Planning and Managing Certifications

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This month’s column will step back from the details and minutiae of learning tools and take a somewhat longer view of the certification process. There’s a certain art to planning and managing certifications, particularly for those IT professionals who’ve already racked up a few and who plan to acquire more.

In planning your learning activities, it’s important to balance the maintenance of current credentials against the acquisition of new ones. To that end, I’ll describe a process to help you set limits on what you can accomplish in a given year, then help you decide how much of that effort should go toward keeping current on certifications you already possess and how much should go toward acquiring new certifications that may help you grow and advance, career-wise.

Budget Your Time, Manage Your Money
Whether your employer grants you time and perhaps even funding for certifications or otherwise, you’ll still have to decide how much time and money you can spend on certification-related activities in any given year. This means chewing on a number of important considerations, usually with a calendar or day planner somewhere close at hand:

 

 

  • Take a look at each month in the calendar for the entire year. For each one, get a sense of when major deadlines, closings, due dates or other “crunch times” are likely to hit, and try to plan around those obstacles.
  • If you can devote some time on the job to certification activity, try to get a sense of how many hours a day or week, or how many days a month this translates into. This will set your at-work time budget.
  • As you schedule your personal time away from work, don’t forget to leave time for life and family, plus rest and relaxation, as you decide how much of your precious free time you can allocate for certification-related activities. Yes, you can use all or part of your vacation time and holidays for such things, but try not to over-commit yourself in the process. The idea is to come up with a plan and a schedule that you can live with and carry through for an entire year.
  • Even if your employer helps with certification costs, you’ll still find yourself limited by budget constraints. On the other hand, if you’re funding certification activity out of your own pocket, you’ll be limited by cash available for such things and the amount of indebtedness you’re willing to incur to maintain certifications you’ve already earned and to obtain new ones. You’ll want to determine how much money you can spend for the year, regardless of the source.

 

The key here is to set limits on the amount of time you can spend over an entire year. You’ll also want to decide when you can spend bigger chunks of time that might be needed to attend a class or a conference or to take an exam. On a more regular basis, it’s also a good idea to decide how many hours a week you can spend studying or practicing for exams. Many people find that establishing a regular schedule for certification activity makes it easier for them to stay on track, and to reach their goals. Try this approach yourself, unless you’re one of those people who just can’t stand a regimented schedule—the most important thing is to do what works to help you reach your goals.

Start With the Maintenance Side
So far, you’ve set your yearly limits in terms of how much time and money you can spend. Now it’s time to take a look at those certifications you already have under your belt and determine what’s up for renewal, upkeep or replacement this year. These days, many certifications either come with specific expiration dates or are tied to particular platform or software releases. Your first step here should be to take stock of the credentials you’ve earned, then review requirements, release information and expiration dates as they apply to those credentials to determine potential candidates for inclusion in this year’s activities. If no candidates emerge from this analysis, you can skip right to the next section and devote all your time and resources to new certifications.

Don’t forget that some certifications carry continuing education requirements, while others invariably require retesting. In many cases, you can either retest at regular intervals or meet continuing education requirements instead. As you identify candidates for renewal, upkeep or retesting, you’ll want to answer the following questions:

 

 

  • Is this cert still relevant to on-the-job needs? If yes, keep going; if not, move on to the next candidate.
  • Is this cert worth spending time and money on? If yes, keep going; if not, move on to the next candidate.
  • Which of the available options is cheapest? Most interesting? If the two coincide, your approach will be easy. If not, you’ll have to balance expense against interest, value and other considerations. But since continuing education can be satisfied by activities that vary widely from reading and reporting on books in the field (which is cheap, self-paced and easy to do) to attending conferences or classes (which is more expensive, incurs travel and attendance costs and takes big chunks of time), it’s important to weigh the cost and effort of meeting those requirements versus retesting. Simply put, if it costs more to satisfy continuing education requirements than to retest every two or three years, why not plan to retest as a matter of course?

 

As you complete the list of certifications you must maintain for the coming year, you’ll also be able to decide how much time and money you’ll have to spend to complete those obligations. Whatever’s left over is what you can use to pursue new certifications.

End With Planning for New Credentials
As you approach this exercise, you’ll already know how much time and money you’ve got to devote to pursuing new certifications. As you ponder the list of possible targets upon which to lavish these resources, answer these questions as best you can:

 

 

  • Will the credential pay itself off before you must renew, retest or meet continuing education requirements? It’s important to focus only on certifications that add value to your worth as a worker, be it as an employee, consultant or whatever. If you’re footing the bill, this goes double because you’ll want to realize the biggest possible return on your investment (but rest assured, your employer feels the same way if they’re paying all or part of those costs).
  • Which credential provides the biggest short-term job or career gains? If one certification leads to a raise, to better promotion or to new job opportunities, it may be more worth your time and effort than something that’s interesting but can’t produce such results. Consider this carefully, because you’ll inevitably spend at least some of your own time and money getting certified.
  • Which credential best fits your available time and money supply? If you must choose between two certifications that rank high on the preceding questions, the “means test” is a key deciding factor. You’ll need to spend some time gathering data about how long it’s taken others to complete the credential, then adjust time requirements to your own abilities and circumstances.
  • Which credential best fits your current job needs? If you’re considering multiple certifications for any given year, you may have to pick something with a more immediate payoff over a longer-term payoff, especially when your employer expects to see immediate productivity gains, skills improvements or other measurable changes as a result of investing in your job skills and knowledge.
  • Which credential best fits your long-term career goals? On the other hand, if you’re currently working as a network administrator but want to switch focus to working as a security specialist or protocol analyst in the next three years, you may be better off funding your studies yourself and aiming at longer-term goals instead of
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