Certification Training Survey: IT certification requires preparation

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This feature first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

How do you go about preparing for a certification exam? What's your certification training regimen?Just like superheroes, words — especially words from a hodgepodge melting pot language like English — have origin stories. Time changes the meaning of even commonplace words, as new generations of speakers and writers tinker with the lexicon to suit their own ends. Today we think of the word “masterpiece” as referring to the fullest, most deeply stirring expression of the craft possessed by an artist or artisan.

Not all that long ago, however, a masterpiece was merely the beginning of a skilled craftsman’s journey. By its original definition, a masterpiece was a work submitted to a guild to verify proficiency. If approved, a craftsman would be considered advanced in rank from journeyman to master.

And if you pull the correct definition from the vast grab bag of meanings assigned to the word “master,” it becomes clear that, in this specific sense of the term, a master was merely someone considered qualified to teach his or her craft to others. You didn’t have to be so skilled and so deeply versed as to outshine everyone else to be considered a master. You just had to be good enough to help others learn.

Trade guilds today are generally considered to be a thing of the past. Except for maybe in the information technology (IT) realm, where certification exams are kind of used in the same way as the medieval masterpiece. (Aaron Axline’s history of certification article in this very issue draws an even clearer connection.) This is especially true of top-level certifications, where the candidate not only completes an exam, but must be vetted by panel of certified peers.

In 2015, we published an article by Wayne Anderson that described his extended odyssey toward achieving recognition as a Certified Information Technology Architect at the Professional level (shorthanded as CITA-P or CITA-Professional) from IASA Global. The final step to becoming CITA-P certified is a two-hour presentation to a board of review.

There are other similarities. Many certifications, including (ISC)²’s CISSP for cybersecurity professionals or the ISACA’s CISA for IT auditors, have a work experience requirement. In order to achieve certification, the candidate — much like a medieval apprentice or journeyman — must accrue a certain amount of direct experience by working in the profession.

And while it’s far from being the case that all IT jobs require certification, there are certainly situations in the industry where you can’t be hired for a particular position, or work on a given project, without first being certified. Those circumstances would probably sound familiar even to a 19th-century craftsmen beset by the laws and ordinances that attempted to prop up the dying guild world.

All of this has come bubbling up from the think tank to the keyboard right now because for this issue of Certification Magazine we zigged out of our established pattern of conducting a survey of certified professionals aligned with a particular IT discipline. Instead, we concentrated this issue on the preparation phase that precedes certification across all specializations.

Rather than giving insight into cybersecurity certification, for example, this time around we concentrated on the study, practice, and review phase that precedes the certification exam (or peer-reviewed presentation). How do certified IT professionals handle that all-important interval that sets the stage for completing the certification process?

(For the most part, certified IT professionals is who we were speaking to: 94 percent of survey participants have at least one current IT certification.)

Timing your certification

How do you go about preparing for a certification exam? What's your certification training regimen?Determining the timeline that you wish to follow in getting certified is an important first step to nearly everything that comes after. Some IT certifications are routinely earned during the high school or college phase of formal education, with little to no practical professional experience backing them up. On the other hand, many individuals work in IT for years before seeking out certification.

The survey turned up an interesting mix of both trends. A core 28.5 percent of survey respondents worked in IT for less than a year before getting their first IT certification, while 23.5 percent are at the other end of the spectrum, having worked in IT for more than 10 years before getting their first certification.

Those in between lean toward early certification: About 35 percent of those surveyed worked in IT for either one (7.6 percent), two (6.3 percent), three, (9.5 percent), four (5.1 percent), or five (7 percent) years before getting certified. That leaves about 10 percent of respondents who picked up between 6 and 10 years of professional experience before getting their first IT certification.

Another major element of timing is attempting to determine how much time is required to learn, practice, and review before it’s time to go get certified. There is of course no way to assign a length of time that applies in every case. It can be helpful, however, to look at overall trends, if for no other reason than to get a sense of where most people fall on the spectrum.

We asked survey respondents what length of time, from less than a week to more than a year, they generally set aside for study and review before taking a certification exam. We’ll start at the back end of that range, in case you’re worried that we didn’t give people enough breathing room: just 1.4 percent of respondents said they typically plan on devoting more than a year to study and review.

Everyone else generally plans to spend a year or less on study and review, and for more than half of those surveyed, it’s a lot less: 51 percent of respondents said they typically need either about one month (27.6 percent), more than a week but less than a month (14.5 percent), or one week or less (9 percent) to study and review before getting certified.

A further 7.6 percent of respondents set aside more than one month but less than two, 12.4 percent need about two months, 10.3 percent need more than two months but less than three, and 13.1 percent need somewhere between three and six months to study and prepare before attempting their exam. Only 4.2 percent of those surveyed need somewhere between 6 and 12 months to prepare.

Learning vs. practice

Broadly speaking, there are two phases of preparing to take a certification exam (or at least one that has no professional experience requirements). The first step is to spend time either learning new concepts or catching up on changes to technology. Sticking to the language from our previous couple of paragraphs, we’ll refer to that period of time, however long it takes, simply as study.

Once study has been completed, the next step is to practice what you’ve learned, typically through some combination of labs, practice exams, flash cards, and other drills that cement concepts in your mind and prepare you for the live test. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call that period of time, however long it ends up being, review.

The balance between study and review is different for everyone. Some individuals, for example, whether through years or accrued knowledge or by virtue of recent professional experience, may feel confident that they already know almost everything they need to, and devote most of their preparation time to review. Others, perhaps more or less starting from scratch, may devote weeks or months to study before even thinking about review.

We asked survey respondents how they divide up their preparation time between study and review, and it’s clear at a glance that the majority tend to lean more to study than review. A bit more than half of those surveyed generally spend more time on study than on review. They divide up their time as follows:

90 percent study, 10 percent review — 9.2 percent of respondents
80 percent study, 20 percent review — 14.9 percent of respondents
70 percent study, 30 percent review — 20.6 percent of respondents
60 percent study, 30 percent review — 10.6 percent of respondents

In the middle, we have 22.7 percent of respondents who typically divide their time evenly (a 50-50 split) between study and review. That leaves about a fourth of respondents who focus more heavily on review than on study. They divide up their time as follows:

40 percent study, 60 percent review — 5 percent of respondents
30 percent study, 70 percent review — 7.8 percent of respondents
20 percent study, 80 percent review — 4.3 percent of respondents
10 percent study, 90 percent review — 5 percent of respondents

How do you go about preparing for a certification exam? What's your certification training regimen?

What to study?

There’s an entire industry devoted to providing study and training materials, whether books, online courses, labs, or what have you, to IT certification candidates. There’s no need for anyone to attempt an IT certification exam without ever consulting study and training materials specifically tailored to that exam. And, by and large it would seem, most IT professionals don’t even consider that.

A telling 75.4 percent of those who participated in our survey said that they always use training and study materials when getting an IT certification. A further 15.2 percent said that they often use study and training materials, while 7.2 percent said that they sometimes use study and training materials. Just 2.2 percent of those surveyed rarely or never use study and training materials when getting an IT certification.

It’s quite commonplace, then — bordering on guaranteed — for many (if not most) IT professionals to rely fairly heavily on study and training materials to help them prepare for certification. That being the case, how do IT professionals evaluate the cornucopia of options available to them? What factors weigh most heavily in the selection of this guidebook, or that online learning platform?

We asked survey respondents to rank the following six decision-influencing qualities of study and training materials:

Cost
Comprehensiveness (How fully and deeply do the study and training materials address exam content?)
Convenience (How portable, available, and easy to use are the study and training materials?)
Function (Do the study and training materials align with my preferred style of learning?)
Reputation (How well-reviewed and trusted are the training and study materials by others who have used them?)
Source (Who created the study and training materials?)

Out of those six factors, the top consideration, by an impressive margin, is Reputation. In other words, did other people who have used these same study and training materials consider them effective and trustworthy? Market research across a range of goods and services often indicates that consumers are most heavily influenced by other consumers. It would appear that such is the case here as well.

The second most influential consideration is Comprehensiveness, figuring narrowly ahead of Cost. Clearly IT professionals preparing to get certified want to be prepared for anything and everything. Study and training resources that address the entire range of exam topics are almost certain to be strongly preferred. And cost is a key factor in most purchasing decisions.

There’s a bit of separation between Comprehensiveness and Cost and the next most influential consideration (No. 4 out of 6): Function. There is clearly a degree of importance attached to whether study and training materials are well suited to individual learning styles, but there’s also some willingness on the part of IT professionals to adapt.

Convenience rated almost as highly as Function. On the other hand, despite the fact that we live in an age when ease of access and ease of use are practically demanded of many goods and services, IT professionals are clearly willing to sacrifice a degree of personal comfort when it comes to IT study and training materials.

Somewhat surprisingly, what everyone seems to care about least is Source, which ranked last by a fairly wide margin. There are companies large, mid-sized, and small that provide study and training materials for IT certifications that are administered by someone else — and it would seem that IT professionals are happy to patronize so-called “third-party” study and training providers.

Schedule your exam

How do you go about preparing for a certification exam? What's your certification training regimen?It probably goes without saying that actually taking a certification exam is not part of the preparation process. Unless maybe your preferred mode of operation is simply to take the exam until you pass it, money be damned. On the other hand, many certification gurus do recommend picking a date for the exam, and even going so far as to directly register for the exam, before you actually start your study and review.

So we decided to get a sense of how committed IT professionals are to this particular piece of advice. You might call it the “burning your bridges” approach. The only way to go is forward. Since merely picking a date doesn’t get one directly invested in the exam itself, we settled on actual exam registration. Once you’ve actually reserved a slot and paid your fee, you’ve got skin in the game.

You can only register so far in advance to take most certification exams. As we’ve already seen, however, quite a few IT professionals don’t consider that they need a whole lot of time to prepare. In our first grouping, 23.6 percent of survey participants typically register to take a certification exam as close to the actual date of the exam as possible.

Notwithstanding that some of these same people just told us they generally need less than a week to be ready for a certification exam, it seems unlikely that everyone who registers for the exam at the last possible second is taking their window for preparation into consideration. We’ll assume that some of them aren’t using registration as motivation, and simply register for the exam when they feel ready to take it.

Next up are the 27.1 percent of respondents who typically register less than one month prior to the date of the exam, and the 28.6 percent who typically register one to two months prior to the date of the exam. That’s more than half of the survey population right there, and it is possible (and seems likely) that quite a few of these folks are playing the registration as motivation card.

A comparatively unhurried 17.1 percent of survey respondents typically register between two and four months prior to the date of the exam. It seems highly likely that both these individuals and the tiny handful who remain after them — 2.9 percent who typically register between five and seven months prior to the exam, and 0.7 percent who register as far in advance of the exam date as possible — are registration as motivation disciples.

There’s more information to come from the Certification Training Survey. Over the coming months, we’ll be posting additional findings online at CertMag.com, where you can also find ongoing dispatches from our 2021 Salary Survey. And speaking of the annual Salary Survey, the 2022 survey is available online right now. Go take it, please. And thank you!

2021 Certification Training Survey Follow the Money

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Certification Magazine was launched in 1999 and remained in print until mid-2008. Publication was restarted on a quarterly basis in February 2014. Subscribe to CertMag here.

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