I’m gearing up for a new certification effort, but after eighteen years of progressive experience in IT, a piece of paper or some new initials in my email signature was an extrinsic motivator I didn’t need. Still I found something about the entire process inviting and realized that it was the intrinsic benefits of certification that was attracting me. So I thought I’d share what some of those intrinsic benefits are.
Benefit #1: Knowledge: Right — I was interested in learning after all.
What do you do when you want to learn a new ‘thing’? How do you build up knowledge on that thing? There’s the UDP-study method: You can go on a research bender and read everything you can find on this subject and somehow synthesize it and assemble it in your mind. You read articles and how-to’s in any order you find them, dropping ones that are too technical only to hope they resurface later in your studies when prerequisite knowledge has been processed.
But after all of this, how do you know when you’re done; when you know enough on a topic to satisfy your appetite? UDP has no concept of an established session after all.
Seeking certification can be a good approach for this. The path to certification involves classroom or self-study methods with a prescriptive standardized lesson plan. It’s the TCP-study method: The topics have already been developed and properly sequenced so that there is an efficient beginning and end, and the modules build on one-another. There is a clear start and finish.
In my new role, I’m required to have a degree of expertise in campus wireless LANs. All my time working with data center networks, servers, and storage didn’t teach me a thing about enterprise WiFi. So in order to being myself to a level beyond “I run my home router on channel 6 and my neighbour runs theirs on channel 1”, I need to start studying.
Whether CCNA Wireless or CWNP, someone has written an ordered lesson-plan for me, followed by some exam that proves I’ve retained what I’ve studied.
Benefit #2: Self-assurance: I may not know all the details, but I know enough to hold a room.
We technical people can be quite cruel to one-another without even realizing it. We probe each other in order to establish the groundwork for how deep a technical discussion will go. The first few exchanges of a conversation with a new tech-savvy peer is a bit like a TCP handshake:
- Feelers are put out with a technical question or comment (SYN) and you know you’re being assessed for technical depth.
- Succeed (SYN/ACK) and you pass the sniff test (ACK), and therefore establish a session of mutual respect.
- Fail (???/???), and the conversation needs to take a different direction (RST).
Every once in awhile I get deep into a discussion with a client, a colleague, or an industry expert and I get that sudden feeling: ‘Uh-oh, they’ve lost me’. Knowing that I’ve got something concrete to my technical foundation is the difference between being able to confidently stand my ground ask for more details, and timidly cowering behind a veil of impostor syndrome.
Put simply – I don’t need a cert to show others what I know, but rather to reassure myself what I have learned thus far, and allow myself to confidently continue to learn from others
Benefit #3 Mentorship: Because I’ve had the concepts spoon-fed to me, I can provide the same bite-sized chunks to others.
This isn’t specific to certification, but of any educational pursuit. There is an intrinsic benefit in taking another look at foundation level concepts, especially if you were never taught them before. You learn how to teach them to others.
Many of us did not develop our technical skills formally; rather they were learned on the job, usually during (or after) a serious outage. If we were fortunate, we probably had mentors who shared their tricks with us. As we grow in our careers, eventually we become the mentors.
Ever try to explain to someone with little to no network experience what “layer 3” means? How far did you get into explaining the OSI model before you lost them? For me it was the moment I realized I couldn’t explain the specifics of encapsulation/decapsulation without getting overly technical, because I hadn’t had to break it down like that in over a decade.
What I got out of studying for the entry-level CCENT certification was not only a brush-up on this foundational knowledge, but the ability to also deliver the information in the same bite size chunks as I was getting it from the textbooks. I was learning how to teach.
There’s nothing wrong with seeking a certification for the more well known extrinsic benefits of career advancement and recognition. That was certainly my motivator when I first sat the CCNA all those years ago. Debate all you want about which credentials are better or more recognized; the fact is that they can help those seeking advancement in their careers. It’s just that not everyone has those desires, and for that crowd I argue there remains very valid reasons to pursue the same path.
So for those anti-certification folks out there, I challenge you to pick a certifiable topic; something you know well, or maybe something you’ve been meaning to learn. Set a goal to get certified in something and go through with it. The piece of paper be damned — do it for the personal growth factors.
In the end I believe you’ll realize the benefits I’ve listed above, and perhaps even a shared respect for those who’ve earned the same designation before you, even if their motivators were entirely different.