by Josh Fruhlinger

IT certification mistakes to avoid

Oct 15, 2021

Certifications can be a real boon to your career or those of your staff — unless you fall prey to these common pitfalls.

A shoe about to step on a banana peel, stopped by a small superhero.
Credit: RetroRocket / Getty Images

Marko Djakovic knew that getting a formal tech certification could help his career. He finished an AWS course and got the accompanying certification, but that was only going to be the first step. “I planned to pass more courses and become a cloud architect,” says Djakovic, who works as a digital project manager at Best Response Media. “That way, I would become the only one in the company with that knowledge.”

But there was a catch: After he started on this path, he realized he didn’t like where it was going. “As it turned out,” he says, “to become a cloud architect, I would have to change my job to involve more coding, which I don’t want to do. So I don’t use the knowledge I gained, and probably never will.”

Djakovic certainly isn’t the only IT pro who has experienced earner’s regret around a tech certification. With a dizzying array of certs out there, all promising to make your resume shine and boost your salary, it’s unsurprising that some folks might make the wrong choices. We spoke to a number of IT pros to get the lowdown on what to avoid in the quest for certification.

1. Beginning a certification journey without a goal in mind

Too often, people think of certifications as something they “should” get in the abstract, but don’t have a plan for what specific certifications will actually mean for their careers. To avoid this pitfall, you need to ask big-picture questions about how a certification aligns with your goals.

That was the mistake Djakovic made. “Don’t just think about the certification — or even just the cost and the time you need to complete it,” he says. “Ask yourself: Do I really need this? How can this help me be better in my job role? Ask your supervisor what they think.”

To avoid the trap he fell into, you need to figure out your career goals and search out certifications that will bring you closer to them. Christopher Villemez, senior technical marketing engineer at NetBrain, suggests some possible purposes that a certification might serve in your professional life:

  • Helping you understand a technology or solution you use every day, so you can improve your current job role
  • Picking up a new and popular skillset (e.g., public cloud) so you can stay current in the industry
  • Changing career directions or specializations

“Knowing your goal will help you determine the potential return on investment and gauge the worthiness of various certification pursuits,” Villemez says.

2. Biting off more than you can chew

If you haven’t pursued a certification before, or if you’ve collected mostly entry-level certs, you may not be ready for the level of commitment required to make certification worthwhile, especially if you are undertaking the journey on top of existing work responsibilities.

“Many certifications are expensive and demanding, with some requiring continuing education or regular re-testing after you’re certified,” says Villemez. “IT professionals should ensure they understand the full scope of the certifications, have a precise idea for how they’ll apply what they learn, and have a clear view into any continued education responsibilities.”

3. Failing to find the right training resources

Part of the work of earning a cert involves finding the best resources from which to learn as you prepare. You can’t simply Google the name of the cert and take the first course that pops up.

“There’s a ton of companies out there pushing trainings, materials, and study guides, and there’s a wide range of how good these are,” Villemez says. “Some are really poor and not helpful, whereas others are great. Look for known vendors with a solid reputation from consumers and with good testing success rates by their students.”

This advice goes double when it comes to certs that require accredited training prior to completion. Be sure to ensure any training courses you sign up for are conducted by educators or organizations recognized by the certification approval body.

Moreover, certain certifications require that you have access to resources beyond coursework or simple study guides.

“More and more certifications, like those offered by leading public cloud providers, evaluate applicability through practical exams that often necessitate that participants have access to a lab,” says Steve Bomberger, head of IT services at SEI.

Make sure you can meet these criteria before you dedicate too much in terms of time and resources to your certification quest.

4. Relying on outdated materials

Many people get certified specifically to show they are familiar with the latest innovations in the industry. To keep up, certification organizations update the material underlying their certs regularly — and that leads to another potential pitfall.

“Certificate tracks change periodically, and that results in changes to the study materials and tests each time it happens,” explains NetBrain’s Villemez. “This can be very frustrating if the materials change midway through studying over a few months, sometimes with completely new sets of things to know and other things now deprecated.”

Villemez recommends researching the history of a particular certification track to help anticipate such issues. “For instance, if you find out that the CCIE Security exam changes on average every three years, starting to prepare for your exam two and a half years into the current track may not be a good idea,” he says.

5. Paying when you don’t have to

Many certifications aren’t cheap, typically running into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. But even if you experience sticker shock when you find out how much your preferred cert costs to pursue, don’t give up hope.

“If you’re already employed, see if your current employer will pay for and support you acquiring a new certification,” says Scott Hirsch, cofounder and CTO at Talent Marketplace. “There are often training grants available to employers that can help support this.”

6. Not getting specific

A long list of certifications may seem like a worthwhile goal for endorsing your skills, but the time and energy invested in this pursuit may not necessarily send the message that you think.

“While certifications offer great opportunities, we have seen employees spread themselves too thin and try to learn multiple skills all at once,” says Anu Subramanian, CTO at CloudCheckr. “Rather than choose multiple courses for various certifications, what often works best is targeting your approach. For example, they could choose to go after certain niche certifications like security, cloud management, AI, automation, etc., or they can choose to target a platform — there are certifications specific to AWS and Azure.”

Depending on your career path, you may want to make sure the content of the certs you carry is specific to your goals. “When recruiting, we mainly look at product skills and not so much at Scrum, Prince2, ITIL, and so on,” says Lovisa Stenbäcken Stjernlöf, Okta practice lead at Devoteam Cloud Services, a Swedish IT consultancy. “Those generic certifications are so common they don’t stand out on a CV, and typically they are not that hard to get if needed for a project or client. Methodology also differs so much within different projects; product skills from day one is much more valuable.”

This advice pertains to both project managers and more hands-on technical staff, she says: “If you want to be a project manager using Salesforce, Salesforce skills are much more important. To stand out on a job hunt, figure out what product you want to work on, rather than trying be a generic IT project manager.”

Moreover, vendor- and product-specific certs may not pigeonhole you as much as you think. NetBrain’s Villemez brings up Cisco as an example.

“Cisco certifications, while promoting their proprietary solutions, nevertheless still have broad enough recognition to demonstrate knowledge that can cross to other vendor network platforms in terms of basic fundamentals,” he says. “I can go work in a network that is 100% Juniper and they will still be happy to know an engineer on the team has a Cisco certification.”

Employers can make certification mistakes, too

CIOs and other IT leaders can also fall into traps when it comes to the certifications — and certification desires — of employees or potential hires. Here are words of advice our experts have for IT leaders around encouraging the pursuit of certifications and the true value of industry credentials.

Don’t trust certifications blindly. While it would be nice to believe that anyone certified in a technology or skill set can apply that knowledge in the real world, hard experience shows that isn’t always the case.

“It’s crucial for employers to be discerning about prospective talent,” says SEI’s Bomberger. “Employers shouldn’t assume applicants are qualified because they have impressive certifications. To ensure that candidates can apply what they’ve learned, hiring managers should probe with broad questions to make sure they know the material but can also provide specific examples of how they’ve applied it to real-world scenarios.”

Ensure opportunities for those who seek to improve themselves. Ultimately, people seek out certifications to boost their skill levels and improve their career prospects. If one of your employees is taking that route, those career prospects can be with your company — or with someone else’s.

“Organizations should ensure that career advancement opportunities are available to those who pursue and successfully obtain certifications,” says CloudCheckr’s Subramanian. “You want to avoid the scenario where a company upskills their employees only to watch them leave for a competitor. By investing in the continued financial and career success of your employees through opportunities for IT certifications, companies can ultimately help to close the skills gap and improve talent acquisition and retention.”

And that’s a scenario where everybody wins.