Vendor Certifications: Worth It?

Ah, the wonderful world of vendor certifications. When starting your career or looking to change direction, learn new skills or apply for a new position, there are so many available that one is almost certain to cover the area you wish to be recognised in. From networking and security to server operation and Amazon Web Services (AWS), there are more options than ever to choose from.

I have spent my fair share of time on the vendor certification track, the one I’m proudest of being the well-known Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) in routing and switching. Many other writers in the networking field took the jump to the next level, the vaunted Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) – but I never got quite that far, in part due to difficulties finding a test centre at the time in the UK.

So, the question is: for people, whether new or already tenured in the IT industry today, are vendor certifications worth it? This is a question with many possible answers depending on your career ambitions, technical knowledge, local employers and many other factors, but I’ll attempt to explain some of the factors around deciding whether to pursue one from my own experience.

1. Learning. This may seem obvious, but the most valuable vendor certifications are those in which you actually learn, and the degrees to which you can do so. For someone new to networking for example, the Cisco routing and switching certification track offers a lot of valuable information, although much of it is delivered in a way to make the learner utterly dependent on Cisco products to use most of what they have learnt in the workplace. Some other certifications however offer very little useful information per unit of time you are required to invest, and steering clear of those just seems like a better option, unless you don’t value your own time.

2. Applicability. Some certifications are very theory-heavy, and it is entirely possible to learn the entire syllabus back to front, get excellent marks and then not be able to apply a single bit of it or have any idea what to do in a real world setting when a problem arises, or even for normal day to day tasks. Never mistake what you learn in a certification course (or any education for that matter) as a substitute for situational awareness, listening to those around you and applying experience. Any network engineer will be able to tell you a story of a new hire with all the certifications being unable to complete a simple change request. It almost always happens when you start somewhere new, especially if it’s your first job in the industry – but be humble and learn from it, and those around you.

3. Vendor lock-in. By their very nature, vendor certifications such as those from VMware or Cisco are designed to create an army of skilled engineers who know about their product, know it well, and make sure it is designed, used and operated properly so their ultimate end customers think well of the company and continue to buy it. The fact that they need such highly skilled people to operate their equipment is seen by many as proof of a complex and thus superior product (though I disagree with this idea personally). Unless you specifically need a certain certification for a position, my approach has always been to attempt to understand the why before the how. For example, understanding how OSPF really operates under the hood, rather than just the commands to poke at it will stand you in better stead when an issue arises or the network needs to be redesigned.

In an increasingly multi-vendor IT landscape, those certifications which teach solid underlying principles and then leave it up to you to learn the ‘how’ of each individual platform you may be using in your environment have my bet for the most useful currently available. A great example of this is the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) by the I2C. The CISSP teaches a wide range of topics around the issue of information systems security, from the technical to issues like process, policy and governance that a more vendor-specific certification is much less likely to touch on. Covering these bases leaves you much better-rounded, and although yes it may not teach you the exact command to use to add a new inbound firewall rule to an Ethernet interface on a Cisco IOS router, you can always find that out if you need to on the spot with a command reference.

It’s much harder to suddenly acquire knowledge of all the underpinnings and related issues that go into creating the need for and content of that firewall rule. Admittedly, a lot of interviews don’t help in this regard: I’ve seen (as I’m sure many other network engineers have) cases where interviewers will ask for the string of commands to implement a certain task, or ask what is wrong with a configuration file. These are absolutely valuable skills – don’t get me wrong on that at all – but by understanding core issues and how to address them, you will be able to keep moving on and challenging the status quo of your IT environment to do better.

Like any educational endeavour, look at certifications not as a destination (phew, got my CCNP, learning is done now forever) but as another step on the continual path of self-improvement. In IT, your skills are only good for some long – so why not spend your time on those that last the longest?

At the end of the day, whether or not to dedicate time and money to pursuing a certification (like any educational endeavour) is a personal one. Think of where you want to go and the best path you can see to take you there, as if you pick one blindly it will be very hard to sustain your motivation a month in when you get to those ‘I re-read this paragraph 4 times and the words are melting together’ moments late in the evening.

No matter which way you choose, keep learning. You’re in for a very boring career otherwise.