Home > Blogs > The enduring value of hands-on skills preparation

Some certifications are more valuable than others. IMO, those certifications that demand hands-on interaction with systems, services, and devices deliver more value because they require their holders to demonstrate their understanding and skills rather than just recounting some laundry list of important facts and details.

I've been working the certification patch since the late 1980s, when I had the good fortune to stumble into developing what would become the networking fundamentals course for the Novell certification curriculum. In the many certification exams I've taken, analyzed, reviewed, and even occasionally contributed to in the meantime, I've observed that those exams that put test-takers in hands-on situations create the most enduring and valuable learning experiences. These not only heighten the value of the exam and the credential, but they also translate into more utility on the job, where hands-on is the metier whereby work gets done.

In looking at the credentials with the most cachet and the biggest ROI — take the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, or CCIE as an example — it's the lab exam that really gives the credential its punch (and, of course, which also makes it fiendishly difficult to pass; even some of my smartest friends who hold CCIEs had to try two or three takes at $1,000-plus a pop to get past this formidable hurdle). The same thing goes for other credentials with hands-on lab or practicum exam requirements, including Red Hat's RHCE, Cisco's CCDE, BSD Professional, Juniper Networks credentials, and even various Microsoft MCP exams for MCTS and MCITP.

There's just something about rolling up your sleeves, firing up a console or utility, and working your way through real or simulated problems that sparks the learning process, and cements that learning into your brain. I've found that what I learned by drilling hands on and working through the steps necessary to handle installation, configuration, maintenance and troubleshooting tasks has stood me in very good stead when repeating the same tasks for real. Others who've been through this experience swear by its utility and value as well.

This leads me to three strong recommendations about certifications and hands-on experience:

  1. If you have the luxury of choosing among more-or-less equivalent credentials (the Network+ vs. CCENT is a good example), choose the one that stresses more hands-on and real-world scenario and problem-solving skills and knowledge (CCENT in this case).
  2. For any certification you might pursue, even if its requirements don't include much (or any) hands-on stuff, look for ways to go hands-on as you study and practice for the exam. It will not only help you remember what you need to know when you take your exam(s), it will also carry over onto the job.
  3. Virtualization is your best enabling technology for hands-on experience and access. With a single beefy computer with lots of RAM you can build entire virtual network infrastructurs within the compass of a single PC nowadays. It's no longer necessary to put home labs with tons of gear together to create a hands-on lab for learning; today, you can use simulators, software, and VMs to get the job done. Do so!