Technical Certifications: Why and How?

A plethora of certification options are available from Microsoft, Cisco, Citrix, VMware, and other technology companies. Why do people seek technical certifications, and what process does a technology vendor follow in the development of an exam?

Most technology vendors publish charts and graphs that show you will earn a higher salary if you have some of their certifications. In the case of the Cisco CCIE, the company’s grueling top-level certification, that is truly the case, and those who obtain CCIE truly deserve extra-large paychecks.

Why Get Certified?

Let’s talk about why people seek technical certifications. Generally, there are four key reasons for spending many hours studying for and taking exams:

  • Base knowledge: Someone fresh out of college or technical school takes exams and obtains certifications in order to demonstrate a base technical knowledge.
  • Employer pays for and/or requires it: The cost for certification exams is being borne by your employer as a benefit or due to their being a job requirement or objective.
  • Promotion or recognition: Certification lets you meet requirements for promotion or enables you to post your certifications on your wall.
  • Seeking a new job: Certifications look great on a resume and may be what separates you from other job candidates.

With the exception of those with an employer who requires certifications, most people take exams to boost their resume and increase chances for new opportunities. A resume filled with numerous certifications is certainly impressive. Not only does it show a great deal of initiative, but it demonstrates that a person is willing to go above and beyond.

Of course, the time required to obtain technical certifications goes far beyond the hours spent actually taking the exam. In most cases, many hours of studying and lab exercises are necessary to successfully tackle an exam, and even if your employer pays for training courses and exam fees, at least some of the preparation time is your responsibility.  Thus, each exam requires a bit of sacrifice on the part of the candidate who takes it.

Many consultants hold numerous certifications due to client and/or partner requirements. If a consultant works for a technology partner, a specified number and level of certified individuals are often required. For example, Citrix requires that its sales partners hold specific certifications. Further, independent consultants are often highly certified in order to satisfy requirements of RFPs and client expectations.

Having been on both sides of technical exams—i.e., exam development in addition to sitting well over fifty exams from several technology vendors—I know that there are some exams that are poorly written; some that test endurance; and finally, those that truly grade technical ability. Of course, the latter is the goal, and much effort is required in order to reach that goal.

Exam Development

Exam development is a science, and this industry comprises many highly educated individuals. At a high level, exam development is based on analysis, preparation, and then more analysis.

Initial analysis of the exam requirements include not only the contents of the exam itself, but also the style of the exam questions: e.g., will the exam be entirely multiple choice, or will it include activities such as short labs or graphics choices? Further, the business side of an exam must be considered. How many people will likely take the exam, and how does that fare against the costs associated with the exam preparation?

Once the analysis is complete and the decision is made to proceed with developing an exam, assembling a team of technical experts to write and review exams is necessary.  Finding these key individuals is difficult, and obtaining their time is even more of a challenge. This facet of the process may take several weeks to several months.

After the exam materials are reviewed from a technical perspective, items such as grammar, ease of reading, style, and general content must go through a final review. Is the exam too difficult? Is the exam too easy? What is the passing score? Most often, these final questions are addressed as part of the beta exam.

Thus, the entire exam development process often takes several months. From the student perspective, the frustrating aspect of this is that when the exam is released, it may be based on engineering lab scenarios, not reality, or it may be a version behind the current version.

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