As always, opinions in this post are solely those of my own, and not necessarily those of any organization I am currently affiliated with or have been in the past.
First posted 4/25/2021
Exactly 14 years ago, I passed the CompTIA Security+ during my junior year of High School, which really helped shift my career towards network security stuff. Not too shabby for a kid in the Windows XP era, right?
In all honesty, I was pretty shabby that year. Obtaining Security+ at age 16 was cool. But it wasn’t cool how I failed Algebra 2 that spring largely as a result of prioritizing IT certification prep & video games over my high school math homework. I truly injured myself sprinting towards that IT certification goal; it was the one and only time I failed a class. Sure, I turned out just fine in the long run, but going to summer school in 2007 because of that Algebra 2 snafu was painful! I’ve learned a lot about balancing study time for IT certifications with other goals since that Security+ situation. That being said, even after completing a CCNP, I still have some days where finding time for IT certifications and having a work-life balance feels like an uphill battle. The “learning treadmill” pressure perfectly described on this Network Collective livestream is real.
In the conclusion of my last CCNA Candidate Toolbox post, I wrote quite a bit about why goal-setting, self-discipline and seeking assistance when you’re stuck are three critical skills to have if you’re climbing the IT knowledge ladder. There is no substitute for hard work & putting many hours into learning IT skills, but if you’re not living a healthy lifestyle due to IT certification efforts, it’s going to catch up with you sooner or later. Today I’ll be writing on five tidbits of knowledge I wish I knew far earlier in my career regarding the balance of IT certification preparation with everything else going in life. Your mileage will vary, what works for me might not work for you, but I truly hope some of these experiences and links to other resources are helpful for those closer to the Security+ or CCNA side of the IT certification journey!
Think about the Opportunity Cost
As the great poet and orator Eminem one said: “This opportunity comes once in a lifetime”. While that was true for the situation he was rapping about and many opportunities in life, I don’t think this holds water when it comes to IT certifications. You only have one shot to pass a formal education program, with a heavy burden to retake failed courses. You have your entire life to pass IT certifications, which can be retaken many times for a small financial burden.
Back in my Security+ study days, I decided to forgo running on the Cross Country team my sophomore and junior high school years to focus on IT stuff, returning my senior year primarily because I wanted to improve my 3 mile run time before USMC bootcamp. In hindsight, I only had those 4 years to do Cross Country meets, whereas I have my entire life to focus on IT stuff. At the time, I was convinced the opportunity cost of not doing Cross Country and blowing off math homework I didn’t enjoy was far lower than the benefits of being able to say I got the CompTIA Trifecta at age 16. While I certainly don’t regret obtaining the CompTIA Trifecta, I must admit it was foolish to avoid my Algebra homework and school extracurriculars because I enjoyed IT work more than being a high schooler.
Recently Zig Zsiga, a fellow USMC Alumnus who produces some amazing network design content, came out with an episode focused solely on the topic of “What Truly Matters” when it comes to priorities. He makes some really good points about balancing IT opportunities with other life opportunities, and I’d highly recommend spending 16 minutes to give his podcast below a listen:
It’s all about the journey
Setting goals is a gigantic part of learning almost any skillset, especially those on IT certification exams. It feels really good to enjoy achieving those goals too! But what doesn’t feel good is pushing really hard to achieve a goal, only to be quickly overwhelmed by a grocery list of other goals you’re nowhere close to achieving. Recently that’s been happening to me a lot when it comes to reading all the books I’ve purchased during the pandemic. I’ll feel really good knocking out a goal to finish a book, then feel a little down once I realize there’s so many more books in my unread pile.
To avoid this conundrum, I highly recommend checking out Josh Duffney’s “Becoming a Craftsman” essay, particularly the section named after the title. Phrases such as “while goals are important, enjoying the path to obtaining the goal is more important” really struck a nerve with me, as the journey to achieving my goals plays a big role in my overall happiness. Josh is a big fan of writers like Don Jones and Cal Newport when it comes to this topic, and I’m looking forward to reading some of their books sometime in the near future. For me personally, I’ve found Laurie Santos’ The Science of Well Being free course on Coursera to be incredibly helpful when it comes to setting realistic expectations & goals. Again, I can’t stress enough that what works for me regarding goals might not work for you, but with enough trial and error, I’m sure you can find ways to enjoy your journey up the IT certification ladder without goal fatigue.
Know when to fold ’em
Ever since learning about the CCIE certification track back in USMC Data Systems School, I knew I wanted to have one of those expert-level certifications someday, maybe with a few Microsoft or Linux certs too. Back in fall 2011, I decided I wanted to upgrade my MCSA for Windows Server 2003 to an MCSE. At the time, Microsoft was phasing out the coveted MCSE name, and I thought it would be really great if I could have the title of MCSE in my resume for life. I ended up failing the MCSE 70-293 test badly, two times. I must have wasted at least $300-500 on study material and exam fees, which was a lot of money for a 21 year old, even with a part-time IT job. After way too much analysis paralysis about a third exam attempt, I decided my pursuit of Microsoft certs wasn’t the best use of my time, and focused on completing my bachelor’s + enjoying college dorm life instead. Although I missed my shot at having MCSE in my resume and felt really embarrassed about the failed cert attempts for a few weeks, in hindsight I know I made the right call focusing on college classes & student life.
A few years ago, Greg Ferro of Packetpushers wrote a controversial but brilliant article about deciding not to renew his CCIE. He mentions how investing time learning hot topics such as Software Defined Networking (SDN) and cloud may add more value than deep knowledge of a specific vendor’s protocols on an expert-level cert – something I strongly agree with. Up until very recently, obtaining either a CCIE or JNCIE was something I had on my bucket list. After getting better with python and listening to a lot more Packetpushers since the start of the pandemic, I’ve started to realize that all the time I’ve been spending on multi-vendor network automation fun is adding more value to my career than I originally expected. So much value to the point where I’m seriously considering never attempting an expert-level certification status with any particular networking vendor.
I still think the lion’s share of IT professionals should have deep knowledge of the networking fundamentals covered in CCNA or JNCIA certs. I owe a large part of my success in the networking field to the two amazing CCNP instructors I had in school, along with the CCNP certification itself. But that’s all in my past now. At this point, I think I’m going to go the route of Greg Ferro and know when to fold my MCSE/CCIE/JNCIE aspirations in favor of the hot automation/cloud/etc stuff that immediately adds value to my dayjob and my career. Maybe someday there will be a cool new expert-level multivendor NetDevOps certification or networking challenge someday which will be a great use of my limited study time. But until that day comes, I’m fine folding on the CCIE dream in favor of investing my study time on new multivendor NetDevOpsy-type skills. IT Certifications don’t define you as a person. Your skillset does.
Don’t pull a hamstring in your work or personal sprints
One of my favorite books of all time is The Phoenix Project, where an IT department in peril digs itself out of a seemingly insurmountable mountain of technical debt to save their organization. I think it’s near impossible to implement every DevOpsy concept from that novel into your life as an IT worker, but my favorite concept in that story is bringing visibility into work using tools like scrum boards. It just so happens the scrum board scene in Silicon Valley is one of my favorite TV clips of all time. Give it a quick watch below, but be advised there is some extremely NSFW language:
All joking aside, using a scrum/kanban board at home or at work can be extremely powerful tool to get things done. When used properly, it can lead to accomplishing tons at that “nice leisurely pace” sarcastically referenced in the above video. When used improperly, you can quickly find yourself burned out and stressed over unnecessary expectations & deadlines. If you can, don’t be shy about putting professional development tasks in your work sprints! This has been a secret weapon of mine for the past couple years; by adding items like “improve familiarity with documentation product X” or “complete Vendor A’s self-paced course on their new network operating system”, I’ve been able to get some good professional development time on my schedule without pulling a hamstring to meet sprint deadlines. It’s easier said than done, and I know not everyone reading this will be in an organization where that sort of thing is plausible. But try using some of those scrum/kanban tools to help your IT certification goals whenever it makes sense to do so. Visibility into work is way more powerful than I first realized.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is not a valid strategy
To this day, I’m still unsure how I was able to function on such little sleep during my time in the USMC Reserve. It wasn’t uncommon to “sleep” on a bus, airplane, gym floor, etc. for 2-6 hours then get straight back to working on very complex communications infrastructure. While this military training on sleep deprivation certainly helped me out in my college years, I’ve come to find that chronic sleep deprivation is likely going to do you more harm that good when trying to learn new IT skills. Learning how to get more hours of high-quality sleep is a massive topic that I’m nowhere near qualified to discuss, but take a quick look at Dan Harris’ 10% happier journey below, I’ve found the sleep series on his 10% app to be really helpful:
Bet you weren’t expecting to see a group of Marines meditating in this post! All joking aside, if you’re not keeping up with sleep and regularly scheduled doctor/dentist visits, eventually the lack of preventative maintenance will lead to costly repairs. Since I was getting annual dental checkups for free in the USMC Reserve and brushing my teeth twice daily with an electric toothbrush, I went a good 3-4 years without getting my teeth cleaned at the dentist in my early 20’s. Around 2014, I ended up getting two crowns and a root canal because I didn’t make time for regular dental visits throughout college. That was really painful & really stupid. Make sure those checkup appointments are prioritized higher than IT certifications, your health is irreplaceable, certifications are.
Maybe the five items above help you in your IT certification journey. Maybe they don’t. Your mileage may vary, and always remember that nobody solves problems in isolation, talk with others on a similar journey often. I’m really happy to see so many subreddits, Discord servers, and YouTube resources out there to help with just about any IT certification track in existence. Things have come a really long way from when I was checking out Security+ books at Chicago Public Library in the mid-2000’s, take advantage of being able to chat with other IT certification seekers on the internet! Speaking of which, I’d love to hear about what you think either on the comments below or on Twitter. When it comes to sprinting towards IT certifications, studying & homelabbing is important, but it’s not as important as sleep & exercise 🙂
Special thanks to my parents for letting me follow my CompTIA cert passions even when I was being a bratty teenager
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