How certification can still be relevant a decade into your career.

Back towards the end of the 1990’s there was a rush towards certification. A large number of people who were breaking into the industry back then used their certification as a crowbar to get in the door at their first job. Many of those people are still in the industry today, working a systems administrators managing servers that support hundreds, if not thousands of clients.

It is interesting to note that many of these people never took another exam once they settled into their career. After getting their foot in the door certification no longer seemed relevant. They had too much on their plate to go chasing new certificates when the old ones seem to have served their purpose.

However, that being said, I’m noticing in my role as an MCT and an author of certification related textbooks that a lot of people whose last certification was an exam in the NT4 MCSE track are today showing interest in recertifying.

There are good reasons for this. In part it is because they want something a little more up-to-date than an NT4 MCSE on their resume. In part it is because many of them have been in the same role for a while and they want to broaden their knowledge and learn something new. In part it is because they use certification as a set of goalposts to structure their approach to learning a product.

Of course, in theory, they could learn something new by just picking up a book or reading a bunch of whitepapers and TechNet articles. So why are these people choosing to return to certification?

I have some ideas:

  • Certifications provide a structured framework to learning. Something to learn and something to measure that knowledge against. It isn’t about the designation - these people have been in their career long enough that the actual certification itself won’t make much difference to their resume. Instead they are leveraging the certification process as a way of structuring their learning. 
  • Certification objectives cover features of a product that you might not be aware of if you purely seek knowledge to complete a specific task. For example, you might have taught yourself how to use System Center Configuration Manager so that you could use it for operating system and application deployment. You don’t bother to learn anything more about the product because you haven’t got time to dig deeper and you don’t have any reason to learn it. If, on the other hand, you were looking towards a certification in SCCM, you’d have to learn about all aspects of the product, not just those that were OS and application deployment related.
  • Certification gives you a goal. Although people might pick up a book on a particular product hoping to learn more about it, most don’t get past the first few chapters because there is no structure to their learning. Think about it this way - when you buy a textbook about a product you use, do you read it from cover to cover? Or do you just go to the index, find the page that solves your current problem, and then put the book back on the shelf? Certification gives you a reason to broaden your focus on a product. A reason to learn about those aspects of the product that you don’t immediately need. Setting a goal that you can accomplish can make you more motivated to learn than just saying to yourself “I’ll read this book and then pick up another”.

Unless you are particularly disciplined as a learner, you’ll probably benefit from a structured approach. Having a set of topics that you have to learn and a exam that you can test that learning against gives you a set of goalposts.

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