Certification can be an exhilarating, even triumphant experience.Earning a certification is like clearing any other exam. It requires preparation and practice. In today’s IT industry, there are many vendors in the domains of networking, software and management. All of them have their own sets of certifications, which vary in pathways and difficulty. For example, Cisco has its own certifications starting off from the associate level, to the professional level and finally the expert level. It’s the same with the Juniper Networks, Avaya and Brocade certification trees.

With the complete certification path of any vendor, or any technology, the beginning stage is typically the more difficult. Just like learning the rules of the game before you play makes things easier, however, when you understand the methodology of preparing for a vendor’s certifications, it becomes easier as you progress through the levels of mastery. Add in an increase in your personal interest level, and it can become interesting and almost entertaining.

To some extent, this is what happened when I was working on my CCNP Voice certification. Unlike my first experience with a Cisco certification, the CCNA exam (a generally nasty process for me; more on that in a future article), the networking domain was not new to me.

Having previously achieved my CCNA and CCNA Voice certs, I was pretty much familiar with Voice and VoIP technology. I felt confident that I could successfully go for the professional level in Voice domain. It also helped that by this time, I had worked for almost two years with all the VoIP products as a technical service engineer — the very topics covered by CCNP Voice certification. So how hard could it be?

Piece of cake! Becoming CCNP Voice certified is the best experience I’ve yet had with certification.

My CCNP challenge was the exact inverse of my earlier CCNA certification. To start with, the decision to go for the professional level certification in VoIP was not an official job requirement of my organization. It was simply a result of my interest and desire to grow in the domain. I saw this as a great opportunity to learn more about my IT career. I also had a high level of interest and felt no pressure whatsoever to achieve CCNP in a specific time frame. I could do it at a pace convenient to me.

CCNP Voice consists of five exams. I spent nearly three months on each exam, making a strong attempt to understand the technology, develop a sound knowledge base, and do a lot of in-lab practice. Fortunately, since I had worked on the job with this technology for approximately two years, I had the luxury of leveraging the office lab to do re-creations and practice the technology.

I often found myself spending four or more hours in lab playing with the technology. Interestingly, my daily job also contributed to me climbing CCNP’s learning curve. I was actually working on the same technology for which I was preparing to be tested! Killing two birds with one stone, and getting paid at the same time.

Carrying on from my CCNA days I had developed a practice of watching learning videos when preparing for Cisco certifications. This saved me a great deal of time, freeing me up to spend more hours on labs and practical work. I also knew how to fully outline my preparations and had all the relevant study materials such as video trainings, useful online documentation and notes that I had prepared as a part of my time on the job.

Experience is a great teacher. My previous Cisco experience had taught me that Cisco maintains excellent documentation for all their products and software at four levels: installation, configuration, design and troubleshooting.

This wealth of documentation came in handy as I prepared. If I didn’t know the answer to a practice question, I at least knew where to look for clear and concise explanations that were easy to master. The “icing on the cake” was when I realized that the CCNP exams didn’t contain any lab simulations! The absence of labs meant that the margin for silly mistakes in configuration would be much less.

The clearing score was slightly lower than required for the associate level certification, and there was no impact on my job regardless of the exam results. Many people tend to perform better with less pressure and that is what exactly happened in my case. Of the five exams, I cleared three with 100 percent, and two with 99 percent — not bad at all!

Moreover, the concepts and the knowledge base that I developed while preparing for this certification are still fresh in my memory. It’s as if I have grasped them forever. I was so well prepared that I even had time to rework some of the more complex problems, which had seemed like neverending points of challenge in my early days at work. Overall, it was a fruitful and wonderful learning experience working on CCNP Voice certification for a period of more than a year.

Certification can be an exhilarating, even triumphant experience.Compared to my first experience at a certification exam, this was easy. I also learned an important lesson: When you are new to any technology, it takes double the amount of effort required to gain certifications.

These days, certification too often seems all about getting a job and setting up your networking credentials. Freshers and experienced professionals frequently start off in a particular domain by earning a certification. They then join a networking institution of like-minded individuals and gain just enough knowledge to clear the certification. This is the dangerously easy way out — it does not build strong concepts.

Rather than take a quick and dirty path, give yourself time to fully learn and master the technology before you go for any certification. Take time to fully understand what the cert involves, the exam topics, the conditions under which you will test, and any study helps the certifying organization offers. In the long run, you will learn more, waste fewer hours, more thoroughly grasp the subject matter, and make the whole certification journey more interesting and enriching.