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Crafting a Personal Certification Plan (2015 Edition)

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Aspiring or active IT professionals seeking certification will want to construct a personal certification plan to reflect both long- and short-term certification goals. This is a living document that you should update at least once a year to react to changes in the job market, personal and professional interests, and work opportunities and situations. In this article, Ed Tittel and Mary Kyle show you how to construct your personal certification plan.
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As IT professionals move past the point of deciding to pursue one or more certification credentials related to their current and planned careers, the number of options to consider when preparing for a certification can seem daunting, if not outright overwhelming.

In this article, we will explore the various options that are available, and we'll explain the many and various trade-offs and cost considerations that can help you zero in on those that make the most sense for your situation, learning needs, and pocketbook.

Weapons in the Cert Prep Arsenal

Interesting options abound for those who'd like to earn an IT certification of one kind or another. As you examine the following general descriptions, be aware that not all certification preparation options are available for each IT certification credential. But the more popular and sought-after a certification credential is, the more likely it is to have multiple options for preparation.

The following sections describe the most common types of cert prep elements, any or all of which may be available, depending on the particular certification you seek.

Study Guides

A study guide is a collection of materials that are designed to teach the concepts and background against which any IT certification plays. Study guides also prepare candidates for the certification exam by outlining the skills and knowledge they must possess, and the kinds of situations and scenarios they're likely to encounter on the certification exam(s) they must take to earn a credential.

Study guides generally come in the form of large, imposing hardback or paper-bound books. My original impetus to create the "Exam Cram"series was that their formidable depth of coverage and physical weight—I often call these books "doorstops"—literally made these tools hard to hold and use when trying to prepare for an exam quickly and conveniently.

Wiley (the "Mastering" and "Study Guide" series), McGraw-Hill (the "All-in-One" and "Certification Press" series), Pearson (the "Exam Prep," "Exam Cram," and "Cert Guide" series), and Syngress/Elsevier (the "Study Guide" series) all offer lots of these kinds of books.

Expect to pay $40 to $150 for these guides (the more an exam costs, the more the prep books usually cost, too). In addition, Microsoft Press offers Exam Refs, Training Guides, and Training Kits for many of its certifications; and Cisco Press offers Certification Guides and more.

Training Classes

Get a certification program started and gain some critical mass—by which I mean a certified population of 10,000 or more and some degree of interest and popularity in the overall population of IT workers—and you'll start to find various types of classes popping up to help candidates learn and master the materials involved.

Without going into too much detail here (you'll find that in the companion article titled "Pros and Cons of Classroom and Online Training"), classroom training can cost as much as $1,500 per day for high-end, high-value classes at vendor or training company outlets; and as little as $75 per day at local community colleges or technical schools.

Another important training option comes online with a variety of web-based offerings available for numerous certifications that vary from self-paced, standalone, self-administered training materials to instructor-led and scheduled online classes.

The more an online class resembles a top-dollar, instructor-led class, the more its cost will resemble the classroom equivalent; the more it is self-paced and self–administered, and the less it involves an actual instructor, the more its cost will resemble its community college or technical school counterpart.

Candidates who need to fill in knowledge gaps while studying for a certification exam should explore libraries of courses offered by companies such as Pearson IT Certification (this website), Pluralsight (formerly TrainSignal), and Global Knowledge. Pearson offers individual LiveLessons videos covering a number of certifications, available via streaming or downloadable video and/or DVD. LiveLessons offer self-paced, step-by-step learning for users of multiple skill levels. The other sites typically have pricing plans for single courses along with monthly and annual subscriptions.

Practice Exams

Today, practice exams are usually found in a software environment (although you will still find occasional paper-based question banks) in which you will get anywhere from one to five exams' worth of questions, with varying degrees of statistical tracking and analysis of results, recommendations for skills or knowledge infusions, and the like.

Practice exams usually cost anywhere from half as much to just as much as the real exam for which they help you prepare; and the more bells and whistles (and questions) you get to help that process along, the more toward the high end of that price range you'll pay. Thus, practice exams can cost as little as $50 to as much as $500.

When searching for practice exams online, steer clear of braindump exams. A braindump is created by people who have taken the exam and have written down all the questions they can remember. Not only is this practice a clear violation of copyrights and NDAs but it also devalues the certification. Braindumps are often poorly written; and they can contain incorrect or misleading information. Many vendors, such as Cisco, CompTIA, and Oracle offer their own practice exams; and reputable practice exam vendors such as MeasureUp and Transcender provide exams for several vendor certifications.

Flash Cards

A flash card is a series of practice questions and answers presented in an application or in hard-copy format, similar to the index card method used years ago. Many vendors that offer practice exams also make flash cards available, either as a stand-alone product or as a bundle. Flash cards are a great way to drill through practice questions and can help improve your chances of passing the exam the first time.

Exam Crams

I'm tickled and surprised to find myself the creator of this category of prep materials, designed to help those who have learned the material (be it in a class, through a study guide, or a combination of the two). They are usually short (400 pages or less), tightly focused books that help candidates understand and learn what's covered on the exam and how to understand the questions they're likely to encounter.

They do not teach the underlying background or fundamentals needed to learn the material from the ground up. In addition to Pearson Exam Cram, the Cisco Press Quick Reference and McGraw-Hill Passport series both tread the same ground. Expect to pay $25-45 for such books.

Labs (Real and Simulated)

As an increasing number of certification exams become more hands-on, access to an environment in which the tools, technologies, and platforms being tested are available to work (and play) with also becomes more important. Lots of interactive Web sites offer access to real or virtual labs online, whereas numerous vendors offer software-based simulators designed to put candidates in the lab seat so they can interact with important systems and software to help them get ready for their testing center encounters.

Examples of virtual online lab environments are the Pearson Simulator Series (Cisco and CompTIA), Cisco Learning Labs, and VMware Lab Connect. Such labs can cost as little as $20 per hour, a flat fee of less than $100 (access ends after a period of time), and up to thousands of dollars for kits that include hardware and software, plus setup instructions and scenarios to implement or troubleshoot.

For more self-study resources, see my "How to Research IT Certification Study Material" article.

Combining Cert Prep Elements

Many candidates who must fund certification study entirely out of their own pockets take a minimalist approach to acquiring the necessary cert prep elements. At the barest minimum, it means a study guide (usually $50), a practice exam (usually $50), and an Exam Cram (average price $35). This puts a bottom line budget in the neighborhood of $135. Remember: the more the exam costs, the more the prep materials will cost.

At the other end of the spectrum—which often means candidates get support from their employers or decide to bite the bullet and finance a full-boat preparation package—it's not unusual to spend $3,000 to $5,000 on classroom training, with an additional $2,000 to $3,000 for travel, meals, and lodging when candidates must travel to attend class.

Add the minimalist package in for good measure, and you've got a range from $3,135 without travel to $8,135 with travel costs included.

Don't forget that high-end certifications such as the Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA) or the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) also come with hefty exam costs: $3,000 for the RHCA (five $600 exams) and $2,000 for the CCIE ($400 written plus $1,600 lab). Be sure to figure these costs into your budgets as well.

Factors in the Planning Process

As you begin constructing a personal certification plan, you'll want to zero in on the best options for each of the cert prep elements available for your exam. Where books are concerned, you can use customer ratings on Amazon.com, plus reviews or reports on study group or cert-focused websites and forums, to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. This approach will also help you identify the best classes and practice tests as well.

Do your homework! Although there are many options among which to choose, you still only get to spend the same dollars one time. That means your budget has to go up if you buy a practice test or take a class, only to decide that it's not really doing the job you need it to do. If you have to go out and buy more stuff to prepare for your certification, you'll have to come up with more money to offset those added costs. That's why shopping wisely and selecting the best available options are so important to controlling costs.

I've learned to shop with vendors who offer a no-questions-asked return policy for books, and some kind of satisfaction guarantee for classes and practice exams (most reputable training companies allow you to drop out during the first day of a class and get a full refund if you're not happy with the instructor or the facilities).

Also, when it comes to classroom instruction, it's impossible to overestimate the value and contribution of the instructor to your learning experience. Be sure to investigate the best instructors on your topic, and sign up for classes from such instructors. Given that you can pay $1,000 a day or more for time in the classroom, it's absolutely imperative that you get your money's worth from that kind of outlay.

Building Your Personal Certification Plan

Once you learn the options available for the certification you've chosen and you have identified which of those options you can afford, you can start putting a personal plan together. Even if you're going to participate in a 3- to 5-day classroom training adventure, I urge you to spend at least 10 hours per week for a month or two in advance of the class reading through a study guide on the same subject matter. This reading will acquaint you with the basics of the class and prepare you to make the most of your classroom time and the access it provides to your instructor.

Likewise, you'll want to take at least one round of practice exams to identify those subjects that you'll want to pay most attention to and seek out the most help from your instructor to help you prepare for the exam.

It's typical to create a plan that looks something like this:

  • Select and acquire your study materials (and sign up for a class, if you're going to take one).
  • Take an initial round of practice exams to assess your strengths and weaknesses and to drive your study efforts and focus.
  • Work your way through a study guide or class to learn and master material with which you may be unfamiliar or with which you may be entirely comfortable.
  • Take another round of practice exams to identify areas in which further study, learning, or practice is needed.
  • Repeat the three preceding steps until you achieve a practice test score that's 10% higher than the minimum passing score (to offset test anxiety).
  • Sign up for and take the real exam.

With the right set of cert prep elements and a good plan of attack, expect to spend anywhere from 1-6 months preparing for most certifications. High-end credentials (such as the CCIE or RHCA) can take from 12 to 18 months. Other certs typically fall somewhere in-between.

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