When I graduated college in 2012 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science, I still hadn’t decided what I wanted to do in life. (Aside: This is the worst reason to go to college for 4 (ok 5.5) years and get a degree. At some point a post will come about what I think someone should do when they are young but don’t have a solid plan for what they want to do for a career, but that isn’t this post.) At the time, I had decided on that field of study because I was convinced that I wanted to be a college coach in some sport. Track and Field and Basketball were the two sports I think I could have made a go at. I understood both well enough to coach someone at the collegiate level and my Track coach at the time (who could beat our entire team single-handedly) suggested I pursue a degree in Exercise Science. What he probably didn’t take into consideration was that when you’re a world class athlete you get hired as a coach with few questions asked, but when you’re just some feller (nerd) that basically red-shirted his entire career, institutions aren’t exactly banging down your door for coaching.
However, when I graduated I had already been removed from sports for almost 3 years (injury), and I realized that I really didn’t miss it. It wasn’t so much about the sport that I had been addicted to all my life, it was more about the competition. Not sure what this says about me, but I digress (like usual). I did realize, however, that I loved computers. I was watching a TON of videos (Linus Tech Tips) and reading a lot of websites (Anandtech) about computers daily and dreaming of building my own computer quite often. What I should have been studying all along was Computer Science and preparing myself for a career working on computers/networking. Thank goodness I had figured this out before I became an old man and I could go back to school to get a second degree! Unfortunately, the government only subsidizes your loans for your first degree (a certain number of credits, technically) and at that point I was done with school for the foreseeable future.
There had to be some way to lower the cost of entry to another degree, and I found it in technical school. I could go get a two year degree, then get a job, and then I could go back eventually for an even better degree. During my first semester at school I took a class that guaranteed you an A+ in the class if you passed the CompTIA A+ certification exam, so I set about what I always did in school and played video games all semester. Come the last week of classes, I took the A+ exam and passed. At this time I was working in tech support already (a job I loved for the people I worked with and the work I did) and found my A+ certificate to be valuable. Not to my coworkers, of course, who responded to me getting that certification by saying “Yeah, who doesn’t have that cert!?” To which I was able to reply, “All of you…” It was at this time that I realized I needed to get out of my home town for a while to figure out just who I really can be. I promptly applied for a tech support job in the Twin Cities area and, much to my surprise, that A+ cert really helped me get the interview.
During my first year at this new job, living this new life, I started dating my future wife and worked my butt off to get another CompTIA Cert, the Network+ certification. This was a cert I was pretty proud of, not because of the difficulty of the certification or the weight it carries, but because the only time that I was studying was between calls on the support line I was working. I was doing about 20-25 calls a day and studying furiously in between. I wanted to work my way up in the world. It was hard to find the time (because of course I wasn’t going to study when I went home!) but I managed to make it work and didn’t lose out on living my life while pursuing it.
The thing about that cert, though, is that it never really opened up any new opportunities for me. I figured that I would be qualified for an entirely new career after that, but it wasn’t a strong cert to possess. I had to aim higher for something to come my way so I started studying for another cert.
This was the next step up for CompTIA and I started studying right after my Net+ exam. It was at this time that my job changed and instead of taking 20-25 calls a day, I was taking 35-40. I still managed to find some time to study between calls, but I was getting pretty stressed (mostly because my coworker who had the EXACT same role as me, same time slot and everything, was doing 5-8 calls per day and taking hour long breaks in the middle of the day for no reason). Luckily for me, I got a promotion to the cushiest job you could ever imagine and I had AMPLE time to study. Literally, some days I had 9 solid hours to do whatever I pleased. Some weeks, I had 5 solid days to study without interruption. And even when the work came in, it only took about 5 minutes to get it done with. It was basically the same job I had before, so that helped.
After about 2 solid months of watching YouTube and studying sparingly, I obtained my Security+ certification. I was pumped and ready to get out and look for a new job, something that was less call support oriented and more helpdesk oriented. Something that required a little more effort on my part, but also involved the computer hardware that I love so much. But once again, I came to find that my certification really wasn’t in that high of demand. I decided that it was time to buckle down and get a very challenging certification, the CCNA. I had heard from people that this was a career making certification, and it certainly was for some people, but that it was no simple task. Some people take entire college courses dedicated to this exam, and some pay THOUSANDS of dollars to attend a boot camp for it.
The CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) is a beast. Anyone who has it certainly knows networking (for small to medium sized networks) and can do just about anything most businesses need relating to networking. For those who may not know, Cisco makes excellent (expensive) networking equipment that is utilized in almost every country around the world. When you connect to your ISP, you’re likely going through Cisco equipment somewhere along the chain. This makes the CCNA not only valuable in the US but around the world, and not only in the help desk but also in other positions around a company relating to tech. If you’re working security for a company, the CCNA is valuable as well because you need to know how to configure the routers/switches.
Since the CCNA is such a beast, it’s recommended to take the CCENT (Cisco Certified Entry Network Technician) first. Not only is the barrier to entry lower in terms of knowledge and cost (the CCENT costs 150), but taking the CCENT first allows you a little better access to the other certification tracks offered by Cisco. So if you’re just getting started on the Cisco cert tracks, the CCENT is the best choice. So, now that we all understand more about the CCNA and Cisco cert tracks, let’s get back to the story.
I started studying for the CCENT and about 4 months later I had took the test and passed. It was a very challenging test to study for. Not only was the knowledge required to pass the test difficult to acquire, but without purchasing hundreds of dollars of equipment, or hundreds of dollars of software to emulate the equipment, it was a lot of writing notecards, note pages, and reading books about configuring network equipment without EVER actually configuring one piece of hardware. I can understand why the boot camps or college courses are such a popular option because in those you would at least obtain some experience working on actual equipment. I definitely picked the wrong option for getting that cert, but it was the right option for me because I am ballin’ on a TIGHT budget, fellers.
A Change of Mentality
At this point in time, I was burnt out from studying. I had my CCENT, A+, Net+, and Sec+ but still didn’t really have any job prospects. This is probably what brought about the change in mentality that I had, but one other thing changed it as well; hiring managers want people with experience. I had an interview with my current company for a job that I was definitely qualified for and they picked someone with none or fewer certs (no certs listed on their LinkedIn page) but with much more experience. And that wasn’t the only job that happened with. When you’re out there looking for a job, experience trumps certs or degrees every time.
So yes, friends, I became dejected and withdrawn in my search for a new job. If you couldn’t a job without the experience, but couldn’t get experience without the job, you have found yourself in a true Catch-22 situation. The idea that your need of something is the reason you’re unable to acquire that something, this is a Catch-22. So what I needed was a change of my mentality. I needed to change what was on my mind-grapes. What I needed to realize that it wasn’t about what certifications I had, it was about what I was hoping to achieve with my career. I needed to change how I was going about building a career.
To illustrate my point here, let me give you an example. For some people, especially people in the military (Air Force, specifically) The Net+ and Sec+ certs are basically essential for some roles. Once you have those certs, you’re allowed to increase the specific tasks you can perform in some roles. If I had been pursuing a career in that organization, I would have a head start. I would already be qualified for some roles. But if I am looking for a tech support job at some other organization, such as my own company, having my CCNA is more valuable, simply because we use so much Cisco equipment.
Furthermore, for the careers that I was chasing, my time would have been better served volunteering my time somewhere that I was getting networking experience on Cisco equipment. That way, I could get experience for free working on Cisco equipment and been better qualified for a position and more knowledgeable when it came time to take the tests. My problem wasn’t a lack of knowledge or effort, but a lack of planning.
Wow, I didn’t realize that I was going to write this much for this and have it come out so much all over the place. I promise moving forward that my writing will get more clear and better directed.
Certifications can be valuable, especially if you’re trying to get into a new career field. Their much lower cost of entry compared to a degree makes them appealing to people who have to pay to acquire the knowledge/experience on a budget. However, it’s not enough to chase after them. You need to know what your goal is and you need to work back from there. If you want to have your PMP, it doesn’t make sense to get any other job than one that has project management experience up for grabs. You’d need 3 years of experience in Project Management BEFORE you can sit for the test. The same could be said of the CISSP. If you’re trying to get into a new field, getting the most basic cert can be beneficial, but if you’re aim is little higher, perhaps you should consider volunteer work or asking for more responsibilities in your current job.
If you’re wondering how one gets a job that requires a cert, but the cert requires experience first, you’re on the right track. It doesn’t make any sense at all. If you had the experience, you wouldn’t need the cert. But if you want to get the experience, you need the cert. The only advice I have at this point is to get another cert related to the same topic, but one that has a lower barrier of entry. At that point, my recommendation is to just get the cert you need for a specific job, and even then only get it when your employer basically guarantees you that position with that cert. The certifications you are attempting to obtain should be well thought out, because while they can open a lot of doors for you, you could also spend a lot of money obtaining certs and end up applying for jobs where the only thing they care about is experience.
It should also be said at this point, that no matter where you interview or what experience you have, what ALWAYS helps out the most is not what you know, but who you know. Experience and knowledge are great, but what trumps them is a recommendation from someone the employer already knows and likes. This was the true epiphany that I had, and now I realize that the hierarchy of job hunting is as follows (simplified): Network (who you know) > Experience (what you’ve done) > Knowledge (degrees and certs). So if you’re looking for a new job, I would recommend volunteering in the field you’re interested in. Not only could you build a network and get free experience, but for the ULTRA low cost of only your time, you can find out whether or not you really like the field.