Financing an IT certification in uncertain financial times

January 29, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Posted in Certification Paths | Leave a comment
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2008 was a turbulent white-water slide down the financial waterfall for U.S. and global economies, to say the least. Information technology isn’t hit as hard other sectors, like banking, but no one can avoid belt-tightening; Investor’s Business Daily reported a slew of cuts at Intel, AMD, Seagate, IBM, and other tech industry leaders in the past week alone.

Still, the news is not all grim. The tech jobs lost in 2008 didn’t approach the great Dot-Com Bubble Pop of ’01, and technology-based jobs are literally everywhere, not just lumped into the “IT sector.” And no matter the economic climate, people who keep developing their hard skills and learning new technologies are always the best positioned for job growth. As Paul Sorensen of Oracle points out, certification can grant that advantage that can keep your career flourishing in a tough economy, or enables you to jump ship to a new sector with better prospects.

And for those who may be between jobs right now – and I have more than one good, competent, and hard-working friend in that situation – working toward a certification can keep you moving forward, not floundering in the economic shallows.

Paradoxically, of course, a recession or period of unemployment can be the hardest time to throw money into training, study materials, and testing for a certification. But it is possible to find some ways to lower the costs.

I’ll begin with an overall cost breakdown, and then throw out possible external (or internal) sources of funding you can research based on your individual needs.

The “certification costs” pyramid.
The first cost that typically comes to mind is the price of the exam itself, but that omits all the preparation you’ll put into getting exam-ready. Depending on your situation, there can be expenses for materials, vendor-required training, basic living expenses, and instruction. So, in roughly ascending order, here’s a outline of the costs you might encounter on the path to certification:

  • Exam fees for each required exam
  • Self-study materials and practice tests
  • Home-based lab setup and software costs
  • Online instruction, bootcamps, professional training seminars, and continuing education classes
  • Institutional tuition (community colleges, vendor-taught courses, and traditional university classes)
  • Cost of living reimbursements for full-time and part-time students

For each tier, I’ve thrown out ideas for finding help with the costs. While many of these tips are U.S.-based (such as federal grant programs), others are available no matter where you are in the world.

Tier One: The exam fees. Exam fees depend on the vendor. Some recent retail prices: US $90 for Oracle’s 1Z0-051, $239 for CompTIA’s Network+, and $125 for Microsoft’s 70-448. You may need to take one, two, or more exams, depending on the vendor and the level of certification you’re going for. This can reach four figures for multi-exam certifications.
Possible cost cuts. Three words: betas, bundles, and vouchers.

Beta exams, if you don’t already know, are pre-release exams that vendors make available for a few weeks before the exam goes live. Some are invitation-only, but they’re increasingly easy to find and qualify for. Subscribe to or keep an eye on vendor blogs (like Oracle’s certification blog), sites (like Microsoft’s beta page and Cisco University), and your favorite techie bulletin boards. Betas can be discounted or completely free. Some might not count toward a certification, but many do.

Instructor-led courses or vendor e-learning packages will often bundle in a free exam voucher or an exam discount. This might be a factor in your decision to purchase a training package. Also be sure to check with the testing centers, such as Pearson Vue, for bundled exam offers.

Finally, you can purchase discounted exam vouchers from resellers, or you might automatically obtain one from a certified instructor or training partner when you take a certification course.

Tier Two: Self-study materials. Textbooks, online downloads, CD-ROMs, practice tests, and other references. While there’s a wealth of information online for individual topics, you really need the comprehensive overview that you get from a textbook or courseware. Self-study lets you find your weak areas, practice new technologies, and memorize the “best practices” methods you’ll be tested on.
Possible cost cuts. Buy at a discount, buy second-hand, take advantage of free vendor training (as an individual or through employer software training vouchers), and/or have costs reimbursed as part of a larger financial aid package.

If you’ve planned in advance to study a given technology or topic, you might wait for a sale (like our 30% off sale, good until February 2). And, typically, online resellers will have better prices than the local big-box bookstore if you prefer the old-fashioned print textbook (like me, with my highlighter fetish).

Buying secondhand textbooks and courseware from online vendors is also perfectly valid, as long as the edition is current to the technology. (When buying secondhand, though, be sure you’re not losing out on CD-ROMs or one-time customer codes from the original purchase.)

Then there’s the big one: vendor freebies. Subscribe to mailing lists (find one aimed at people who already have your target certification) and get free whitepapers, webcasts, virtual labs, e-book downloads, and streaming tutorials. They usually focus on the latest up-and-coming technology. This topic deserves its own post at a future point, but here’s a scattershot of links to start with:

Typically, *any* money you spend on training material will qualify for reimbursement from student aid packages, or at the very least count toward an income tax refund. Be organized, keep all receipts, and read on.

Tier Three: Setting up a home-based lab. This can be hard for people who don’t have daily access, through school or a job, to the technology they’re studying. And as The Smiths once sang, some girls are bigger than others, and some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers. This is true for certifications:  Cisco is definitely the 300-lb gorilla of certs if your only option is to buy your own routers and switches for practice.
Possible cost cuts. Bite the bullet, simulate, or virtualize. This topic also deserves its own post, so here’s a summary for starters.

  • The bullet: build it yourself – but don’t pay retail. For example, Cisco press author (and blogger) Wendell Odom posted an excellent and exhaustive resource on building the home Cisco lab out of secondhand parts. Another option is to download beta releases of new technology, such as the recently released Windows 7, for free.
  • The simulation: Use an online or downloaded simulator for the environment you’re studying. Several commercial ones are available (including a brand-new release from Transcender, which gets its own post tomorrow).
  • The virtual: take advantage of technology like VMWare to house several simulated servers on one physical machine, and configure a fake network to your heart’s content.

Tier Four: Online courses, bootcamps, instructor-led training, or continuing education courses through a university. These give you hands-on access to a technology and structured learning, or the full immersion experience of the bootcamp or weekend seminar.
Possible cost cuts. Keywords are job retraining and career development.

This is such a diverse category that you may have to look for aid in several directions. Commercial training providers include bootcamps and technical training institutes. It pays to remember that they’re a business, and businesses have sales quotas, so you may be able to find a better deal than you’re initially quoted. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t settle for a set price list; ask what kind of deal you’ll get to sign up for multiple courses at once.
  • Find out what extras (like exam vouchers) come bundled with the courses. Next, find out what the retail cost of that exam really is by going to the testing center’s Web site. This lets you determine the real value of the provider’s “value-added bonuses.”
  • Some trainers offer “private student loans,” but be sure to check all sources of public funding first.

A good strategy is to look for government initiatives at the state or federal level aimed at job retraining or career development, which can be applied to a variety of costs. There are options for active servicemen and military veterans as well. Here’s a list to get started:

Tiers Five and Six: Community colleges, higher education, and university enrollment, plus cost of living for part-time and full-time students.
Possible cost cuts. This is the level with the highest costs, but also the level at which you have the widest range of options for financial aid. Full-fledged post-secondary education at community colleges or universities qualifies for the big guns, like federal student grants. Loans are also an option (if a tricky one) and these can be used to cover non-university costs, such as vendor-taught courses. Because there are many excellent resources already on the Web, I’m going to point you to the sites where you can see the widest array of options:

(Shameless plug. Our own Troy McMillan’s book, Change Your Career: Computer Network Security As Your New Profession, has a great chapter on finding the right kind of training and coming up with realistic cost-cycle estimates, as well as a chapter devoted to financial aid. )

As a final note, U.S. residents can usually deduct educational costs from their income taxes. While this should (obviously, I hope!) not be taken as professional tax advice, save the receipts for anything you buy that’s study-related, from books to CDs to training fees. The IRS web site (www.irs.gov) lists all the rules governing tax deductions for education.

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