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Vendor certifications have their place, but you have to be careful

Vendor certifications come in many different flavors. What's the best route for engineers who want to advance their careers?

A common question for enterprise administrators is whether or not to pursue vendor certifications. Simple question, but complex answer.

Those actually evaluating a certification usually have one or more of the following motives:

  • They want to begin a new IT career without necessarily having relevant experience.
  • They wish to validate their existing skills, hopefully with encouragement from their employer.
  • They are required to get a certificate by their employer to meet a vendor-mandated engineer quota.

So the answer differs, based on the intention that's driving it in the first place.

Ultimately, certifications are worth the investment in time, but for different reasons and at different stages of your career.

If you are new to networking (or just completed college or university), tackling a basic-level administration certification is not a bad idea. Many vendors have schemes to make entry-level exam study resources available for free or at a heavily discounted cost. Often, the "A"-level exams cover network basics (such as TCP/IP and security fundamentals) in a way that is industry-transferable. The temptation is to mop up as many of these certifications as possible, but in my view, this is self-defeating. All this shows is that you know a little about a lot of things, but don't have any real experience in anything. Getting a couple of "A"-level exams under one's belt will at least get you through the recruitment door. In my experience, many recruiters don't differentiate between "A" and the higher-level exams. We've all seen LinkedIn job ads along these lines: "Wanted: JNCIA/JNCIS/JNCIP/JNCIE, $26k/PA." I'm not sure how many JNCIEs respond to advertisements like that, but my bet is: not many.

Better approach to vendor certifications is specialist or professional designation

If you have been working with a given technology for a number of years and want to prove your skills, then it would be worth pushing forward with a "specialist" or "professional"-level accreditation. Depending on the vendor, the difficulty can range from difficult to clinically insane, but obtaining this level of accreditation demonstrates that you have a total grasp of a given technology and not just the three bits of GUI you use daily. Studying for the "S"- and "P"-level exams usually requires more than a bit of lab time and hardware. Depending on your chosen path, this is usually much easier with the support, if not the sponsorship, of your employer.

That said, some engineers are pushed into certification by an employer who needs to meet a quota set by a vendor. These are probably the least willing candidates, but I would argue they have the most to gain. For the employer, meeting certifications criteria is directly linked to product margins. Putting it simply, for every $1 a company spends on training, it will make at least $10 back from the vendor in terms of rebates and other incentives.

Employees who work for channel partners, such as distributors or value-added resellers, often receive a stipend for each certification exam they pass. Depending on the vendor and perceived difficulty, this is in the $100 to $500 range. Given the massive impact that accreditations have on the profitability of channel partners, as exam deadlines approach, it might be a good time for employees to negotiate with their sponsors for whatever classroom training and/or lab gear they feel is needed.

Careful of 'brain dumps' and other factors that degrade certification

Ultimately, vendor certifications are worth the investment in time, but for different reasons and at different stages of your career. That said, the value of certifications has been somewhat eroded by the ongoing use of "brain dumps," a specter which has been in the industry probably as long as certification itself. In my experience, those using verboten materials are often quickly and easily identified; they literally don't know what they are talking about.

Brain dumping only benefits those who are motivated to meet vendor quotas and does nothing for personal betterment or employability. This hasn't gone unnoticed by some vendors, and gradually more draconian actions are being taken to protect the value of certifications. For a start, vendors track support tickets raised by their support partners. If a platinum-level partner is constantly raising basic support issues as Priority 1 incidents, then it is obvious that the partner is not the brain trust reservoir it is supposed to be.

In my experience, there are fewer terrible people with good certifications than there are mediocre people with no certifications, and I know which side of that particular fence I'd rather be on.

About the author:
Glen Kemp is an enterprise solutions architect for a U.K.-based managed services provider. He designs and deploys network and application security tools, including access control, remote access, firewalls and other "keep the bad guys out" technologies. He is also an experienced professional services consultant, delivering elephants and not hunting unicorns. His blogs can be found at and at the Packet Pushers Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @ssl_boy.

This was last published in February 2014

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Are vendor certifications worth the time and money?
Good article Glen - really on the button. I'm in charge of training and certification for my organisation and I agree that forcing or mandating that people need to attain cert is not going to get the best results.

My approach is simple - "what are you interested in, what path do you want to take?" Suddenly the employee is in the driving seat of their own career path and I just help to make this happen (within reason).

Brain dumps: they make my blood boil.