I’m a addicted to certifications. I’ve always been good at taking tests, but I didn’t realize how rewarding it could be until relatively recently. I had been in IT for 15 years as a sysadmin and certification had never seemed valuable to me. In 2009, I made the shift from working primarily as a System Engineer to working primarily as a Network Engineer. In 2010, I had the opportunity to attend my first Cisco Live. Attendees of Cisco Live! have the option to take a certification exam for free, so I figured I would take the CCNA composite exam while I was there. I borrowed the Cisco CCNA Official Certification Library from a coworker (all 1500 pages or so) and proceeded to spend the months before the conference reading them. (I took an earlier version of the exam and read an earlier version of the books, but the links are to the current versions).

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As a System Engineer, about 25% of my time was handling Network Engineer tasks, but I thought I was pretty knowledgable and skilled at the networking aspect of my position. Then I read the books. I learned a lot more from them than I thought I should have, given where I thought I was. With hindsight, I can tell you why. I knew my environment well. I knew the technologies and designs that I used, but I only knew the ones I used. When I began studying for the exam, I was learning new technologies and new ways of using the technologies I already knew. I also started learning how the technologies I thought I knew actually worked, instead of how I thought they worked. These discoveries resulted in an attitude change towards certification.

I hadn’t seen the value in certification before. I had done a few certs in the past, but they were online exams and I didn’t put much stock in them. I knew how to do my job, why did I need to spend money on an exam to prove it? I valued experience not certifications. But after I passed my CCNA exam I was psyched up. It was my first proctored exam, I knew it was challenging, and I had discovered some of the value in certification. It can validate your knowledge.

Then I discovered another value of certification; certification provides a clear path for continuing education. What do you do after you obtain your CCNA? You continue on to the next level and start studying for your CCNP. With the Cisco certifications, as you move from Associate, to Professional, and on to Expert, the depth of knowledge required increases. So when you upgrade to CCNP, you dive deeper into routing, switching, and troubleshooting and you take one exam devoted to each. The CCNP certification is a natural progression from the CCNA and provides a straight forward learning path. Since the Cisco certifications are broken up into areas of focus, such as routing and switching, wireless, and security, it provides you path for learning these areas and for advancing your skills in these areas.

As an aside, the exam for troubleshooting (TSHOOT) is my favorite Cisco exam. It’s fun! You should check out the demo if you haven’t looked at it before.

I’ve also discovered that pursuing certification can be personally rewarding. Taking and passing a challenging exam is very satisfying. I will say it’s more satisfying when you crush the exam than when you barely pass, but a pass is a pass. You are still certified and you can still move on to the next thing you want to learn. You receive a nice certificate you can put on the wall. It’s satisfying to receive your official certificate in the mail, especially if you’ve been working on it for a while. I frame mine and hang them in my office. I worked hard for them and I like seeing them there. It’s disappointing when you don’t pass, but then you know where you are weak. You can study a bit more and try again. In a way, it’s more satisfying to pass an exam that has previously beaten you. It’s a sort of redemption.

I pursue certification because I love to learn. I want to become more, to become better, to become the best. That is my drive. Certifications provide a convenient path to channel that desire. Anyone serious about IT as their profession must have this love of continuous learning. The industry moves far too quickly for you to sit on your laurels. Find what you are passionate about. Use certifications as a learning path. Maybe you are just starting and you really want to be a CCNP, or maybe even a CCIE. It’ll take a while, but you will eventually get there! Just keep at it. Even if you don’t want to pursue any certifications, keep learning! Keep studying!

If you aren’t constantly learning, you aren’t doing your job.