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Grow Your Business Technology

Are Subscription-Based IT Training Plans Worth The Money?

become a network architect
Credit: Charlie's/Shutterstock

Training companies, publishers and big names in the certification world are proffering subscription-based systems that include online and/or in-class training materials, study guides, practice tests, hands-on labs, and more. You'll also find certification sponsors ready for you to sign up and partake on a monthly, quarterly or annual subscription basis. If you do decide to put all your certification eggs into some single basket, be sure to check that basket out carefully and use it to the max.

For a long time in the IT certification business, the "everything plan" for certification was the exclusive province of a class of training sessions called boot camps. Aimed mostly at credentials like the popular MCSE and CCNA, these camps were hideously expensive but mostly magnificent get-togethers that lasted two to three weeks. They typically included all day classroom training, nightly lab and prep time, weekend lab and preparation, with just-before-the-exam "cram sessions". As all-inclusive packages, you'd get meals, a hotel room, airport transfers, exam vouchers and chauffeur service to and from the test center to take the exams at the culmination of the whole extravaganza.

I remember seeing price tags in the $10,000 to $15,0000 range for this kind of thing in the late 1990s. They included study guides, practice tests, labs, classroom training, mentoring and tutoring, and anything else you might need to study up for and get past the exams in a record amount of time. And while boot camps are still around, they now have a much more interesting — and affordable — form of competition. That's the subscription plan approach.

Today, publishers, training companies and even certification sponsors provide IT professionals access to subscription offerings that can be paid for and used by the month, by the quarter or by the year. These subscriptions can include video- and web-based training materials, access to ebooks, PDF guides and all kinds of technical documentation, along with hands-on access to mostly remote, virtual labs and practice tests galore. Some even throw in access to virtual office hours with certified trainers or mentoring services from individuals who've already earned the certification. This is about as close to a boot camp as anybody can get for prices that range from $30 to $150 a month for all-you-can-eat plans.

You can expect these offerings from publishers such as Pearson IT Certification (custodian of my Exam Cram series of certification prep books), training companies such as Pluralsight and CBT Nuggets, as well as certification sponsors such as Cisco and CompTIA.

Why would anybody choose anything else? There's still the notion that best of breed certification training is unlikely to be available from any single provider. Although some offerings put that notion to a pretty stringent test; Cisco Press, for example, offers some of the best materials and video training around, and includes a partnership deal with Cisco to provide access to virtual labs set up and run by the company's own training and certification arm.

The person pursuing certification training will have to pony up enough time and energy to work through the subscription materials to make sure that they're getting their money's worth. This requires a substantial amount of self-discipline and drive.

This ongoing cost and self-directed access makes it imperative that nobody should sign up for a cert prep subscription, especially for a longer-term period like one year, unless they're firmly committed to putting that subscription to work to earn one or more certifications. Signing up for a certification subscription is one thing, but it's nothing more than wasted money unless you can turn it into something tangible and valuable. And don't forget that most such subscriptions don't cover exam costs, so be sure to budget the appropriate amount per test along with the monthly/quarterly/annual outlays to cover your ongoing certification adventures.

Two of the 800-lb gorillas of IT certification – namely, Cisco and CompTIA – currently offer subscription-based learning plans. Cisco's are covered on a per-credential basis and are found on any given credential's home page. There you'll find reference to Premium Learning Options, which offer access to premium training videos, hands-on learning labs and practice test questions for cert exams. The cost varies from $11 per month, to $60 for six months, to $110 per year for all Cisco credentials. Adding access to labs and practice test question ups the costs to $225 for three months, or $450 for a full year.

CompTIA's offering is called CertMaster, available as a 12-month subscription per credential. Prices vary from $139 for most single-exam CompTIA credentials, to $249 for the two-exam A+ certification. (I didn't see such an offering for the more senior-level CASP, or CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner, whose exam costs $426.) Those who join the CertMaster program get access to text- and video-based training materials, practice test questions, pre-test assessments and more.

Lots of other vendors also offer subscription plans for their certification and training programs. Search for "subscription" on your sponsor's certification pages for details.

There are many avenues to certification subscription nirvana outside the sponsor marketplaces. These include turning to out-and-out training companies such as Global Knowledge, Learning Tree, New Horizons and so forth (see my Best Training Options for IT Pros story for more options). Many of these companies offer online as well as classroom training, and they allow companies and individuals to sign up for ongoing subscriptions as well as per-class access to their offerings (primarily online only).

Online training companies have turned subscription-based access to their course catalogs into a mainstay for their businesses. Lynda.com, Pluralsight, CBT Nuggets, Treehouse, Udemy and SitePoint are among the best-known of such providers, where prices range from as low as $20 to as high as $90 per user per month for "all-you-can-learn" plans. Of the companies mentioned, the first three offer the best mainline IT certification program coverage across a majority of popular program and credentials. Check each provider's course catalog carefully to find the best fit, mainly to avoid hopscotching among multiple programs (or paying for more than one at a time) to cover all of your prospective training targets.

Most IT experts, managers and experienced professionals agree that IT is a lifelong learning profession. Given the need to periodically update certifications, and an ongoing requirement to upskill and learn new tools and technologies, subscription-based certification training is probably a good investment in career longevity and success.

As you look into your options, choose carefully. Check with friends and colleagues, and look around at certification forums online. Most credentials of any size and heft generate one or more online communities where members are active and vocal, and where you can find lots of good information about which training subscriptions are worth buying and which ones are best avoided. Many offerings also include some type of a free trial so you can see what you're getting into before spending any money.

Once you do buy in, make sure to do your studying and homework assiduously to get certified. If you commit to a strict training plan, you'll find that subscription plans are a great way to go.

Ed Tittel

Ed is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who has worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written for numerous publications, including Tom's IT Pro, and is the author of more than 140 computing books on information security, web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.