The Certification Ladder


Are you climbing the certification ladder? If you’re in IT the odds are good that you are. Some people are just starting out and see certifications as a way to get the knowledge they need to do their job. Others see certs as a way to get out of a job they don’t like. Still others have plenty of certifications but want to get the ones at the top of their field. This last group are the ones that I want to spend some time talking about.

Pushing The Limit

Expert-level certifications aren’t easy on purpose. They’re supposed to represent the gap between being good at something and going above and beyond. For some that involves some kind of practical test of skills like the CCIE. For others it involves a board interview process like the VCDX. Or it could even involve a combination of things like the CWNE does with board review and documentation submissions.

Expert certifications aren’t designed to be powered through in a short amount of time. That’s because it’s difficult to become an expert at something without putting in the practice time. For some tests, that means meeting some minimum requirements. You can only attempt your VCDX when you have already passed the VCAP-DCA and VCAP-DCD test, for example. Or you may have a minimum requirement of time in the industry, such as the CISSP requirement of four years in the security industry.

But, more importantly, the requirement is that you truly are an expert. How many times have you bumped into someone that has a certification that you think to yourself, “How on earth did they pass that?” It should be fairly uncommon to run into a CCIE that you feel that way about. The test is rigorous and requires everyone to pass a very similar version of the practical exam. Sure, you still run into people that say the old 2-day exam was harder. But by and large, most CCIEs have had to endure the same kind of certification requirements.

Now, what people do after they get there is an entirely different matter altogether. There are a lot of people that get to the pinnacle of their certification journey and sit there on top of their mountain. They take time to survey the lands that they now watch over and they relax. They don’t see any need in going any further. They’ve done what they came to do. And for many that’s the way to go. Congratulations on your ride.

Still others use this opportunity negatively. They expect people to kiss the brass certificate and pay deference to them because of it. This can affect almost anyone. I remember years ago back to a time when I had just gotten my CCIE lab out of the way. I was working on a proposal for a customer. We had just gotten an email from the customer asking why we didn’t include a particular switch in the design. I told our team that we didn’t need it because the requirements of the design didn’t need something that cost three times over what we recommended. The customer’s response was, “Well, this other partner guy is a CCIE and he says we need that switch.” I replied back with, “Well, I’m a CCIE too, so let’s cut that crap and talk about the hardware.”

I’m not sure how many times that person had used the “I’m a CCIE” justification for their recommendations, but it shows me that some people believe a piece of paper speaks louder than their track record. Those people are usually the ones that fall back into the pattern of “listen to me because I passed tests” not “listen to me because I did the studying”. It’s important to ascribe value to passing a test, but remember that the test is a way to prove you have knowledge. It reminds me of this scene from Tommy Boy:

Throwing up a certification as justification for a recommendation is no different that just tossing a worthless guarantee on a box. Prove you know what you’re talking about instead of just saying you do.

Exceeding Your Reach

The last type of person that climbs the certification ladder is like the one in this tweet from my friend Hank Yeomans:

He looks at the ascent to the top of his certification ladder as a chance to do more. To build more. It’s not the end of the journey. It’s not bad to stop and look around at the new view from the top of your ladder when you’ve climbed it. But if you look at the journey as the start of something that you need to finish, you’re going to start immediately looking around to find the next thing that you need to do. Perhaps it’s learning a new technology related to the one that you just finished. Or maybe it’s that you want to figure out how to get even better at what you do.

People that never rest in their attempts to be better at the ones that ultimately change the way things are done. They don’t just accept that this is the way that things need to be. Instead, they use the top of their ladder to stretch out and see what they can reach. They realize that everything we do in life it just building on something else we’ve already done. We use Crawl, Walk, Run as a metaphor for building through a project or a process all the time. That’s because we know that you have to make steps all the time to progress. But what if someone just said, “You know what, I’ve mastered walking. I don’t need to run. All you people who only crawl listen to me because I’m better than you!” It would show how short-sighted they are when it comes to continuing the journey.


Tom’s Take

Many times, I’ve talked about the fact that I relaxed after I passed my CCIE and enjoyed not studying into the wee hours of the night. But after a while I started getting uncomfortable around 8-9pm. Because there was a little voice in the back of my head that kept telling me “You should be studying for something.” Instinctively, that voice knew that I needed to continue my journey. I would never be content resting on my laurels and I could never bring myself to use my certification as a crutch to make myself look important to others. Instead, I needed to push myself to build on what I’ve already done and make myself better. As Hank said, it’s just a foothill on a greater journey. Once you’ve learned how to use your ladder to increase your reach, even the sky isn’t the limit any longer.

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