Point/Counterpoint: Studying to the Skills

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(Author’s Note: In the next two installments of Study Guide, we’ll
be discussing preparation strategies for certification candidates. Specifically,
this two-part series will focus on whether they should concentrate most of their
time and effort on the exam required for the credential or the broader skill
set it tests. The previous Study Guide article, which you can find at: http://www.certmag.com/articles//templates/CM_SG
_Article_Template.asp?articleid=2255&zoneid=269
,
looks at the argument for the former. Part 2 will examine the latter position.)

When deciding whether you should primarily focus your studying efforts on a
certification exam or the skill it covers, ask yourself, “What is the
purpose of IT certifications?” Obviously, these exist to ensure that you,
the candidate, understand the way the product or technology in question works.
In other words, they’re a means to an end – knowledge – not
the end itself. As such, you should concentrate on the key objective to career
success: gaining the skills and knowledge you’ll need to do work tasks.

As pointed out in the previous article, certifications don’t always cover
this accurately or completely. This is evident in the fact that IT credentials,
even the great ones, need a revamp every so often.

They’ve got to catch up to the industry (or their sector of it), which
moves at an incredibly rapid rate. And not all certification programs can keep
up.

Consequently, many IT pros who attempt credentialing exams might feel that
these tests are disconnected with the actual job role or knowledge domain, and
they might be right. Suffice it to say, if the exam is irrelevant to the field
it ostensibly addresses, then it’s probably not a worthwhile pursuit.

This is not to say that IT certifications are a waste of time – far from
it, actually. Most do a very good job of evaluating one’s abilities in
a particular IT realm, and some even offer robust training programs to participants
to help them get to that level.

At their very best, however, credentials are just one component of an overall
career-development strategy that also should include wide-ranging experience
and education. All these elements should serve a single result: a competent
and capable technology professional. If it’s the skills you want –
and that should be your ultimate goal – then you should concentrate your
development efforts on those.

How do you study to the skills, then? First of all, define the core competencies
in your current or desired job role, not just a standard – say, storage
networking specialist or Web designer.

Find out what learning offerings exist around these areas of expertise and
whether you’d be best served by an e-learning class, a semester or two
at a tech school, a mentorship program or some other educational method.

Also, because you’re examining your own unique career path, you might
want to look outside the technology realm for career development offerings.
For instance, a security specialist working for an investment firm might want
to study accounting, markets, financial regulations and so forth.

Studying skills differs from studying for tests in that the former is usually
based more on repetition and cognition via a more or less continuous process,
and the latter involves more memorization and mental preparation in relation
to a single event: the exam. (Of course, as performance-based training and testing
become more prevalent in certification, this distinction is blurring somewhat.)

Additionally, a well-planned skills-development path typically will go over
the most vital topics with regard to one’s career, whereas a test will
sometimes require candidates to learn about tangential or even irrelevant topics
where their jobs are concerned.

Ordinarily, when it comes to the way in which skills training is delivered,
the more experiential, the better. Courses or boot camps that include a lab
where learners can get their hands on the technology and play around with it
can be a great approach, as can building a lab at home. Also, apprenticeship
programs, in which participants are paired with seasoned veterans, are often
highly beneficial.

Again, you’ll want to find the one that best aligns to your own occupation
– you might consider talking to a career counselor about how to make this
decision.

Whether you choose to study to the test or the skill, though, the key thing
is to have a plan. Determine what you’ll need to know for vocational success,
map out an educational itinerary and make sure you travel to your destination
– whatever it might be – in the right vehicle.

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