The Recertification Treadmill


I like tests.  Probably a lot more than I should.  Oh, it wasn’t always like this.  I dreaded test days in college.  Cramming chapters worth of information into my brain so that it could just be regurgitated later and forgotten shortly after than.  In fact, I can distinctly remember studying the OSI model for one of my IT infrastructure classes and thinking, “I only need to remember this for the exam.  After that, I’ll never see it again.”  Of course, that same OSI model is now permanently tattooed on the insides of my eyelids.

Then I entered the Real World.  I found out about certification tests and all they entail.  You mean I can take one test proving my mastery of a subject and you guys send me a certificate and a little wallet card?  Sign me up!  It also helped that my employer is a partner with multiple vendors and needed me to take as many tests as I could to keep their partner status up-to-date.  So I set off on my odyssey of test taking.  I’ve got certifications from Novell, Microsoft, CompTIA, Cisco, HP, (ISC)2, and many more.  I’ve taken enough tests that the test administrator at my local testing center recognizes me in the street.  I know more about the ins and outs of testing procedure than most people should.  And, I’ve been handsomely rewarded for my test taking prowess.  And, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed every second of my learning.  Except for recert day.

Yes, every once in a while one of the vendors sends me a note that says I’m due for renewal.  My professional title is now in jeopardy if I don’t study some new information and go see my local Pearson/Prometric guru.  So I start pouring over material in an effort to not need new business cards.  I cram all that new information in my stuffed head and run out to take the test again.  And I pass.  And for a while, I’m a golden boy again.  Until recert day comes up again.

Some vendors tell  you that you can keep your certification for ever and ever.  Like my MCSE.  Of course, I’m not technically “current” with that one, especially now that the new title is MCITP (or something like that).  So, while I’m a whiz when it comes to Windows 2000, I’m not really authorized on the new hotness of Server 2008.  Oh well.  Other vendors, like Cisco, keep the same certification title, but they change the tests around from time to time.  Like my CCVP.  I originally certified on CUCM 4.1.  Back when there was a separate test for those gatekeeper thingies.  And then Cisco went and released a new CCVP track about CUCM 6.x.  I didn’t have to recertify because my CCVP was still good.  But now, they have eliminated the CCVP and changed the voice certification track to the CCNP: Voice.  You can still take the CCVP tests and get grandfathered in before the change to the new CUCM 8.x material if you want.  And that’s what I found myself doing about 2 months ago.  I figured since I worked with voice everyday it shouldn’t be too rough to just jump in and take the tests.  My reasoning was that the partner requirements for Advanced Unified Communications would change after the CCVP –> CCNP: Voice move, so I wanted to get out in front of this change before I was forced to.  I managed to stumble through the troubleshooting test and both CallManager tests in fairly short order.  As I brushed up on my CVOICE basics, I remembered that a previous visit to the Certification Tracker showed that I hadn’t taken the QoS exam, even though I distinctly remembered the pain and agony of that one.  I wrote in to Cisco Cert Support, hoping that I didn’t have to go through it all over again.  While I kept studying for my CVOICE test, I got the response.  It seems that those tests expire after 3 years, and I would need to retake it again for it to be valid.  However, according to Cisco, I was already a CCNP: Voice, so I wouldn’t need to retake it.  Huh?  When did that happen?

Cisco’s recertification policy for professional level exams says that taking any professional test with a ‘642’ prefix will recertify your CCxP.  Little did I know at the time that my first test, Troubleshooting Unified Communications, had recertified my CCVP and triggered the upgrade to a CCNP:Voice.  So, the CUCM tests were for naught.  The CVOICE test did give me a CCNA: Voice tag, so I’ve got that going for me now.  The Cisco recert cycle is nothing new to me.  I’ve been taking the CCIE written exam every year because it’s the only way to keep my specialist designations current.  In order to keep my employer in the good partner graces, I have to keep remembering OSPF and MPLS trivia and take the CCIE written at least every two years.  It’s the only way for me to keep my certifications current without devoting all my time to studying and taking tests instead of doing the job I was hired for.  I was confused in this particular instance with the CCNP: Voice because the certification website never said anything about there being an upgrade path from my 4.2 CCVP to the 8.x CCNP: Voice.  I’m happy nonetheless, but I started thinking about the whole recertification process and why it bothers me somewhat.

I can take any 642 level Cisco exam and recertify all my CCxA and CCxP titles.  I can take the CCIE written and do the same, including my specialist tags.  VMware makes me take a new test and sit through 5 days of training to get a VCP4.  Microsoft wants me to take a whole new set of tests to become a new MCSE/MCITP.  Novell just keeps certifying me on Linux stuff even though I haven’t taken Novell test in years.  And we won’t talk about HP.  Ethan has a great post about recerting his CCIE that hits on a lot of good points.  Normally, we have to either shut down our productivity for a few weeks to get into the recertification groove, or try and find time outside of work to study.  Either way, it seems like a colossal waste of time. It’s almost like being elected to the House of Representatives.  You need to start campaigning for re-election right after you’ve been elected.  It’s just annoying that I have to take time out of my schedule to relearn things I’m already doing.  Is there any way to fix this?

Find a lawyer.  Any lawyer.  If you’re having trouble, check behind the nearest ambulance.  Now, ask them how many times they’ve retaken the bar exam.  Odds are good they’ll stare at you and tell you that you’ve lost your mind.  Lawyers don’t have to resit the bar exam every time they need to renew their fancy degree.  They are allowed to use Continuing Professional Education credits.  All they have to do is take a class or attend a conference and they can count that learning toward recertifying their degree and certification requirements.  IT people are the same.  We spend a lot of our time watching webcasts and going to trade shows.  I go to Cisco Live Networkers almost every year.  When I’m there, I take the opportunity to learn about technologies I don’t encounter in my every day job, like TRiLL or FabricPath.  I’m doing an awful lot to keep current with trends and technology in the industry, and it feels like it’s all for my own edification.  It doesn’t really count toward anything.  Except in one case – my CISSP.  Because (ISC)2 uses a CPEs too.

The vendor-neutral certification bodies have it right, in my opinion.  (ISC)2, BICSI, and CWNP all have a CPE policy.  They say that you can go to conferences or read books and count that learning toward your certification.  They want you to prove that you’re staying current, and in return they’ll make sure you are current when it comes to certifications.  Sure, in the case of the CISSP, most of the learning needs to be focused on security, but that’s how it should be.  I can count some amount of general education credits toward my CISSP, but the bulk of the education needs to be focused on the subject matter of the certification.  I think something like this would be a great addition to Cisco’s arsenal.  Give your certified professionals a chance to apply the learning they do every day toward recertification.  You’d sell more Cisco Press books if I knew I could read one and count 5 points toward my CCSP.  There’d be even more attendees at Networkers if it counted for 40 CPEs every year.  But, there also need to be some restrictions.

Some vendors don’t like the idea that one test can recertify all your titles.  Juniper doesn’t.  So make sure that the education credits only count toward a specific area of knowledge.  The Migrating CUCM class from Brandon Ta that I go to every year could count toward my CCVP, but not my CCSP.  My TRiLL webcasts could count for points to recertify my CCIE R&S or SP, but not the CCIE Wireless.  If you marry the education to a specific certification, you’ll see much higher attendance for those kinds of things.  For people like us that spend time writing about things on the Interwebs, authoring articles for places like Network World or Information Week could count as well, since you are disseminating the knowledge you’ve obtained to the masses.  Even teaching could count toward recertifying.

This idea is not without issue, though.  The first argument is that allowing certified individuals to use CPEs might cause problems with the cottage industry that has sprung up around teaching these subjects to people.  Ask yourself, How many people would go to VMware classroom learning if it wasn’t required to obtain the VCP?  I’m sure the answer would be “A whole lot less.”  It’s no secret that Cisco and HP and Microsoft make a lot of money offering classes to people in order to get the certified on technology.  Companies can specialize in just teaching certification coursework and turn a tidy profit.  And these same companies might not be too keen on the idea of a revenue stream drying up because Cisco or Novell decided to be noble and not require everyone to take a new test every 2 years.

Another consequence, though one for the better, would be the contraction of the “braindump” market.  A lot of people talk about the braindump market catering to those who want a fast track to the CCNA or other entry-level cert.  I’m of the opinion that a larger portion of the dumping population consists of already-certified individuals that have neither the time nor the energy to study for a recertification exam.  These people are facing a deadline of needing to stay current with whatever alphabet soup comes after their name, except now that they have a steady job they don’t have the time to devote to studying all night to pass.  Faced with the option of letting their certification expire, or paying money to someone for the answers to the test, they swallow their pride and take the easy way out.  In their mind, no harm is done because they were already a CCxA in the first place.  They know the material, they just don’t have time to remember what the “vendor answer” is on the test.  Now, give these same people the opportunity to apply a webcast or vendor presentation that they’d sit through anyway to that CCxA.  I bet that more than half the dumping sites would go away within a year.  When the market starts drying up, it’s time to move on.

I really hope that the vendors out there take the time in 2011 to reassess their recertification strategies.  Giving certified professionals more options when it comes to proving they know their material can only build goodwill in the future.  Because the current method feels way too much like a treadmill right now.  I keep running in place as fast as I can just to stay where I’m at.  I think things need to change in order to make the education and learning that I do have a tangible impact on my certification progress.  Because sooner or later I’m not going to be able to keep up with the recertification treadmill.  And we all know what the result is when that happens…

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2 thoughts on “The Recertification Treadmill

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