Testing the buzz about certification

Saturday Apr 1st 2000 by Patrick Suarez
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Can certification really be used to change careers, boost income, and increase professional satisfaction? Two certified professionals in Texas say yes.

Vital statistics

Ron Anthony

Age: 35

Location: Fort Worth, Texas

Employer: Self-employed, contracts with CCPrep

Certifications Held: MCSE, NCP, CCNA, CCNP. Working on CCIE and CCDP. Plans to get CCSI.

Favorite Study Method: Hands-on. Understand the requirements of a certification, obtain the appropriate equipment, learn the equipment thoroughly. Test study and prep come after 100% familiarity with equipment.

Family: Wife Sandy and two sons

Hobby: Learning about computers

From auto mechanic to internetworking ace

Ron Anthony's life goal is to provide well for his wife and two small sons. To that end, he credits certification for making that dream a reality at the age of 35.

Anthony's journey to success through certification started far from the technical world--while he was earning a Bachelor of Religious Education degree from William Tyndale College, in Michigan. Anthony started out repairing automobiles to pay his way through school, but it wasn't long before the lure of motherboards and PCI cards overwhelmed that of sheet metal and spray paint. And his tinkering shifted from carburetors to computers.

As his interest in computers and networking grew, and he continued to build and repair systems, Anthony learned what he needed to know to earn his first certification, the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), in 1997. To pass the first exams he relied more heavily on his hands-on experience than traditional test preparation. He quickly became hooked on certification, and in 1998, completed the exams necessary to become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE).

The MCSE led to a better job, at Network Associates. There, he became involved with firewalls. This led to a new certification--Network Certified Professional in the Gauntlet Firewall--giving Anthony knowledge which he then passed to co-workers.

It wasn't long after that that a friend offered Anthony an opportunity to train for a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification. This time the training, on Cisco routers and switches, was more formal. As part of his certification strategy, Anthony purchased a few Cisco routers. This commitment cost him in the short term, but paid for itself in the end. After acquiring that certification, Anthony attended a Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) boot camp and, in 1999, added that certification to his growing resume.

To date, Anthony has taken about twenty certification tests. "I have never considered myself a good test taker," Anthony says. But looking back, Anthony thinks that the tests were actually easier than he originally feared. "A test is just a test: it tells you where you are in your learning process. It points out weaknesses and strengths, so that failure just shows what you need to work on to pass," he says. Anthony failed six of the tests on his first attempt, but always came back and passed in the end.

For individuals just starting down the road to certification, Anthony offers the following advice: First, study to pass the test, but do it in conjunction with hands-on experience. There are thousands of people who can tell you the right answer but can't set up basic configurations, he says. Next, view all the tests you fail as pre-tests. Forget about your failures and focus on accomplishments. Finally, maintain realistic expectations about advancement. This will come, but you must demonstrate hands-on skills and a track record as well as hold a certification.

At present, Anthony is a Cisco instructor teaching CCNA and CCNP boot camps. He also writes the monthly subscriber issue for the CCPrep.com Web site. The technologies that he teaches cover a wide range of networking technologies, from LAN to WAN. They include Ethernet, Token Ring, FDDI, on the LAN side, and Frame-relay, ISDN some ATM LANE WAN technologies. Within these topologies, Anthony teaches switching and routing, which in turn lead to many other topics, from design to implementation.

But despite already achieving more than he originally envisioned, Anthony isn't finished with certification yet. The next stops are the Cisco Certified Design Professional (CCDP) and the coveted Cisco Certified Internet Expert (CCIE) certifications. After that, he plans on pursing Cisco's instructor designation, Certified Cisco Systems Instructor (CCSI), an ambitious career path involving significant levels of dedication.

During his journey through the world of certification, Anthony's pay has increased to five times his original salary. He credits certification with changing his life and enabling early fulfillment of many of his long term goals, all within a few years of earning his first certification. //

Vital statistics

Debra Shinder

Age: 44

Location: Dallas, Texas

Employer: Self-employed, contracts with Syngress Media

Certifications Held: MCSE, MCT

Favorite Study Method: Hands-on. Break it and fix it. "Overstudy" for exams.

Family: Husband Tom and two children, Kristin, in the Navy, and Kristoffer, a gifted high school senior.

Hobby: Computers
Certification leads to role as author, trainer

Technology has brought a great deal to Deb Shinder's life, including the ability to work from her home in Dallas, Texas, and a husband whom she met in an online chat room. She and her husband, a former neurologist, have harnessed the powers of computers and certification to create the life that they want.

Deb Shinder
Deb Shinder

A very upbeat, intelligent and active woman, Shinder spent 15 years in law enforcement and city politics in Texas. She taught report writing, community relations, defensive tactics and physical fitness at police academies. She was a city council member and managed the development of departmental budget and policies, interaction with other department heads, elected officials, citizens, city employees and outside professionals.

But computers were constantly on her mind and she used hers to chat online with friends and strangers. In 1994, during an otherwise typical online chat session, the then Debra Littlejohn chanced upon an Arkansas-based neurologist, Dr. Tom Shinder. Things clicked as only things can in cyberspace and they married a few months later.

Through the late '90s, the couple began acquiring computers (they have nine, at last count) and learned the intricacies of networking and operating systems. In 1997, they finally put politics and medicine behind them forever and redirected their lives to computer training, certification and writing. This was a bold move, but they enjoyed working and learning as a team and knew that they had the potential for success on a grand scale. So, a hobby blossomed into a massive life-change just as an online chat session permanently altered the course of Shinder's life.

In 1998, Shinder earned her first certification, an MCP. By the end of last year, she added an MCSE and MCT. Currently, she writes full time for Syngress Media, along with her husband. Her credits include the Windows 2000 Certification Headstart Study Guide, Configuring Windows 2000 Server Security, Managing Windows 2000 Network Services, and Troubleshooting Windows 2000 TCP/IP.

She is also currently working on a book for Cisco Press to be used in the Cisco Networking Academy program. Shinder teaches MCSE certification classes on a contract basis in the Dallas County Community College District's continuing education program and manages several mailing lists and Web sites to assist her students. She has an ongoing contract to maintain the websites and provide network consulting for two small Texas cities. If that weren't enough, she still dabbles in law enforcement training, although not frequently.

By her own admission, Shinder is a born test taker. She tends to overstudy her material and chooses to use manuals (Sybex MCSE study guides, Microsoft Press books, and resource kits and other product documentation) and hardware rather than enroll in certification training. She and her husband even set up enterprise networking mockups in their home. This experimentation gives Shinder the knowledge she needs to pass certification exams.

Shinder's advice to certification hopefuls is to first plan to work where jobs exist. Her home, Dallas, offers plenty of opportunity for certified professionals. However, she warns newly certified IT workers to expect salaries in the $35K range until they prove themselves. Once a certified person establishes a sterling track record, salaries climb to nearly twice that.

Deb Shinder found a new life midway through her working career. To accomplish that, she combined a zeal for computer technology with the joy of learning. She dedicated herself to a year of hard work and study, but she did not perceive this as a negative. Shinder's positive attitude and faith in herself produced success, and the catalyst was certification. //

Patrick Suarez is a writer, speaker, and Web designer living in Springfield, OH. He can be reached via email at psuarez@dmgrad.com.

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