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Now What? — A Certification Resource List for Self-Study Career Changers

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Now what? I want to change careers and enter IT, but I don't have the funds to enroll in instructor-led courses. Is it possible to get certified through self-study? If so, which certifications should I pursue, and what are the resources I should use? Warren Wyrostek addresses these questions, and lists relevant resources that he recommends for self-study.

After writing the Now What? series for InformIT in late 2001 and early 2002, I was surprised to hear from so many readers through the discussion forums and by email. Most readers who were career changers expressed similar concerns. A typical email went like this: "I want to change careers and enter IT, but I don't have the funds to enroll in instructor-led courses. Is it possible to get certified through self-study? If it is possible, which certifications should I pursue, and what resources should I use in their pursuit? "

I referred many readers to the "Now What? The First Steps Into IT" article, which is still running on InformIT, for the answer to the question of which certifications to initially pursue. However, that response did not address the other two questions. What I am going to do in this article is address those two questions. Mainly, I will outline the resources that I recommend to my students, friends, and readers who want to pursue a variety of entry-level certifications through self-study. These are not the only references, but I have used them and been successful with them. You might disagree; if so, please provide your input through the InformIT discussion forum. Some of these resources you will find on the InformIT site, and others are available through a variety of other Web Sites.

The Three Questions

1: Is It Possible to Become Certified through Self-Study?

It is definitely possible to get certified through self-study, even for those new to the field. IT, despite what the purists proclaim, is not the toughest discipline in this life. It is a logical analysis of data communications. For those who grew up in the Depression of the 20s and 30s, IT is another blue-collar trade. It is a trade for which you learn a set of skills in order to perform a task. In IT, that task can be anything from building PCs, to troubleshooting a directory database, to designing the infrastructure for a WAN or a hospital database.

If you are willing to work to learn the skills required, you can get certified through self-study, and get good enough to land a job. Realize I am saying this in the post-9/11 era in an IT economy that stinks. You might not get the "perfect job" initially, but there is plenty of work for folks new to the field who have some skills and/or credentialing.

2: Which Certifications Should I Pursue?

No matter what IT path you are interested in, whether in networking, databases, programming or project management, I strongly recommend—as do many IT vendors—that you get A+ certified and Network+ certified. These two certifications from CompTIA give you a fundamental background in PCs and networks. If you are leaning strongly toward a career in networking, I would also recommend that you earn the Server+ certification from CompTIA. What these three do is give you a credential that is hardware-based, and that shows an employer that you have a "basic" understanding of the hardware used in the field.

No one in this field (not programmers, project managers, designers, or technicians) has an excuse for not being at least A+ and Network+ certified. We are all working on computers of some form or another, and 99+ percent of us are working on a network with other people. A+ and Network+ are fundamental certifications. I go into these in greater depth in the "Now What? The First Steps Into IT" article on InformIT.com.

From there, the certifications you pursue are up for grabs. If you are interested in Microsoft technologies, you will pursue the MCP. If your interest is Novell technologies, your first certification will be the CNA. If you are interested in the Internet technologies, you might consider the CIW and MCIWD or MCIWA certifications. If you are interested in Cisco, you will pursue either the CCNA or the CCDA, depending on whether you want to technically administer Cisco products or design internetworks that contain Cisco products.

These certifications, which are entry-level, are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many others, but this should give you some idea of what the starting places are. If you don't know where to start, how can you ever find the finish line?

3: What Resources Should I Use in Their Pursuit?

When you enter IT, as a career changer, you have to come to terms with a couple of realities.

First, you have to spend some money to buy the books to learn the skills involved in this trade. How much you spend is based on the advice and paths you take. Early on in my IT career, I spent too much money because there were few if any self-study paths available. Now, I spend as little as possible when I am self-studying for a new certification, CCR, or version upgrade. I have gotten "CHEAP and SMART" with time. Hopefully, some of the resources that I have listed here will provide you with the knowledge that you need to help you on your way.

Second, you need two networked computers that you can reconfigure and break so that you can learn to comfortably troubleshoot problems and learn to repair them. If you are pursuing A+ and Network+, the best advice I can give you is to buy the components, build two computers, and then network them. You will have one of the best labs that money could buy, and you will know the ins and outs of the system.

For components, I use the following sites:

Although there are many others, I have gotten good prices and good advice from these sites.

Third, you need access to some good practice tests, so you can get used to what the certification testing process is like. It is one thing to say that you have to spend $125 on one test. If you are not used to the testing process that a vendor uses, however, you could be spending three times that amount because of nerves that lead to failing scores. Don't be afraid to purchase a good practice test, and prepare yourself for the testing process. I highly recommend the practice tests from MeasureUp. They give you a good feel for the live question types. Self Test Software also has a solid product. For Cisco certification practice tests, I have also used the tests from CCPrep.com and Ccxxproductions.com. (See the end of this article for their Web addresses.)

Fourth, if you are pursuing a Cisco certification, you need access to a Cisco router. You can purchase a new router, purchase a used one through e-Bay (which is what I did many times over), or use an e-Labs provider that offers access to a rack of routers to help you practice commands on a live system without having to layout thousands of dollars. CCPrep.com provides the absolute best eLabs for Cisco certifications. They are well done and are reasonably priced.

The remainder of this article lists each of the certifications that I have mentioned so far, the books that I use and recommend, the test number that is current for that certification (as of July 2002), the vendor's certification Web site, the URL for further information on the testing process, and any personal comments.

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