Stretching Your Certification Budget
Marketing and advertising messages about the IT training and testing industry lure us into believing it is easy to calculate the overall value of certification. This can unfortunately lead to allocating budget based solely on dollars: choose this training, pass that test, and win that job or anticipated salary.
A certification budget must look far beyond the dollar cost of the training, courseware and exam. The more the budget includes your own unique preferences, opportunities, timelines and long-term career goals, the better it will stretch and fit your expectations. And it will do so while effectively delivering maximum return.
Have you ever seen a new home in your neighborhood begin to go up, but one day the construction stops, for good, with the home only partly finished? This sad situation can occur when the homeowner does not carefully calculate the cost of building a home. It is possible to add up the price of each element of a house, but still be well short of the actual cost needed to complete it. Why? Building delays, design changes and unexpected conditions all can increase the cost. An asset such as a home is more than a summary of the cost of materials. It is also the cost of deployment of those materials and the conditions unique to the construction period. A one-dimensional price list of building parts may provide a pile of materials to a building site. It takes labor, over a period of time, in real-world conditions, to fashion those materials into a finished home. Yet too often human nature causes us to budget only on the lowest one-dimensional price list, rather than set a realistic budget that delivers the expected benefit.
Unrealistic budgets can be set when seeking certifications as well as homes. This does not mean that budgets always need to be larger than first anticipated. Instead, it means that IT professionals must budget wisely and spend every resource in a way that helps reach or exceed goals. Stretching a budget entails properly calculating the minimum cost and effort required to gain the return needed and expected. Rocket engineers calculate the realistic lowest amount of thrust needed to propel a rocket into orbit. For an IT professional, the task is to calculate the realistic cost to achieve the desired end.
Budget calculations do not begin with price, but rather with an inventory of individual preferences, opportunities, timelines and long-term career goals. Then a path must be charted, outlining which certifications, jobs and experiences are required to achieve those goals. These are not questions of cost alone.
During your preparatory research, visit tcc.comptia.org, which offers an up-to-date compendium of job titles and the experience, education and certifications that are typically associated with each job. And visit the Educators’ Web Site for Information Technology, www2.edc.org/ewit/, to learn in what direction educators feel the industry is heading.
Review the annual Certification Magazine salary survey (www.certmag.com/salaries), looking for trends and the skill areas that retain their value year after year. Ask yourself which of these skill areas most meets your individual preferences and goals.
Begin checking classifieds to understand local conditions, and then visit Internet job boards for a broader perspective. Call the local temp agencies to see which IT positions have been in demand. Look for trends over a period of time. Each of these steps will help you chart an effective course toward your goals.
“A cynic,” said Oscar Wilde, “is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Price is the present. It is short-term. Value is the locked-in potential and is determined by an indefinite future.
Cynics in the IT industry are those who regularly disparage certification because somewhere in the past they did not get what they wanted or they met a certified individual who did not meet a performance expectation. They see everything as a cost, not as a potential value. Theirs is a black-and-white world. Theirs is also an extremely short-sighted viewpoint. To effectively stretch a budget to fit expectations, cost plus two additional factors must be combined. These three big factors of budget calculations are:
- Price: short-term acquisition.
- Time: long-term expected benefit.
- Deployment: ability to derive ongoing benefit.
In the real world, many budgets fail when they follow only one dimension—short-term lowest price—rather than factoring in time and ongoing benefit. Suppose you buy a car based only on price—the short term. The cheapest car appears the most desirable. You look in the local paper or on Internet sites for the lowest-priced car and set your car budget accordingly. You buy the car, but discover it is unreliable, and soon you are paying for towing, repairs and taxis. A more expensive car would have cost more in the short term, but would have been much more reliable and less expensive over the long term. The cheapest car may deliver the best price, but be the worst on time (won’t last long) and deployment (hard to derive benefit, as it is unreliable and ongoing repairs are needed). A new car might be worst at price, but best at time (will last a long time) and deployment (easy to derive benefit, as the car is reliable and serves daily needs).
Of course, a car is not a single budget item. Cars consume fuel and need regular maintenance. Refusing to spend money on fuel or maintenance is obviously penny-wise and pound-foolish. Nearly all long-term assets require ongoing attention or investment to deliver maximum value. The analogy for budgeting for a car–a long-term asset–also applies to IT certification.
Considering certifications based only on price, the cheapest certification would appear to offer the most value, and budgeting the least number of dollars toward certification might seem to be the most desirable path. However, certifications deliver benefit over time as they:
- Open doors to jobs, careers and opportunities.
- Add value to a resume.
- Deliver continuing education and college credits.
- Improve productivity and increase customer satisfaction by giving the individual the ability to repair broken systems faster, with fewer errors.
Like a car, it is important to keep your certification “polished” and use it to drive toward the best destinations. IT professionals need to attain current certifications and use these to reach career goals. But certification alone is usually not enough to land the perfect job. Reaching IT goals requires:
- Converting certification into jobs, experience and into a career.
We repeat this cycle continually over a career in IT: Spend money, time and resources in order to obtain training and earn a certification, then recover those expenses by landing better jobs and gaining experience. This cycle moves you toward your career goals. You become ever more valuable as time goes on. That is what an effective certification budget must do. Money, time and effort go in, and job and career benefits result.
One of the most important things to consider when choosing an area of study is the link between certifications. Ideally each certification will lead you toward your goal. Each certification should provide a robust link in a chain of career moves. I don’t mean that certifications necessarily need to be integrated, although integration has its advantages. Each training and certification decision helps to build capabilities and flexibility in your areas of interest and opportunity. Vendor-neutral certification gives breadth, while vendor-specific certification provides depth. In a multi-ven