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Certification Journey

I’ve been getting asked by a number of peers lately, about my certifications and how I go about getting them.  As I keep repeating parts of these stories, I wanted to document it here on my blog, so that it was easier to point people to, but also give me a place to keep track of my progress.

In the last year or so, I came to a few realizations:

1) If the company/peers you’re with don’t value certification, it’s unlikely that you will or that you will succeed in attaining them.

2) Certification is not always so much about making you an expert in a product, but ensuring that you have obtained a baseline.  So many times I run into situations, be it with peers, consultants, in meetings, etc, where someone will say something along the lines of “We really need to find a way to…..” and I can often pull out information from my certification journey that allows me to offer “We already can, the product we already own can…….” and reference some feature.

3) It is outright frightening how little many IT professionals know about the products they’re supporting.  If you’re still running Windows 2008R2 or 2012 the same way you built and ran Windows 2000 or 2003, it’s no wonder you’re still fighting to solve problems that have long since been solved.

4) If you know the product, PROVE it.   The exams are 2-4 hours long.  Get off your duff and prove it.

5) You can spend your evenings and free time doing:

a) Solving some obscure problem at work that followed you home because you were told to, you were curious, you didn’t want it to beat you or maybe you simply wanted to get ahead of the wave before the next thing crushes you (I spent a lot of time here)

b) Studying for certification exams – which often means learning it the “Vendor Way” vs the “real world way”.  But this is a necessary evil in getting certified

c) Working on ‘home lab’ stuff to try to learn something new or cool or how to do it.

At first glance, those 3 seem like they’d go together very well.  In practice, they fight each other.  Your problem at work might be very obscure and very vertical – you will likely get praise for solving it, but another issue will come along tomorrow, and it’ll be just as obscure.  You can study for the certification, even if you’ve used the products for years, but often you’re going to find that the broad nature of the certification doesn’t focus enough in one place.  Or you can work on a lab scenario that might use some but not all of the features (eg: Your company uses vSphere Enterprise, so the options available in Enterprise Plus are not something you even care about).

Ultimately, I found that A wasn’t actually getting me ahead of the wave.  There was always something new to crush me the next day.  You might solve the issue, but all you’ve done is teach the company that you’ll do it for free.  Not really good for work-live balance.  C was very interesting, but I always felt like “if you know the product, go get the certification, THEN come back and play”.  So that was what I did.

Now, in many of these cases, I had used the product for years, so the number of certifications aren’t impossible to achieve.  But if I was coming at it without years of experience or with it being part of my day to day job and only a fringe portion, I couldn’t have done as much as I did.  Also, the realization that it was time for me to move on from the previous company spurred me on.  I wanted the proverbial ‘good job’, and the new employer or contracts wouldn’t know me from a hole in the ground.  While my resume might look good and detail my achievements, it’s only part of what the prospective employer can see.  So why NOT go the extra mile to get certified?

It doesn’t hurt any, if your significant other supports you either!

So, with all that said and decided, I set about topping up my certifications, based on the products I’d used on a daily basis: Juniper SSG Firewalls, VMware vSphere, NetApp SAN’s, Microsoft Windows Server.

I started out with:

  • VMware VCP4
  • VMware VCAP4-DCD
  • Microsoft MCSE+I 2003
  • A+

Not bad, but not ideal.  I needed more.  So the next steps through the year took me to:

  • VMware VCP5 – VMware Certified Professional 5 via the upgrade path
  • Juniper JNCIA-FWV – Juniper Network Certified Internet Associate – Firewall/VPN
  • VMware VCAP5-DCD – VMware Certified Advanced Professional 5
  • Microsoft MCSA 2008 – Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator
  • NetApp NCDA – NetApp Certified Data Administrator
  • NetApp NCIE-SAN – NetApp Certified SAN Implementation Engineer
  • Microsoft MCITP: SA – Microsoft Certified Information Technology Professional – Server Administrator
  • Microsoft MCSE: Private Cloud

8 Certifications, 9 exams (well, a few more than didn’t go so well….), plus what I already had.  Some, were very easy as I knew the products inside and out.  Others, I’d come into them but was using them day in and day out, and had access to training materials that other co-workers had used when they took the course.  Some, kicked my ass the first time, because I was cocky – and I learned that quickly enough to keep it from becoming a habit.

The good news though, is now when I sit and decide to build something in my home-lab, I don’t feel guilty.  I get to feel like it’s a luxury and hobby, and that the certifications are up to date.  Truthfully, I should have gotten them over a 3-4 year period, but I just never made the time.  It was always too easy to say “Yeah, I should…” or “I’ll make the time….” – but it never happened.

What was more important than the certifications, was what I learned – not all of it product or IT related:

  • People need encouragement.  Sometimes its you, sometimes its those around you.  Give back.
  • Those with less experience, often need, appreciate and soak up mentorship.  Make the time for them.  When you recognize a “thriving weed”, feed it!
  • Equally, know how to identify things that simply bog you down.  It might be bad habits, it might trying to push someone who says they’re interested, but aren’t, or it might be a lack of focus.  Identify the issue, and correct it.
  • BOOK THE EXAM!  Nothing serves like a motivator like actually having a date on the calendar.  That you paid for.  That you asked your employer for time off for.  That you told others about.
  • If you have a very strong understanding of the product, certification is often not the ‘bricks’ of your knowledge – it is the ‘mortar’ that fills in the little bits, and makes everything that much more solid.
  • There is no good reason that an IT Professional cannot study a product they work with currently, in a 3 month period, and pass the exam.  4 a year, is doable, and still having a life.  Often, the vendor courses are only 3-5 days, and that’s only 6-10 4 hour evenings……

I’ll be doing a few more posts where I talk about my home lab environment, and various options for those looking to build one on the cheap, that is mobile, or that borders on the insane.  If you choose to go with the latter, let me know – misery loves company .

Also, this seems like a great place to give credit and thanks to those that helped me, as it certainly wasn’t easy.

  • Robin Tait – the lady who puts up with me, but keeps pushing me.
  • Robert Vance – the kind of co-worker, friend, and peer that you know you can spar with and push you – either to pull yourself up, or to pull them with you and spread what you’ve learned.  Also the kind of guy that you want with you on a critical project, and be shoulder to shoulder in the pit, so you know you’ll both make it out alive.
  • Rick Byrne – never yet a co-worker, but also an Edmonton VMUG leader with myself, who constantly seeks out challenges of his own and likes to goad me into doing more.  I think he has money riding on how crazy my home-lab will get…..
  • Jason Sichkaryk – my Team Lead at Focus, who gives me the time needed and the environment required.  He’s also the guy that gives me the rope that I’ve so far been successfully collecting without hanging anyone, and is incredibly encouraging of letting me work on building labs at work, cross-training, documenting and helping others take a step up as well.
  • Shaun Guthrie – my Director of IT at Focus, for providing an environment that lets me thrive.  Good companies are hard to find.
  • The rest of my System Admin team at Focus – regardless of position, they all like to learn and share ideas.  It doesn’t hurt that they seem to cope with me well…

For those of you out there saying “I’ve been meaning to…..” – Start.

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Categories: Certification
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