I have a four-month-old puppy. She often snatches her favorite stuffed toy and zips around the backyard like a banshee. In the process, she frequently runs headlong, full speed, into our wooden privacy fence. There’s a loud *CLUNK*, she corrects course following the collision, and then regains her momentum and begins tearing around the yard again.

Watching Isabella perform this routine reminds me of my IT certification strategy. My carefully planned study time is regularly laid to waste (*CLUNK*) as a result of work or family crises.

Many of you are just like me. You run like crazy in your day job, which often becomes your evening job. You expend considerable energy surmounting exhausting obstacles and managing the tumult of competing priorities. Yet somehow, you must find the energy to maintain forward momentum with IT certification.

What you take away

  • Suggestions for picking the best certification for your needs
  • Strategies for making time to study
  • Ideas for picking the most effective studying methods

Running the IT certification treadmill
Like Isabella, many of us just correct our course when we meet resistance and get right back to business. But if your letters are any indication, you can do that for only so long. Spend some time on the certification treadmill and you’ll end up like my puppy, sitting in the shade beneath a hammock panting madly for air.

According to TechRepublic member Sharon, something has to change, and soon.

“Life as a system administrator is demanding enough without having to dedicate every waking hour outside of work trying to maintain your hard-earned certifications,” she wrote, echoing the comments of many when she added, “I personally am reaching the point of burning out by continuously studying for exams.”

Many times I’ve sat down to study at 9:00 or 10:00 in the evening and (cue violins) found myself simply too physically spent to concentrate. It appears I’m not the only one suffering from such an affliction.

Kevin, a certified Novell professional who’s also chasing Microsoft certification, said, “It is very difficult to be in network management—with all the deadlines and pressures—and go home each night, fire up the PC, and study networking, much less spend eight hours a week in class after work.”

Some IT professionals are so pressed for time that they have to surrender hard-earned certifications. Others are struggling simply to keep their weary toes dipped in the chaotic lake that’s IT certification.

Systems manager Ralph is one example.

“After I achieved my updated CNE status,” he wrote, “I began working toward the 70-240 [MCSE upgrade] exam. No way on God’s green earth I’ll be ready to take that by year end, so I’m going the MCP route.”

So what can you do?
It’s not likely that Microsoft and other vendors will change their certification tracks to emulate continuing education programs anytime soon, even though many of you wish they would. Software and hardware vendors have too much at stake.

But what are your options? Must you continue burning the candle at both ends and in the middle? Or can you better structure your IT certification plan?

Ultimately, I think you need to ask yourself three questions:

  • Which certifications do your really need?
  • How are you most likely to study?
  • When do you study best?

I’ll call these your ITCQ, meaning your IT Certification Quotient.

Which certifications do you really need?
If you can prove yourself on your resume and on the job on the basis of your education, skills, and experience, you may only need an MCP. Why, then, should you kill yourself trying to wrap up a Win2K MCSE by the end of the year? If you can get by with an MCP or finish the MCSE next year, adjust your plan accordingly.

Once you make your decision and you know definitively which certification you’re pursuing, you must set target dates by which you should pass the required exam(s). Before you can set your target dates, you must consider your personality.

How are you most likely to study?
Most of you are either crammers or planners. Crammers are those who do best cramming for two weeks before an exam. Planners perform better by spending time with software, reading a few books, taking a simulation test, and then tackling an exam.

Be honest with yourself. Don’t tell yourself you’re a planner if you’re not. If you’re not sure which you are, here’s a quick test. Do you wait until the last minute to catch flights, or do you arrive early so you don’t have to run through an airport, scaring small children and senior travelers who quake in your wake?

It should go without saying that crammers are prone to greater stress. This is an inherent truth. Regardless of the time you allot for studying, crises inevitably arise. The less time you’ve dedicated to studying, the fewer options you have to accommodate changes in plan. I’ll dub such impromptu crises The Isabella Factor. Crammers must manage The Isabella Factor efficiently or they risk joining the legions of IT professionals who meant to get certified but never got around to it.

Thus, if you’re a crammer, you need to guard your time viciously. Set time aside and follow the tips in the next section. Otherwise, you’ll keep running into obstacles in puppy fashion, only to continue racing until exhaustion sets in.

Once you’ve examined your personality and selected the appropriate cramming or planning approach, you’re ready to commit to regular study intervals.

When do you study best?
You already know if you’re a morning person. Do you enjoy exercising at dawn when morning papers lie around your neighborhood, waiting to be read? Or do you perform best at night, after the ruckus of yet another hectic day comes to an end? Maybe you can only study on weekdays? Perhaps weekends are your best bet.

Only you can answer such questions. But you have to make a routine. Whether it’s studying every weekday morning for an hour before you go to work or sitting poolside weekends with heavy textbooks, you have to determine when your studying occurs.

Once you make that decision, book it. Enter it in your calendar, put it in your handheld, and permit as few interruptions as humanly possible. Most importantly, if you simply have to miss a study session, don’t beat yourself up over it. Just pick up where you left off and don’t make it a habit.

I’ve tried a few different approaches to IT certification. Reading self-paced training guides in the hammock didn’t work too well. Loud *CLUNKS* kept distracting me.

I can’t do weekends, either. I have to relax and reset sometime, right?

I’ve found weeknights, beginning around 8:00 or 9:00, work best for me. The downside is that I’m tired. I compensate by keeping my study sessions short. I’ll try to hit the books, experiment with software, or take practice exams for an hour—two at the most.

How do I stay motivated? Easy. I tell myself that if I study for at least 90 minutes tonight, I’ll take tomorrow night off.

If you have a unique or creative studying approach, share it with me before July 15, 2001. I’ll take two of the best stories I receive and reward the writers with a copy of O’Reilly’s Windows 2000 Active Directory.

What’s your approach to certification studying?

We look forward to getting your input and hearing about your experiences regarding this topic. Join the discussion below or send the editor an e-mail.