In August of 2021, Matthew Penner joined a Microsoft Teams call with two IT managers and the IT director at First West Credit Union in Langely, British Columbia. He was interviewing for an entry-level help desk position. He was only 21 years old and had no professional tech experience. In fact, outside of a three-month summer warehouse job and time spent coaching volleyball, he did not have much work experience at all. As the director of the bank’s tech team dug into Penner’s resume, though, he found something that surprised him, and signaled the need for a different kind of interview.
Penner already held 18 IT and cybersecurity certifications, including all of the CompTIA certifications from the foundational-level CompTIA A+ to the advanced CompTIA Advanced Security Practitioner (CASP+). His skills and talents, it followed, could best be applied at a higher level.
“Tuesday was my help desk interview,” Penner said. “Wednesday was my Tier 3 interview. Thursday, I got the offer and Friday I accepted.”
In the year leading up to that interview, Penner had earned all 18 certifications at an incredible pace, demonstrating both a native knack for technology and an ability for meticulous focus and rigorous self-study. But his success also demanded taking a big risk. Penner’s first step to a tech career was leaving college.
Stepping Off the Beaten Path
In 2019, Penner was commuting to his local community college pursuing a tech degree. Like many students fresh out of high school, he assumed college was the route to workforce readiness. As the school year continued on, though, he was spending more of the 45-minute drive questioning if this well-traveled road would get him where he wanted to be. He wanted skills to work on the cutting edge of technology and was finding the course curriculum insufficient.
“They were teaching us outdated system methodologies,” Penner said. “We were trained quite extensively on an exam Microsoft was about to retire. The labs we were doing weren’t relevant to what modern administrators were doing.”
In March of 2020, when the pandemic struck, Penner was taking a desktop administrator class. The class promised to prepare students for the CompTIA A+ exam, but Penner again found the curriculum lacking and the instructional pace lagging.
“It was very slow,” Penner said. “It took us hours to learn the basic stuff.”
At that point learning remotely via Zoom from his parents’ house, Penner decided he could do better on his own.
Penner knew that CompTIA certifications provide industry-recognized validation of skills, and if hiring managers saw you were certified, they would know you could do the job. He ran an idea by his parents—he could spend a year earning certifications solo instead of taking classes. They were curious.
Dropping out of college was a bold move that carried a negative connotation. Penner showed, however, that he was serious. He and his parents wrote a contract; he would be allowed to live at home, rent-free, for a year if he spent 30 hours minimum a week studying for certification exams.
With the contract signed, his certification deep-dive began.
2020: The Year of Certification Lockdown
Having earned CompTIA A+ at the tail end of his tenure in school—only one of two in the course, he said, to earn the certification—he already had a feel for what testing entailed. Seeking out strategies to supercharge his studying, he discovered the CompTIA Reddit community. There he asked questions of other tech learners daily; about effective resources to use, pain points to be aware of and the value of one certification or another in the workplace. This helped him structure a successful personal program of textbooks, online training courses, videos and practice exams.
Penner charged forward down his own personal track, always thinking two or three certifications ahead of where he was, always keeping the next certification that he wanted to earn on deck. The certifications stacked up on his resume—even the CASP+, which has a recommended prerequisite of 10 years of in-the-field IT experience.
To earn a degree from a school that would recognize the legwork he put in on certifications and let him continue at his own pace, he started at career-focused online school Western Governors University (WGU) and wrapped a Network and Operations Security degree in a month.
With 18 certifications and a WGU degree to his name, he set out to find work in the field. He quickly found it.
Getting the Rest of the Story at Work
Beginning his job at First West Credit Union, with CompTIA certifications confirming his skills, he and his coworkers could be assured that his hard tech abilities were on point. He would not introduce cyber risk through missing a step or misunderstanding a task. But naturally there were internal best practices, system-specific configurations and so on that not even his copious vendor-neutral knowledge prepared him for. There was one important remedy he found to help him as he leaped into the higher-level role: Good coworkers.
“I was known to be the guy who needed to learn everything once but nothing twice,” Penner said. “I found myself extremely lucky to be on a team that was willing to show me, so I asked a dozen questions a day to the other six members of my team. They would always drop what they were doing and help me which was awesome.”
Penner spent nearly a year as a platform operations analyst, fleshing out his hard skills with the practical, day-to-day realities of working in systems administration, and even using his certification knowledge to help streamline processes. In late 2022, he moved on from his first job—seeing an opportunity to spend some time exploring another passion and return to school on his own terms – to further shape his career path precisely the way he wanted.
Serves, Servers and a Future in the Cloud
Penner loves volleyball. As a player, a fan and for 13 seasons a coach, the sport is as central to his life as technology. In 2023, Penner started school at Trinity Western University—a college with the top volleyball program in Canada—to focus on both of his passions, from different angles.
Penner plans to pursue his master’s degree in leadership at Trinity and anticipates the degree benefiting both his coaching and his senior leadership opportunities in tech in the long run. And Penner has not backed off from building hard tech skills. Over the summer he will be working at a tech consultancy and plans to complete a master’s degree in cybersecurity from WGU simultaneously with his leadership degree. And he is earning advanced Microsoft certifications with an eye toward becoming a systems engineer, and eventually a cloud architect.
At only 23, Penner already has a career’s worth of certifications, setting the stage for him to pursue professional roles and personal hobbies the way he wants to long into the future. For the moment, there is no better place he would rather be than Trinity, immersed in volleyball, coaching a team with several athletes who have post-secondary potential and maintaining as busy a schedule as ever. But while he managed his certification success at a hyper-accelerated pace, the advice he has for those who want to follow his lead applies to those who learn at any speed.
“Start with CompTIA A+,” Penner said. “It’s awesome. [Aim for] continuous improvement.”
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Matthew Stern is a freelance writer who covers information technology, retail and various other topics and industries.