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Are top-tier, vendor-specific certifications worth the effort?

Different levels of certification come with unique challenges; consider this advice when deciding whether higher level certification is the right choice for you.

The modern IT industry is saturated with vendor-specific certifications that can help IT professionals showcase their knowledge of a specific topic or discipline. Additionally, many vendors have created multiple tiers of certifications, ranging from the associate level to the elite. The sheer volume of available certifications makes certification accessible to IT professionals with varying levels of proficiency, but introduces a new dilemma: How are we to distinguish the true IT authorities from the rest of the pack? Fortunately, one of the current trends in vendor-specific certifications is the expansion of higher level certification.

Top-level certifications from companies such as VMware, Cisco, Nutanix and several others are considered the best of the best in the world of vendor-specific certifications. However, does this mean that expert-level certification is the right choice for you?

Working in the IT industry means being a lifelong learner. Technology develops at a pace that requires us to keep acquiring new information lest we be left behind. For many in IT, this means continual training and certifications to validate hours of work. For those purely interested in expert-level certification, it's important to occasionally step back to evaluate why we do what we do. Will all of the work and effort toward acquiring an expert certification help your current or future career? Although the immediate answer to such a question is generally affirmative, IT professionals should assess whether their career goals align with that answer and whether their company agrees. For example, a network engineer who obtains a VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX) or VM administrator with a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) may expect higher pay or a promotion for such a worthy accomplishment, but their employer may disagree for any number of reasons.

It all boils down to what skill set each certification signifies and whether it's applicable to your intended field. The top level VMware certification, the VCDX, showcases the ability to create extensive and complex VMware designs. This skill is useful for those at the consultant or partner level, but may not be practical for your career path. When choosing which expert certification is right for you, you should also consider whether you might be interested in working with another technology vendor or following other career paths in the future. IT professionals pursuing vendor-specific certifications should also take into account the relevance of the technology they're working with. There are, after all, plenty of Master Certified Novell Engineers whose certification bears little to no value in today's IT industry. To avoid ending up in a similar situation, it's important to seek certification in a field that has longevity. Ultimately, all of this means very little unless you are working toward expert certification for the right reasons. Expert-level certification is not simply about studying and trying to pass a test -- it's a journey designed for those with passion and dedication.

Not everyone is cut out for higher-level certification. Many fail after putting in only a few months or even weeks-worth of work; this isn't necessarily because people are lazy, but rather because the realities of life. A change in career or family life can dramatically affect an individual's time commitments and general focus. One thing to remember about most expert certifications is that they take considerable time to obtain. Even the most experienced IT professionals are liable to underestimate the amount of effort required, and often overlook necessary steps to achieving expert level certification. In order to be successful, it's vital to use the tools at your disposal. All primary vendors offer certifications ranging from amateur to experienced that serve as stepping stones toward expert certification. Higher-level certification is not an all-or-nothing race, but rather an effort to keep pace with new and emerging technologies.

Expert-level certifications take much more than time and resources; they require an understanding of what you want and where they fit into your career. Before starting on any certification path, keep in mind that it is a personal journey rather than something to be won. With clear vision and a level head, the opportunity for success on your path to certification is far greater.

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