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Security Certifications: Required Versus Recommended Experience

An IT certification sets a person apart from the others. Having a certification can make the difference between getting the job offer (or not), getting a raise, or a promotion. To get a certification, a person needs to invest time and effort. And sometimes, there also must be proven experience. But what if a person has no experience? For some, the certification is the person’s career-starter. For them, there is a welcome difference between required experience and recommended experience. This article gives pros and cons through example certifications.
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It is no secret that certifications can help your career. A certification can gain you more respect, higher salary, or increase your position and responsibilities. If someone is looking for a new job or to switch companies, a certification can open the door for an interview.

Often to get the certification, we first need to demonstrate some amount of job experience. But what if we don’t have it?

IT certifications and experience— it is the classic “chicken and egg” problem. For some people, a certification can be the difference between getting a job or not. For others, job experience can be the difference between getting the certification or not. Let’s debate which should come first.

When Getting the Experience First Wins

When do you choose experience over getting a certification? In short, any time you can. Any time you gain experience, especially the kind that really challenges you, then you win.

Sure, getting the certification can lead to a raise, promotion or an entirely new job. But if given the choice between having a cert and having the job, it’s a no-brainer. It’s the job that pays you both now and for the foreseeable future. Said another way, a certification provides “proof” of knowledge or know-how, but it’s experience that provides a paycheck, knowledge and know-how. Lastly, experience works toward the requirement for a certification, when your time comes to apply.

True, some people procrastinate, putting off that certification for years and years. To them, I add this: anyone who ignores certifications does so at their peril. If someone is employed (and wants to stay employed), training and professional development are critical. Technology moves too quickly, and many positions require specialized expertise. Finding valued personnel with that expertise is difficult for companies, but it beats keeping employees who refuses to improve themselves. Fortunately, certifications offer companies a way to sort out and categorize that expertise. Knowing what skills are needed can translate easily into what certification might satisfy the need. This is the reason job postings often read like a certification shopping list.

To reiterate, experience is best when it is constantly challenging you. Otherwise, boredom at the job may result in you getting stuck in a rut and neglecting professional development. If you don’t stay abreast of constantly-changing technology, you risk losing your competitive edge at the next job interview. At that time, you’ll wish you got that certification when you had the time.

When Getting the Certification First Wins

Getting a certification, with or without experience, can deliver big, too. Minimal experience might satisfy a certification exam requirement. If so, you are entitled to go for that certification. However, if a candidate has little-to-no prior experience, getting the certification can still be valuable for creating job opportunities. There are plenty of jobs out there where the hiring manager first looks for the easiest way to gauge level of knowledge: what certifications does the candidate hold?

But be careful. A person holding a certification with zero related experience looks suspicious. Note I didn’t say “...can look suspicious,” but honestly, it looks suspicious. And in an interview, you may have to answer for the lack of stated job experience. A winning response is this honest one: you’re looking to put into practice the skills you’ve learned through study and hard personal effort. Why does that win? It shows you have a burning desire to prove yourself. You’ve done what you can by preparing for, and getting, the certification. Now it’s the manager’s chance to apply your desire to the company’s needs.

Experience and Certification Both: A Win-Win

Okay, certifications “prove” you have a learned knowledge of the subject. And having experience can be considered an education from “the school of hard knocks.” We understand employers look for both.

Does it really matter which one comes first? Well, it does when the certification demands prior job experience for applying. Yes, some certifications require experience, and some only recommend it. Many people assume those that only recommend experience are “lesser” than those first requiring it. Read on to disprove that.

How Certs Recommending Experience Outshine Those Requiring It

CompTIA is a great example of a certification body that doesn’t require experience. In fact, by my research, none—yes, none—of their certifications require experience. Does this make them a lesser choice? If you think so, you’re in the minority. Glancing through job postings will tell you that the Project+, CTT+, and Security+ are plenty in demand.

Going further, a few CompTIA certifications have become an established standard across the IT industry. For example, some CompTIA certs are identified as a prerequisite toward more advanced certifications, e.g. the Security+ for Microsoft’s MCSE: Security. Another example of being the standard is how they apply toward promotions, e.g. Security+ to reach higher levels for US Department of Defense technical positions. Is it possible that all this industry respect and leverage is bestowed on a certification with no experience requirement? Yes.

Hiring Manager Case Study: Certification Trumps Experience

Let’s say you are a manager and you have a job opening. You have two candidates for a networking position: a mid-level networking administrator. One candidate has 12 years of experience. The other candidate has 2 years experience and is a Cisco CCIE. Who do you choose?

Apart from the 10 year difference in experience and the certification, the candidates are the same. You know the job requires a candidate with proven knowledge and your boss wants you to make “the right decision.” So, you opt to hire the candidate with the certification.

I hope by now you see the job interviewer’s decision was easy. The CCIE holder has proven their skill, and established their level of expertise through a standardized test. Meanwhile, we’re left unsure how the experienced veteran has spent the past 12 years.

Right now I hear you screaming at the screen “No fairthe CCIE is a really tough test!” Yes, I agree. To gain the CCIE certification, candidates must first pass an extensive written knowledge test and then a grueling lab test. For the lab test the candidate has 8 hours to demonstrate a working knowledge (at expert level) to solve complex problems created by the exam proctors.

Yup, it’s tough. But the certification is what it is—proof of knowledge. And by the way, the CCIE certification does not require any job experience. Not even the two years this candidate had.

In Closing: Experience is Recommended, Not Required

Having the certification means there’s no denying it—you should know what you’re talking about. And while a certification does not make you “experienced,” it does set the expectation that you possess the knowledge.

Experience, however, sets no expectation. If you say you held your job title for 10 years it still tells me nothing, sets no expectations about what you actually did for those 10 years.

And be honest, how would you compare someone with 10 years’ experience in one role, against a person with 2 years’ experience each in 5 related roles? Yes, you’d take the diversified person experience in a heartbeat. How much more valuable is 10 years compared to 2 years now?

A certification contains a known body of knowledge, shown by the exam’s objectives. Meanwhile, experience provides no assumption of your responsibilities. Or at least, not without a detailed description of your past job’s responsibilities. Many hiring managers simply don’t have the time for several detailed discussions, and could sooner filter by a certification’s exam objectives to set their own expectation.

What does this mean to you? Optimally, it motivates you to solidify and clarify your experience with a relevant certification. For those without experience, we demonstrated experience is not critical. It’s better to demonstrate your motivation and knowledge, than to keep the interviewer guessing.

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