Networking FAQ 2: Certifications

By stretch | Friday, January 9, 2015 at 1:20 a.m. UTC

The most popular, or most common, certification track in networking is Cisco's routing and switching series, which comprises the CCENT, CCNA, CCNP, CCIE. Most networkers obtain the CCENT or CCNA in routing and switching as their first certification, and many progress upward or outward from there. Juniper maintains its own line of certifications roughly in parallel to Cisco's. Although there isn't quite as much demand for Juniper certifications at the entry level, the JNCIE is reasonably sought after. There's also CompTIA, which offers the vendor-neutral Network+ certification, although historically there hasn't been much meat to this cert.

Of course, a number of other companies also sponsor certification programs pursuant to their own market interests: These just seem to be the most popular. There are also a number of companies and non-profit organizations which offer certifications focused on security, wireless, virtualization, and other niches that are of value to many networkers.

How much is certification X worth?

A lot of newcomers to the field get the idea that a certification will guarantee them a certain position or salary. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Remember, in essence a certification is just a good reference: The certification sponsor is vouching for your abilities to the extent they were evaluated by whatever tests you passed. It has value to a potential employer only if he trusts the integrity of the certification and he is in need of someone with that specific skill set. For example, a Cisco CCNA certification isn't very appealing to a company whose network is comprised mostly of Juniper routers and switches.

A lot of candidates are disappointed to learn that they aren't entitled to the same salary as a friend with the same certification. The most commonly overlooked factor in compensation is location: A professional working in New York City might easily take home twice the income of someone doing the same job in a small town, an income disparity driven by regional differences in both demand and cost of living. Also keep in mind that experience generally trumps certification, as skill demonstrated through the execution of real world projects carries much more credibility than a good grade on a test.

While it's impossible to put an exact dollar value on a certification (regardless of what training companies would have you believe), you can roughly gauge the value of one certification to that of another by checking how frequently each is listed as a requirement on job openings. This is hardly a scientific study, but it can lend a nudge in either direction when deciding which of two certifications would be more beneficial to pursue.

How should I study for certification exams?

There are plenty of study resources out there for just about every certification, and it can be difficult to tell which approach is ideal for you. There are a few core types of training material you'll want to consider.

Books

Your first step in studying for a certification should be to purchase a book or two pertaining to the topics the certification covers. Just search for the certification name on Amazon and you're likely to find several titles from various publishers. O'Reilly, Cisco Press, and Sybex (Wiley) are all very well established brands and usually a safe bet. You might also come across gems from lesser-known publishers. Always read customer reviews before purchasing a book, and make sure you're buying the most recent edition applicable to the exam(s) you plan to take.

Books are recommended as the primary study material for a certification because they provide a thorough overview of the content on which you'll be tested. They provide an economic method to judge your level of preparedness before spending money on more costly study tools like exam simulators and instructor-led classes. They also provide much more in-depth content for you to establish fundamental competency with the exam material.

Training Videos

Prerecorded training videos such as those from CBT Nuggets, INE, and iPexpert, and others offer a nice compromise between books and live classes, both in content and in price. Some people prefer videos because they tend to focus better when they hear a person talking to them and have something to watch rather than having to trudge through pages of stagnant text. Video training generally doesn't go into as much detail as books due to time and production constraints, but it can serve as a great refresher for topics you haven't visited in a while. Video training usually costs more than books but substantially less than live classes.

Instructor-Led Classes

Live classes or "bootcamps" are the most costly preparation method (some even include a voucher for the certification exam), but they also have the unique advantage of a human instructor who can provide immediate answers to your questions. Most classes run for one or two weeks at a time and need to be scheduled well in advance. Some classes can cost several thousand dollars, so be sure to shop around and check out reviews from prior students before writing a check (or asking your boss to).

One downside to instructor-led classes is that they don't always operate on your schedule. Some training providers will claim that they run classes regularly, but abruptly reschedule you if they don't have enough students to justify the cost of hosting the class for a given week. Be sure to get a commitment in writing to the dates you've chosen if your schedule isn't flexible.

If you have no prior experience with the topics to be covered, never start with a live class: You only have a fixed number of hours during which you can take advantage of the instructor, and these are far better spent solidifying existing knowledge and filling in gaps than learning fundamentals. At a minimum, read a book or two on the topics to be covered before scheduling a class so you can hit the ground running on the first day.

Exam Simulators

Exam simulators are applications which try to replicate the experience of taking an actual certification exam. They contain questions and exercises similar to what you'll see on the real test, but also provide answers and explanations that help reinforce study. Most offer a timed exam mode, wherein you'll need to answer a set number of questions correctly to pass. You'll also have the option to concentrate on specific topics to improve areas of weakness. Some basic simulators come packaged with study books; others are available as standalone products. The standalone simulators can cost several hundred dollars (US), so you'll need to decide whether they're worth it.

Lab Practice

The most reliable way to evaluate your skills is to try them out on real network gear. Several training companies rent out hosted labs by the hour, or you may decide to build your own (we'll cover building a home lab in a later article). Lab practice is highly recommended, but only after you're reasonably familiar with the theory and configuration concerning the features and protocols you want to implement. This is especially important if you decide to rent lab time: You'll want to avoid wasting time flipping through books while your lab session is in progress.

What's a "brain dump?"

Some unscrupulous companies have taken to selling pirated copies of actual certification exam questions. They pay individuals to take an exam and write down all the questions they can remember immediately afterward, hence the term brain dump. More advanced schemes go so far as to employ video recording devices to capture the entire exam. The stolen material is reformatted and altered in a half-hearted attempt to obscure its origin, and marketed to prospective test takers as legitimate study material. Brain dumps are widely held responsible for the declining value of IT certifications because they allow individuals to pass exams with little or no comprehension of the material.

You can spot brain dump companies by watching for advertising focused on exam pass rates and low preparation times. They also like to boast about the number of "questions and answers" in their pools, rather than their depth or breadth of coverage. Providers of legitimate training materials will emphasize comprehension of the material and disciplined practice. As with any purchase, research your options and look for reviews from prior customers on neutral forums (not testimonials listed on the vendor's own web site). Give the company a call and ensure that you can talk to someone knowledgeable about the certification you want to pursue.

For more background on brain dumps, check out this explanation by CertGuard.

What is the exam experience like?

First, are you confident that you've mastered all the material on which you'll be tested? You shouldn't feel like you're rushing into the exam. Before scheduling the exam, you should be comfortable answering review questions even before checking the answer choices. If you've been using an exam simulator to study, you should be scoring at least 90% consistently (remember that the questions on the exam will differ from those which have become familiar by now). And don't make the mistake so many people do of ignoring that one nagging topic you just can't get a handle on: It will show up on the test. Repeatedly.

The majority of certification exams are proctored and can only be taken at a qualified testing center. Once you're sure you're ready for the exam, you'll need to locate a testing center where the exam is administered and schedule a date and time to take it. Determine which testing provider offers the exam you want to take, and use its web site to find a testing center near you. For example, if you're testing for the CCNA, you'll need to find a Pearson VUE testing center which offers the appropriate exam. Most locations are not dedicated testing centers, but rather independent businesses which contract as exam proctors on the side. These are usually private IT training companies, community colleges, or consulting firms. Occasionally, the organization's primary business might be entirely unrelated to IT certifications (a friend of mine once certified at a tax preparation office). Just be sure that the center is properly accredited by the testing provider before scheduling an appointment.

When selecting an exam time, be sure to allow yourself plenty of travel time, especially if it's far away. If traveling during morning or evening rush hour, be sure to pad your anticipated commute time appropriately. Plan to arrive at least 15 minutes before your scheduled time, or longer if you're unfamiliar with the area. If you arrive late, you may be refused admission and forced to forfeit the exam cost. (Most testing providers require you to reschedule or cancel your exam no less than 24 hours prior.) You'll be asked to pay for the full cost of the exam online when you make your appointment.

When the day comes, be sure to grab something to eat before testing, especially if testing in the early morning or right after work. Avoid fast food or anything you don't normally eat. It's advisable to skip coffee and energy drinks as the caffeine will only amplify any feelings of anxiety. Remember to take with you a valid government-issued photo ID such as a driver's license. You might also be asked to furnish a second piece of ID (credit or debit card, library card, college ID, concealed carry permit, passport, etc.) for extra verification.

Once you arrive at the testing center, you'll be asked to present your ID and sign in. You may have to sign a confidentiality agreement affirming that you won't share test material. You might also be asked to have your photograph, signature, and even fingerprints taken. (Some certification sponsors have mandated these extra security measures in recent years to combat the growing problem of exam fraud.) You will likely be asked to secure your personal effects (cell phone, wallet, keys, etc.) in a locker while you take the exam. This is to prevent people from accessing hidden notes or recording the exam material.

Stop and reassess your physical condition at this point. Grab a cup of water or hit the restroom now if you think you might need it: Once the exam begins, you won't be permitted to leave the testing room. The proctor will brief you on the exam, ask if you have any questions, and then you're on your own!

Exam experiences obviously vary from one test to another, but generally speaking they're pretty boring. Just take your time to read and digest each question completely. On multiple-choice questions, see if you know the answer without looking at the provided options first. Don't second-guess yourself and don't read too much into the question; your gut is usually right. Don't waste time on questions you don't know: cut your losses, or (if the exam allows) go back and answer it later. If you experience any technical issues with the exam (the interface freezes, or a diagram gets cut off by the edge of the screen, for example) inform the proctor immediately.

Most exams will reveal your score and pass or fail status within a few seconds after completing the test. Try not to vomit during this interval. Hopefully you'll be greeted with a happy "PASS" message! But if not, try not to get bummed out; you'll live to fight another day. Either way, the results at this point are final, and you're free to go. The proctor should assist in recovering your personal effects and provide a printout of your score before you leave.

A few certifications, such as Cisco's CCIE, impose considerably more daunting practical lab exams. There have been plenty of stories published by people who have attended a CCIE lab. Here's a great account by Bob McCouch.

I only just barely passed! Does it still count?

What do you call the guy who graduates bottom of his class in medical school? Doctor.

A lot of test candidates who just barely achieve the minimum passing score by one or two questions feel like they didn't really earn the certification. Remember that certification exams are boolean in nature: You either passed or you didn't. And if your score is equal to or greater than the minimum score, you passed. If the exam sponsor wanted the score to be three points higher, it'd be three points higher. Forget about the score and celebrate your accomplishment!

My employer will pay for me to get a certification. Should I do it?

Be careful with this. Many people see this as an opportunity for a free certification, but be sure to weigh the risks against its potential benefits. Many employers require you to front the cost of the exam and reimburse you afterward, but only if you pass. You might fail the exam and get stuck with the bill. This is an acceptable risk if you wanted to pursue the certification anyway, but not if you're doing so only at the request of your employer.

Also check whether your employer is expecting a written commitment from you in return for sponsoring your study. This isn't usually a concern for entry-level exams, but studying and testing for some higher-level certifications can cost thousands of dollars, and your employer may rightfully want to ensure you don't jump ship right after they finish paying for your certification. If you're not comfortable with this commitment, ask to negotiate a repayment arrangement should you decide to leave the company in the near future.

About the Author

Jeremy Stretch is a network engineer living in the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina area. He is known for his blog and cheat sheets here at Packet Life. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.

Comments


Alex (guest)
January 10, 2015 at 2:47 a.m. UTC

Thanks for these last two posts. The problem with me has always been the pressure of the 'timer' but lately been preparing myself mentally. Looking forward to your book.


Tony (guest)
May 10, 2015 at 6:16 p.m. UTC

Thanks very for this post Jeremy. I have found it very useful. :-)


Jason (guest)
October 14, 2015 at 4:47 a.m. UTC

Thank you!!!!!! for your post, helped out alot planning on getting my CCNA soon. Thank you!!!!!.

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