To certify or not to certify, that is the question

This summer, I am making my annual trip to the Stratford Festival to take part in a performance of “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare. This classic soliloquy from the play “To be or not to be“ got me thinking about certifications. Which are truly worth our time and effort? As the Prince of Denmark might say, which IT certifications are worth “taking arms against a sea of troubles”? After all, many certifications involve a significant amount of work.

Before you embark on your next certification journey, use this five step process to supplement your decision making strategy.

1. Career Goals: Where do you want to be a year from now?
Your career goals are the single most important factor in guiding decisions about certifications and continuous learning. A certification can be used to deepen your existing expertise (e.g. you already work in IT security and would like to move into a governance role so you study for an ISACA certification). Alternately, earning a certification can also help you transition into a new area.

Action: decide on your career goal for the next 12 months (e.g. earn a pay increase in your current role, achieve company recognition for excellence, or obtain a promotion).
2. Organization Factors: What does your organization value?
There are many certifications on the market with varying levels of credibility, specialization and cost. If your goal is to seek advancement or career development with your present employer, it is vital to take their past behaviour into account. You simply need to determine which certifications are most widely respected and held at your organization.

  • Use your internal network. Ask your colleagues, your manager and other people you know which certifications they consider most valuable.
  • Use Linkedin advanced search. For those working in large organizations with many offices, LinkedIn advanced search is particularly useful. Enter your employer name and search for people with job titles that align with your career goal. Next, read 5-10 profiles to see which certifications are frequently mentioned

3. Count the cost for certifications
Years ago, I had a friend who was determined to earn elite level computer networking certifications. These certifications requires years of study, travel to test centers and a considerable investment in your own equipment.

From my own research, there is a correlation between certification challenge and market rewards. Easy to obtain certifications are perceived as valuable in cases where many people have obtained them. A high end certification such as the Project Management Professional (PMP) often takes several months of study, in addition to the exam fees of approximately $500. The PMP certification is also notable for the requirement to have work experience on projects – study is not sufficient to earn the PMP.

Exception: There is one exception to this rule. Certain certifications are considered “table stakes” that are needed to perform a certain role. For example, you may notice that all the Microsoft developers at your organization hold multiple Microsoft certifications. In that case, earning the entry level certifications may be necessary to success in that role.

4. Register for the certification
Once you have identified a relevant certification or your goals, go ahead and register for it! For those of us who love data and information, it is easy to get stuck in analysis paralysis. At a certain point, you simply need to register and start working on the certification.

5. Consult your network for study tips and advice
As you work toward the certification, seek out resources to help you focus your efforts. If you are working toward the PMP certification, I suggest you read 21 Actions You Can Take Right Now To Get PMP Certified by Cesar Abeid.

For additional perspective, please also read my article: 5 Lessons Learned From Becoming A PMP.

Discussion question:
What IT certifications have you earned this year?

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Bruce Harpham
Bruce Harpham
Bruce Harpham writes about project management training at Project Management Hacks. His experience includes leading cost reduction and process improvement projects in the financial industry. Sponsors make or break IT project success. Learn how to build an effective project sponsor relationship with our new report. Go to Project Management Hacks to receive the latest articles.

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