Certification – Earn It, Don’t Just Pass It!

Once again we find ourselves at the beginning of another year. For those of us in “Management” roles, this includes preparing all of the Human Resources functions of the job. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past 3 weeks preparing for staff performance reviews and planning staff training programs.

“How are you performing?”

“Where do you want to head in your career?”

“Where do I want you to head in your career?”

and of course…

“How can I help you get there?”

This is usually accomplished through a combination of in-house training / project exposure as well as Industry Certification. Our company has changed its opinion on certification over the past 18 months. While I have always been a bit of a “Certification Wh^H^H Junkie”, others in my company have not been. I’ve had a long battle at various employers in the past trying to promote the benefit of certifications both to the company and to the career of my staff. Needless to say I was very happy to read today’s post from everyone’s favorite Snark-king, Tom Hollingsworth.

It probably goes without saying that I agree with almost everything that Tom has written. Tom compared IT Certifications to Merit Badges – a symbol of your skill level that other engineers can use as a baseline of your understanding. This is exactly how I treat IT Certifications. If your resume says you are a CCNP, then I shouldn’t have to explain the basics of Spanning Tree or OSPF to you. You should be able to answer questions about these topics in a job interview. I’m not talking about crucifying and belittling somebody as an ego boost, but when a job comes in or a network is down, I don’t want to have to walk you through troubleshooting a problem that you are supposed to be certified in.

During a recent round of staff hiring, I came across numerous candidates who listed CCNP on their resume but could not explain the basics of topics that I know are in this certification. Heck, one candidate didn’t even know what I meant by “Spanning Tree”.

I don’t know if its the prevalence of brain dumps, or the rise in the number of educational facilities that include structures like the Cisco Academy into their courses, but rush students through all the theory with the goal of “Passing the Exam”. Maybe its another factor. I don’t know how to say it any other way than:

“Earn your certification. Don’t just pass it.”

I want to be able to use your certification as a base line. If you claim a level of understanding, then I am going to test you on it – and I would rather do that in the interview room than in the smouldering midst of a network catastrophe!

I have had numerous examples of engineers who have gone their whole career as “Copy Paste Engineers”. These guys are clearly evident by their large collection of templates and examples to deploy a whole swag of solutions, but fail to trouble shoot a problem when it arrives, or innovate a new solution should it be required.

These same engineers are the ones who know how to configure OSPF on IOS, but put them in front of a Junos box and they flounder around because they do not understand the basics of how OSPF works to understand how to apply the correct configuration.

This is one of the areas that I believe that Industry Certification can help with, but you must learn and practice the theory and examples. Understand why your configuration has “redistribute connected”. (HINT: The correct answer is not ‘because that’s how I have always done it” – but more on that in a later post!).

Mop and Bucket – Cleaning up!

When I hire engineers, I’m hiring people I want to work with. I want you to be self-sufficient, but work well in a team. I want you to understand you job and the technologies I have hired you for. If I want some one who can copy and paste from notepad all day, then I can hire an 18 year old temp receptionist!

Now go away and pick which certifications or new technology you are looking to tackle, then follow these steps:

  1. What is the basics of X
  2. Practice X
  3. Did X do what I thought it did? If not – repeat Steps 1 and 2.
  4. Try breaking X. Repeat.
  5. Find somebody with more experience with X, and ask them how they use it.
  6. Try this for yourself.
  7. Repeat Steps 5 and 6.
  8. Become Expert at X!

The above may seem overly simplistic, but this is the procedure I try to follow when ever I learn a new technology. I don’t believe I have reached Step 8 for any of these, but I’m pretty sure I have provided input into Step 5 for others.

POST: And if you can’t decide which certifications you want to chase, let me make it a little harder for you! While I was writing this post, there was a tweet flying past from Mirek Burnejko that included the following List of IT Certifications!


  1. says

    Great post Kurt.

    I think we can should also add point 5 before point 1.
    This is very important for beginners with a new technology (who are not passionate yet).

    I had amazing times when I was starting with Cisco technology, because someone showed me CBTNuggets by Jeremy Cioara and a blog of Himawan. My heroes from old times :)

    We should find  “somebody with more experience with X, and ask them how they use it” + teach us how to love the technology.

    Mirek from IT Certification Master :)

  2. many rootsofevil says

    I just think that the whole certification malarky is just a big sham. I work with the devil’s products, in particular Dynamics CRM 2011. There are four certification exams. The easiest one requires at most a weekend of study ( i.e ~ 16-20 hours of study). You don’t even have to had used the product or be able to actually install it and this is the installation exam.
    I certainly have much more respect for Red Hat exams and that is the problem, most certifications are multiple choice exams rather than a test of skill, so yes a merit badge, and yet I know (former) colleagues that have been offered the lower end of the salary range because they did not have a certification.

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