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Your Network Lab, Certified

By Brian Gleason, Blog Contributor
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Whether you’re new to the IT industry, or an old timer, you’ve likely considered industry certifications. Many think they’re necessary and just as many believe they aren’t. The crux of the argument seems to be: is it the marketing ploy of a vendor or do exams really test a candidate’s competency? I like Adam Fischer’s comment:

I’d argue that in general, actual work experience is much more valuable than a certification. While a certification is great to have on paper, it doesn’t teach you how to think on your feet and how to deal with customers in a professional environment...A certification could certainly get your foot in the door for an interview, but it is your experience and mastery of the subject matter that will help you through the gauntlet of questions that are thrown at you during the interview.

My own experience with certifications is exactly that: Get my foot in the door. Back in the ‘90s, I figured out I was spending a lot of money on college with no idea what I wanted to do. I had even sworn off computers two weeks into a Business MIS class because I disliked it so much. Realizing college wasn’t for me I struck out on the great life adventure. At the time, I was engaged to my wife-of-over 20 years; I was in a bit of a panic about how I was going to support this lovely woman without any marketable skills!

My first professional job was with a computer training company. While chatting with an instructor I saw that a) Compute was nothing like my MIS class and b) I truly enjoyed it. Through the encouragement of my newfound IT community, I started my career in IT by creating a PC lab at home and started on Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 certification.

That was 1998.

Designing Your Lab for Success
Now in 2020 I’m studying for another exam to advance my career. Having a lab is no less than a necessity to make a passing score. If you’re studying for an advanced certification like the Certified Wireless Network Expert, a lab coupled with real-world experience is essential. Even if you aren’t working on certification, picking up the textbook will teach you new skills to apply in your current role. So how do you start?

I’d advise against building your lab immediately. First, start your book study and get a few chapters into it, especially if you must pass a written exam to qualify for the laboratory exam. This will help you get a vision for the “production” technology you need to test. Even for written exams, having a lab is beneficial because you can test the theory and concepts of each chapter.

As you get into your studies, look at the vendor’s exam blueprint. You have to know what subject categories are being tested to focus your study time. With a lab, you need to know that as well. Think about it. You want to be a data center expert? What does that mean for testing skills? Virtualization? IaaS? Storage? Network? Routing? What are you supposed to study? Is it the bits and bytes of a protocol, the configuration syntax, and/or the design criteria?

The blueprint is your exam guide; it’s the syllabus. It gives you insight into exam criteria, and if you are building that lab, the exam blueprint tells you things like required code versions for testing; hardware platforms; supported network and system topologies.

Another way to plan your lab build is to look at the chapter titles in a study guide. If the certification you are studying doesn’t have a published blueprint, use the textbook chapters as the guide. If you need to know routing and switching, you’ll need a way to setup that technology virtually or physically. Do some chapters discuss RF interference and measuring signal-to-noise? Maybe this can be done virtually, or maybe you’d like some hardware to learn with (read my article entitled Network Test Lab: How to Get that Hardware).

The Big Idea
If you are considering chasing that certificate, a lab will be a tremendous benefit. That means you need to design one that is going to help you both understand the material, and help you pass the test.  Remember, the certificate may get you that interview, but the experience is how you think through the tough questions. A lab can provide some experience to handle those odd-ball questions.

Read My Other Blogs

A Vision to Mock Up Your Network Test Lab

Should You Build a Home Lab or Work Lab?

Network Test Lab: How to Get That Hardware