If you’re reading this post, it is assumed that you’ve already read my post on what certifications are for. If not, go there and check it out. This post details my method for comparing certifications.
First, go to each certification’s website and review each certification’s pre-requisites. If you don’t have any of them, it’s probably not wise to do the next step with that one. While I recommend challenging yourself and pursuing a certification for which you do not have all of the pre-requisites, if you have absolutely none of them, you’ve identified what you need to learn and that the certification you are considering will not teach you that.
Second, consider your career trajectory… then throw it away. Some certifications have specific paths that are laid out for you. If you go into the CISSP world, you’re “supposed” to be a manager. If you use Offensive Security, you’re “supposed” to be a penetration tester. While it’s true that these certifications have somewhat high value in these areas, increasingly, security practitioners are expected to know a bit of everything and be good at what they’re good at. It’s about the learning process. Unless you have no interest in learning (in which, go away, this post is not for you), you’ll be better off picking a certification based on what you’ll learn from the process. If you pick a career path laid out for you by someone else, you’re not only trusting your life to guesswork… but to someone else’s guesswork. For example, my grandfather gave me my first computer because it was the wave of the future… but also gave me a slide rule… “because you’ll need to be able to take something into the field with you”. If you’re going to screw up your career path, at least do yourself the favor of doing it to yourself so you can analyze why you wound up where you did and can correct from there.
Third, review what the different certifications cover. For each topic covered, give yourself a rating based on how well you know the topic.
- 0 = No idea what the topic means
- 1 = Have a bit of clue about the topic, maybe played with it in a lab
- 2 = Have done this professionally or played with it a lot in a lab environment. Still have room to learn.
- 3 = Have done this enough to consider yourself something of an expert
- 4 = Understand this topic inside and out. Comfortable teaching it to others.
Now, take an average of all your ratings and divide it by four. This will give you a percent of what you already know from what the certification will teach you. Subtract this from 100% to get the amount you will learn from the certification.
Fourth, you have to factor in your time. Most of us have a loaded rate for work that includes salary and benefits. If you know this number, use it. If not, take your hourly rate (convert if you’re salaried) and multiply it by 1.5. If you’re unemployed, figure out what you’d charge doing freelance work. You can quibble over this all you like. Really, you’re just measuring the cost of the time it takes to gain a certification, as that time could be used to boost your skills by working overtime at your day job or doing freelance work in the evenings.
Finally, estimate the time you’ll spend on the certification, multiply it by your rate, add the certification costs and you’ll have a dollar estimate. Take your learning percentage and divide it by the dollar estimate and you’ll get you a number that you can use to compare how valuable that particular certification will be for you.
In other words, Value = (Learning Percentage) / ((Time Spent * Hourly Rate) + (Cost of Certification)). When comparing certifications, the highest value wins.
Here are two examples. Since a lot of the information about tests is hidden behind registration links, I won’t do a complete analysis… just enough to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. In this, we’ll assume that my time value is $50/hr. Basically, I am choosing this number because it makes the math easier and should be in line with a mid-level career person that loves learning enough to drop the “personal cost” a bit. If you’re entry level, it’ll be lower. If you’re well seasoned and have other hobbies, it’ll be higher.
Note: I am also assuming a “zero” time cost to taking in-person classes. There is actually a time cost here, but for most people, it’ll be incurred by your organization, not you. If this isn’t the case, add the time cost back in.
This certification would extend my existing CISSP to focus on architecture. Reviewing the Candidate Information Bulletin, there’s a lot of information covered. Here are the first two domains. My score for each point is in brackets at the end. (The typo for “Methodology” is theirs… sorry.)
1) ACCESS CONTROL SYSTEMS AND METHODOLGY
A. Apply Access Control Concepts Methodologies, and Techniques
A.1 Application of control concepts and principles (e.g., discretionary/mandatory, segregation/separation of duties, rule of least privilege) 
A.2 Access control administration 
A.3 Identification, authentication, authorization, and accounting methods 
A.4 Identify and access management architecture 
B. Determine access control protocols and technologies (e.g., RADIUS, Kerberos, EAP) 
2) COMMUNICATIONS & NETWORK SECURITY
A. Determine Communications Architecture
A.1 Unified communication (e.g., convergence, collaboration, messaging) 
A.2 Transportation mechanisms (e.g., voice, facsimile) 
B.1 Network types 
B.2 Protocols 
B.3 Securing common services (e.g., wireless, email, VoIP) 
C. Protect Communications and Networks
C.1 Firewalls 
C.2 Gateways, routers, and switches architecture (e.g., access control, segmentation, out-of-band management) 
C.3 Detection and response 
C.4 Content filtering 
C.5 Device control 
D. Identify Security Design Considerations and Associated Risks
D.1 Interoperability 
D.2 Audit requirements (e.g., regulatory, legislative) 
D.3 Security configuration (e.g., baseline) 
D.4 Remote access 
D.5 Monitoring (e.g., sensor placement) 
D.6 Network configuration (e.g., physical, logical, high availability) 
D.7 Operating environment (e.g., virtualization, cloud computing) 
So, for the first two domains of the CISSP-ISSAP, we get (4+4+3+3+3+2+4+3+3+4+4+4+4+4+4+2+3+4+4+4+4+4) / (22 * 4) = .886 for a “known” ratio. This means that the percentage that I have to learn is 11%.
Now let’s look at costs. The official textbook runs $80. The review class runs $2,195. The test costs $449. And the certification costs $82.50. (Not required, but included because the GIAC cert comes with passing the test and we want to be as fair as possible.)
So, we have two options.
* Take the full in person class (assuming the course book is included with the class) $2,195 + $449 + $82.50 = $2,726.50. Add to this, study time of 20 hours at $50/hr and you get $3,726.50
* Wing it with the textbook $80 + $449 + $82.50 = $611.50. Add to this study time of 40 hours, and you get 2,611.50
So, if I were to take the in person class, I’d get a learning value of 11/3,726.50, or 0.295%. If I were to wing it, my learning value would be 0.42%… but the burden of the work would be on me.
Example: SANS/GIAC GXPN
Let’s compare this to the SANS/GIAC Advanced Penetration Testing Essentials / GXPN option. Looking at Day 1, we have the following list of learning objectives:
Low profile enumeration of large Windows environments without heavy scanning 
Strategic target selection 
Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)  and man-in-the-middle attacks 
Windows network authentication attacks (e.g., MS-Kerberos, NTLMv2, NTLMv1, LM) 
Windows network authentication downgrade 
Discovering  and leveraging MS-SQL for domain compromise without knowing the sa password 
Metasploit tricks to attack fully patched systems 
Utilize LSA Secrets and service accounts to dominate Windows targets 
Dealing with unguessable/uncrackable passwords 
Leveraging password histories 
Gaining graphical access 
Expanding influence to non-Windows systems 
Exploiting single sign-on systems 
Escaping restricted desktops 
So, for the first day of this class, we get (1+2+1+1+2+0+1+1+1+2+1+2+3+1+1) / (15*4) == .333 for a “known” ratio, or a learning percentage of 67%.
Looking at costs, it’s a tad more complex, with more options, but fewer parts. The vLive version of the course costs $4,370. The Self Study option costs $3,916. The Conference version costs $4,595. For all options, the test costs $549.
So we have three learning ratios to calculate:
* Self Study: 67 / ($3,916 + $549 + 60*$50) = 0.89%
* vLive: 67 / ($4,370 + $549 + 40*$50) = 0.97%
* Conference: 67 / ($4,595 + $549 + 20*$50) = 1.09%
Example: CISSP-ISSAP vs SANS/GIAC GXPN
So, as you see, even though it’s the most expensive option, you maximize learning when compared to time and dollar costs with the GXPN Conference option.
Now, there are a LOT of variables at play here. If you mis-estimate the time you’ll spend or the amount of money your time is worth, you’ll get drastically different values. So think about these numbers carefully before before you decide for certain which certification to pursue.
Once you’ve followed this process, you’ll have an idea as to which certification to pursue. If you are in this solely for the learning, stop now. The next post is not about certification but focuses on extending your learning in a way that is visible and gets you both known in the community (building the Who You Know) and in gaining and demonstrating experience.