Ask LH: How Should I Train For My Next IT Pro Role?

Ask LH: How Should I Train For My Next IT Pro Role?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m currently coming to the end of an 18 month contract working in a L1 helpdesk role, and I’ve been looking into industry certifications such as Cisco and VMWare certs. I’m unsure what’s the best route to take for training (classroom? self-help?) and whether I need to sit exams. Any suggestions? Thanks, Wants To Get Certified

Dear WTGC,

We’d definitely love to hear from readers who have been there on this one, but we’ll offer three thoughts here first:

  • No matter which certification route you choose — an intensive course, an evening class, self-study — you’ll be facing an exam at the end of it. That’s just the way it goes.
  • If you’re studying in an area that’s largely new to you, we’d recommend a face-to-face course — if there are elements you struggle with, it’s much easier to overcome them. If you’re looking to extend existing knowledge, then self-study could be more appropriate. But if you do that, set formal time aside in your calendar on a regular basis.
  • If you’re looking to advance your career immediately, an intensive course makes more sense than spreading out your study. You can concentrate on the task at hand, and you can potentially sit the certification exam immediately afterwards when the knowledge is still fresh.

Ultimately, practical issues — your current working hours, course availability — will play a major role in the option you choose. But consider those factors when planning. Readers, what would you advise?


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  • I’d advise that 99% of these certs are preferable (as opposed to required, even in most job ads) but wont on their own land you a job. I’d also generally speaking clarify that “If you’re studying in an area that’s largely new to you, we’d recommend a face-to-face course” as the author says is only true with certain learning styles, and that generally speaking any face to face course of any kind will usually be laid out in a way that SUFFICE for all learning styles, which generally translates to it being incredibly slow progress which results in a long time frame, which will usually only give you enough to pass the exam.

    Personally, I would worry less about certification and more about actually learning industry relevant skills. But that said.. You don’t actually say at all what you WANT to do, and given there’s no universal qualifications (even most uni degree’s vector towards a segment of the industry), it’s pretty much impossible to recommend anything specific.

  • If you ask these questions to a technical audience you will invariably get the answer “get real experience not certifications”. This comes because we all know at least one MCSE who go their cert from a guaranteed pass intensive training course and knows exactly nothing about what they are supposed to be certified in. Or worse, the 19 year old guru who has passed every Microsoft or Redhat certification there is, who thinks they know more than the BOFH with an NT4 MCSE and 20 years experience.

    My advice if you’re on IT helpdesk is get a few certifications. Even if you do just learn the stuff to pass the test at least you’ve learnt it, and I’ve always been taught “never bag out a qualification until you’ve successfully achieved it”. Lets face it, someone with 2 years IT Helpdesk experience and a CCNA is going to get a better look-in on jobs than someone with 2 years and six months of IT Helpdesk experience.

    As for in-person or self-paced, I would say that is completely up to you. Some people learn better with an in-person teacher, others find in-class training slow and tiresome. Self paced is probably going to give you more depth, is definitely going to be cheaper, but carries with it a much higher probability of you giving up or it taking a very long time, and you never getting the nerve up to do the test. FWIW, I recommend booking and paying for a test in 6 months time then starting a self-based training course. Then you’ve gotta complete it or loose $200.

    I’m an (expired) CCNA, and I really recommend it. CCNA teaches you mostly networking fundamentals and a little bit of Cisco. Training materials, practice exams, router emulators etc. are all easy to come by. What you know at the end of it very transferable, and once you know it, you will be frustrated by MCSE’s who don’t know the basics of what connects their systems together.

    If you’ve got a strong MS background, get a MCP behind you. It’s always good to get quick wins.
    If you’ve got a Linux background, don’t be afraid of the Redhat certs.

    But the most important thing to remember in the interview: You have got the certification, it’s got you to the interview; but unless you’ve got some experience to go with it – you still really don’t know sh*t. If you’ve got 2 years of experience and an industry Cert, they will hire you because you have a demonstrated willingness to learn and harbor aspirations above IT helpdesk, not because you know more than the next guy.

  • Hey Michael,

    Firstly, this post really hit home for me as it’s oh so similar to my current situation.

    I’m interested in getting your take (as well as other readers, please chip in 🙂 ) on my predicament.

    I’m looking to get a role in a networking administration position or a role where I can get hands on professional experience with networking equipment.

    My resume reads something like; tafe diploma in networking (with lots of Cisco practical work), bachelor of IT, and 2 years helpdesk support for a huge global company. I’m looking to get a CCENT and soon after, a CCNA certification in order to help me land an IT job with real networking duties.

    I now have the “required” 2 years work experience “foot in door” IT job that most jobs seem to list as a prerequisite, a diploma with lots of networking practical components, a university degree focussed on IT and I’m looking to get my Cisco certifications soon.

    Am I on the right track? Any suggestions, advice or tips? I really want a job which involves networking so I can learn in a professional capacity and move up in complexity as my career progresses. My passion has always been networking and that’s the ONLY IT field I can see myself in long term.

    I’d love to hear some thoughts from you (and others) as to what I could do to improve my chances of landing a networking role. I’m studying the CCNA very hard, not “study to pass an exam” but actual study. I won’t take the certification exam until I feel completely confident in my ability across all CCNA topics. I don’t want to land a job based on an “empty” certification, I want to truly understand my certification so I have a good idea of the theory and practical components of a Cisco related networking role if I do manage to land one.

  • I undertook several courses months and attended classes full time. It was worth it as I was new to the idea. I just scored a job and I won’t need to go back to school for more certifications. Online study from now on. I did pay a huge price though studying at school. But worth every cent. I help other students so they don’t fall into the same trap i did. I burnt a lot of money!

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