors should protect their expert-level certifications with a “years in industry” requirement, IMHO. How can you possibly be an expert at something you’ve never done outside of a home lab environment? (And let’s face it, even the real lab barely mimics a live network with mission critical traffic flowing every which direction).

    Hopefully this comment isn’t too OT, but I see these issues as being tightly interwoven…

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