Welcome to the next post in CyberVista’s Instructor Spotlight Series, where we interview the certified instructors who teach our courses and write our instructional content. In this post, we connect with Steven Burnley, the newest member of our instructor team. (The following interview has been edited for length.)
CyberVista: What do you do, and what’s something about your job here that might surprise a reader?
Steven Burnley: I write questions for our Microsoft certification practice exams. And it might surprise readers to know that I’m a serious, long-time customer of these very same practice exams. I started using them 20 years ago when they were being sold under the Transcender brand name, and I’ve used them ever since. I like to joke that their practice exams made me a million dollars. And when I interviewed for this position, I thanked everyone for the impact that they’ve had on my career.
CV: That’s really flattering to hear! What made them so helpful?
SB: I really like the practice exams because I like to begin with the end in mind. When I’m preparing for a certification exam, I like to see the exact scope of the exam so I can control my time commitment and the focus of my studying.
CV: Were you interested in pursuing Microsoft credentials from the start, or just what was available to you at the time?
SB: I knew I had to be careful about which technologies that I invested in learning, because it can take months or years to get good at working with a product. If that product doesn’t last, then you have to start over. Working with Microsoft was important to me because they were, and are, a major vendor. I knew that they would stick around. The quality of their materials is very high.
CV: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
SB: When I graduated from college, I had no practical experience and no vocational experience. All I had was a college degree, and I found that it wasn’t enough to get me a job in the tech industry. I realized that I needed validation for the commercial products that were in use then. So I became Novell NetWare certified, and then I became one of the first Microsoft MCSEs [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers] in the mid-90s. I became a Microsoft trainer shortly after earning my MCSE. I think the advantage of those certifications is that I could validate my skills and then learn the actual technologies as they were being applied in business, rather than the theory that I learned in school.
I also earned the A+, Network+, and Security+ certifications from CompTIA and then taught them at the university level. And I taught in high school for over 10 years.
CV: How did teaching help you make the transition over to the corporate side?
SB: I became a teacher because I enjoyed it. I was a quick learner, and I was very enthusiastic about it. By the end of my teaching career, I had Novell certifications, multiple Microsoft certifications, and Lotus certifications, and I realized one day that I had ended up, almost accidentally, with a massive consulting skill set. After getting the Developer certification and the SQL certification from Microsoft, and the CompTIA Network+ certification, all of a sudden students and people were asking me for help. That gave me an opportunity to move out of the academic space into some development projects and some technology director positions.
CV: You had a very well-rounded knowledge base.
SB: Yeah, the certifications do that for you. “Well-rounded” is a really good phrase because of course, you’re going to be good at the particular part of the product that you use every day. But certifications require that you have at least a fundamental set of skills for all parts of the product. I think forcing you to learn every facet of a technology makes you a better solution architect in the future.
CV: So, would you recommend a generalized approach versus a technology-specific approach to certifications to start out with?
SB: Yes, that’s why I think the CompTIA program is really valuable. I’m a big advocate of A+, Network+, and Security+ because they create a core knowledge base for anyone entering the industry. If you want to learn something like Kubernetes down the road, that’s a good specialization skill, but I think it’s important to stick with the largest vendor certifications when you’re just starting out. Besides CompTIA, I would look at the entry-level certifications for Amazon, Google technologies, Cisco, and Microsoft. I would always recommend starting with those core ones. But after you have your core, I think you do need to pick a specific vendor’s product to get certified in next, because the real screens, the real scripts, the real terminology used by the vendors is important if you’re going to actually do this in practice. Someone who loves a technology can achieve one of these serious certifications in a matter of months. I think employers would even look past the lack of a college degree if a job seeker proves their expertise in the products that the employer is looking for.
It’s a little overwhelming, which is why you can’t eat the elephant all in one bite. All of the major vendors have great entry-level certifications that are heavy on architecture, terminology, and concepts, and not heavy on implementation. Students should look at those entry-level certifications in a variety of different products before they decide on a focus.
CV: What do we even mean by a job in technology, in today’s terms?
SB: That is another really good question because the industry is so vast! We like to talk about technology in terms of layers, and I think the same can apply here. There’s the physical layer, which is working with the actual network machines themselves. There’s the operating system layer of being a network or systems engineer, or an operating systems and cloud engineer. At the application layer, there’s software development, database administration, reporting, or security. The good part about our industry is that there’s so much variety, there’s a home for everyone. Even people who don’t want to embrace a technology in depth can still learn to work with it and perhaps manage projects, work with customers, and do training. The tech industry needs a variety of skill sets.
CV: With so many options, how can someone new to the industry figure out which certification is the right path for them to pursue?
SB: It’s important for students to keep an open mind and let their instincts drive them toward what’s right for them. Learning is ultimately a solitary experience, and the only way that you will do that is if you’re intrinsically motivated. You have to love what you’re going to work with. If you find yourself driven to security and the idea of hacking, then the industry needs you to follow that path. If you love to create and you want to be a builder, then be a developer. The industry needs those too. If you want to work with money, budgets, make sure things get done on time, and love working with a big group of people to pull something off, then we need you in project management. There’s a wide variety of opportunities.
My other recommendation is to research industry trends. Visiting some of the websites that track industry technologies and their growth is a great way to figure out what would be worth investing your time in. Go to a job website and just search and ask yourself, “What if I learned Java today? How many jobs would be available in the area where I want to work?” or “What if I learned Oracle today? What kind of jobs would be available and where could I work?” I think it’s really powerful to see some blunt statistics right away — real numbers on which industries are hiring right now with some estimates of salary ranges. You can filter those websites by what an entry-level position would look like. Then, you can read those job descriptions and find out what your resume needs to look like to get those positions. Begin with the end in mind, because if you know what you’re going for, then it really clarifies the path.
CV: What’s something that you like to do for fun outside of work that people wouldn’t expect?
SB: I grew up working with my dad at car dealerships. Now that my kids are out of the house and I find myself with a little more time and resources, I’ve become a big Miata enthusiast. Myself, my son, and several friends work on 20-year-old Miatas. We restore them and fix some of them up for the racetrack, and things like that. I enjoy really complicated pastimes that allow me to still do my engineering thing, and I also really enjoy collaborating with other people. I like making compromises to come up with a better solution together than I could by myself.
I think that YouTube and Amazon have made me really dangerous, frankly, because if you are a lifelong learner, then they have all the resources to learn how to do things that you never imagined being able to do. And then my technology career made it possible to purchase the tools and the supplies for my hobby. So, in some ways, it’s allowing me to be a person that exceeds the original person I thought I would be. That’s from being a lifelong learner, always stretching myself, and trying to do things that I’m not sure I can do. And also, being willing to be afraid and overwhelmed.
CV: Are there any last pieces of advice you would give someone curious about entering the industry?
SB: They say that if you’re not afraid or embarrassed to discuss your goal with someone, then it’s not a big enough goal. Having an outrageous goal is how you accomplish great things. I bring that coaching mentality to all the things I do because I was a classroom teacher for a long time. I understand the idea of staying positive. Learning anything is hard. Technology is hard. That’s why it’s a stimulating career. That’s why it pays really well. So, if you’re the type of person that gravitates towards it, then you can find the tools out there for you to be successful. My sneaky tip is to begin your search with the end in mind. Think about the job that you would want, look at those job descriptions, imagine a resume that would meet that description, and use that to clarify your study path.