Figuring Out a 'Certification Space' for Yourself
Earlier this week I had the singular pleasure of revisiting a certification analysis that I had undertaken for a publisher back in 2019. A different publisher wanted a fresh, 2022-current look at the "certification space" involved, so I decided to circle back to what I had done roughly four years ago.
In this case the term "certification space" refers to the certs that cluster around specific topics or technologies. One thing that's a hot topic right now (and for the past couple of decades) is information security or cybersecurity. A technology that's driving a lot of current interest is cloud computing.
In my case this week, it was a slightly different topical nexus, but one almost as ubiquitous and popular as either of those examples. The exact topic doesn’t matter: What does matter is how one goes about figuring this stuff out.
Properly approached, my process of sifting certifications defines a model for deciding which certs are of greatest potential interest depending on where you are in your current career track — and where you’d like to go next.
Step 1: Performing Reconnaissance
The first thing to do is to pick out the certs that a) apply to your topic or technology, and (b) are of sufficiently significant value and interest to be worth pursuing. I’ll tackle these in reverse order, because if a given set of credentials are not worth pursuing, then why bother to check them out?
There are two factors that determine whether a particular IT certification worth is pursuing. First, who sponsors the credential? On the vendor-neutral side, I recommend organizations that represent industry interests (e.g. CompTIA, ) or specific technical focus areas (e.g. (ISC)², ISACA, The Open Group, SNIA, and so forth).
You want to steer clear of companies or organizations that create IT certifications primarily as a means of selling training courses and related materials (study guides, practice tests, lab time, and so forth). You also want to make sure that a given certification provider has some name recognition, and has been around long enough to be demonstrably on the up-and-up and financially viable.
On the vendor-specific side, you already know how to play this game: If you don’t use, or haven’t heard of a given certification provider's products, platforms and so forth, then you probably won’t get much value out of their certs, either.
Second, there’s the known value of the cert itself. Does it show up in IT-centric career and certification surveys? Can you find it here at GoCertify and elsewhere online? Is the certification referenced by multiple reliable sources of information: trade magazines, traincert websites, training companies, and so forth.
As a kind of litmus test, you should plug the name of a credential you're investigating (and/or its acronym) into Amazon.com and see what pops up in response. If you don’t get a broad or deep set of results, then you can pretty much dismiss the credential, however you found it, right then and there.
Step 2: Analyzing Costs and Requirements
Call this step something of a reality check. As a hypothetical example, consider a cert that costs more $10,000 to earn and takes 18 months to complete. That’s a major investment of time, money, and effort for anyone. Deciding whether it’s worth going after requires some hard-boiled economic analysis.
If you can recoup the cost in a year or two, based on increased salary and bolstered future career prospects, then such a cert may be worth the investment. Otherwise, it’s probably best to steer clear, especially if you would have to borrow money to eventually secure your certified status.
This is not purely hypothetical, either: such costs can be on the on the low end for real-world, high-value certs. Many name brand credentials like Cisco CCIE, SAP Professional, SANS GIAC, and others, come with a high financial bar to clear.
When determining costs and time budgets for a certification, consider the following: cost of exams, cost of training, and cost exam prep materials. Nany programs, especially on the higher end, require official training as part of the pre-exam preparation process. Such courses often cost $3,000 and up and may and require travel to and lodging near specific training centers.
Look to study groups (many of these are sponsored by a given credential's parent organization and provide access to prior and current cert candidates from their programs) to form your idea of how long it takes to complete a certification, what kinds of prep works best, and what a typical journey to earn the credential in question looks like.
At this point, you can start whittling down your list of potential choices, and pick out a top five. If you are really ambitious and your career has landed you in an active, busy topical or technical area, then you could even map out a top 10 list.
Step 3: Analyzing Job Postings
This is where the rubber really meets the road. First, I look for jobs related to the general area of interest and try to focus one one of three broad career levels depending on the target certification: entry-level (job titles include words like foundation, fundamentals, basic, associate), mid-career (professional, practitioner), and pinnacle (expert, master, architect).
In all cases, you can also gauge what level of qualification a prospective employer is seeking by looking at how much salary they are offering, relative to other jobs in the field. Generally speaking, high salaries are reserved for those who have potent qualifications.
Then I search on the specific cert by acronym, full name, and even sponsor name and acronym. I want to see how many of the general jobs at a given career level actually mention a cert to see how it stacks up against other choices in the same niche.
Where to search? Great question. The general answer is to find a job posting site that employers in your target niche actually use. When I’m researching I use SimplyHired, LinkedIn Jobs, Indeed, and LinkUp. There are plenty of other choices out there: this 2022 GoCertify story offers more info, or check out the list of 24 top tech and IT job boards from this 2022 story at CareerSidekick.com.
I mention my choices because I’ve found them easy to use to slice and dice the postings in a way that makes sense when searching for jobs that make mention of specific certs. Warning: you’ll have to tinker with your search strings to get useful data. As soon as you start doing this, you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Searching for jobs related to the Network+ credential offered by CompTIA provides a good illustration of how tricky it can be to get your search just right. You could query that particular credential many different ways — I've found that “CompTIA Network+” works best.
After that, it’s just a matter of comparing the hits from your chosen job posting sites. The numbers won’t lie: you’ll quickly see which certs are on employers’ radars, and which ones don’t register well (or at all).
All of this should help you zero in on what makes sense for your particular IT career. You can figure out which IT credentials are worth pursuing, zero in on the ones that are right for you, and determine which jobs you should be looking for. The rest is up to you. Have fun!