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Choosing the right certification

Asking yourself whether the certification plan you plan to pursue is right for you is important. You should ask this question before you start studying for your first exam, and you should revisit this question later to make sure you are on the right course. Many students dive headlong into this or that certification track only to realize several months down the road that the track they are pursuing is not the best one for them. After wasting hundreds of hours and sometimes thousands of dollars, they are forced to start over.


A good analogy would be a person beginning college. Many college freshmen are undecided about their major when they enter school. Typically, the most successful students are the ones who spend time considering their options and thinking about what they want to do with their life. Those who don’t take time to do this, or who choose a major because their friends are doing it or for some similar reason, often become confused and frustrated. They may change majors later only to find that many of the classes they took toward their previous major won’t count toward their new major. Instead of graduating in four years, they might take them five or six years to graduate.


You should take steps to make sure that you are on the right path before you begin. You’ll never know beyond a shadow of a doubt, but in most cases you’ll have a pretty good idea about whether you’re headed in the right direction or not. It just takes a little bit of planning and perhaps some good advice from others. If you want to be certain that the path you’re on is the right one probably the best thing you can do is ask questions of others. Track down people who are doing the job you aspire to. Find out from them what they enjoy about their job and what they do on a day-to-day basis. Ask them what they don’t like as well. Their answers may surprise you. Many jobs seem very desirable from the outside looking in, but in reality are not as much fun as they seem.


Consider a hypothetical story involving Alex, a former salesman who has decided that he likes computers more than he likes sales. He wants to change careers and enter the IT field. He hears about certification and decides that it would be a good way to get his foot in the door. However, Alex isn't sure which certification he should pursue.


Alex reviews some salary surveys and talks with his friends in the industry. He learns that the hot job right now is Punch Card Operator (remember, this is a hypothetical story). The relevant certification for that occupation is the PCCSE (Punch Card Certified Systems Engineer). The most recent salary survey from PCCSE Magazine says that the average PCCSE makes more than $100,000 a year. Alex decides that he will become a PCCSE. He has no idea what such a person does, but he's going to go for it anyway. After all, he just needs to pass several exams and then he'll be making the big bucks.


What's wrong with this scenario? Alex has let the certification choose him rather than the other way around. He has based his decision solely on what people say is hot and on salary surveys rather than taking into account his own interests and skill set.


What's bound to happen? Alex may or may not get certified as a PCCSE, but at some point Alex will find out that he really doesn't want to be a Punch Card Operator for the rest of his life. In fact, he might find it outright boring and wish that he had never gone after the certification. At this point, he has "wasted" several thousand dollars and many of

months of diligent studying to learn something that he will never apply in the field.


What would be a better approach? First, don't base your decision about which certification to pursue solely on salary surveys and others' opinions of what's “hot." What’s “hot” changes over time. At one time, the Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) certification was hot. After that, the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification was the rage. Next came the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification. Certifications don’t seem to stay hot for more than a couple of years before they are replaced by another “latest and greatest” certification. A problem with pursuing the “hot cert” is that the certification that seems the hottest when you begin your  certification track might not be the hottest by the time you finish. The simple laws of supply and demand are in effect and as more people pursue and achieve a given certification, companies become less willing to pay increased compensation to them because of the larger supply of certified individuals.


You should realize that people earn good money in nearly every area of technology. The average salary for an MCSE might be $10,000 a year higher than that of the average CNE, but a large number of CNEs make more than most MCSEs. In the end, you have to pursue doing something that you enjoy; you'll be happier and more enthusiastic. And guess what? You'll probably earn more money than if you had pursued an area that you don’t like.

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