I'm not in any way deluded that being able to get a perfect score on a 100-question exam (or three) prepares me to fix people's computers. In fact, I have to wonder whether a better-designed test would make students go through a series of scenarios where they installed Windows and showed that they could demonstrate grace under pressure while troubleshooting impossible problems for (simulated) customers from hell. Multiple choice is easy, and not simply because when in doubt you choose c.
Which is partly why, I suspect, my Linux instructor finds most industry certifications a little suspect. Last time I went to visit him he showed me a certificate verifying the fact that he had printed out the piece of paper and stuck it up on his bulletin board. He gave me some excellent advice with which I'm following through this fall: 1. learn C, and 2. take the wireless networking course which was being offered. Before he started teaching he apparently spent most of his career in academia and academic computing, and he's the kind of technical guy I've spent a lot of time around: an expert Linux user who knows system administration, networking, and security like the back of his hand, and, well, there's no other way to put it: he's a geek. He'd fit right into my current workplace. As a nondegree student, I don't have an advisor, but if I wanted a mentor, he might very well be a good prospect. I'll certainly see a lot of him in the coming years, as he teaches most of the system administration, networking, and security courses.
But I also will probably end up seeing a lot of my current instructor, as well. He has an industry background and emphasizes Windows systems--not so much out of advocacy as out of necessity. Despite the inroads by Apple and Linux into personal computing, despite their ever-increasing user-friendliness and "cool" factor, the vast majority of computers are still and will be Windows boxes for the foreseeable future. He teaches the Windows system administration courses, which I will end up taking, and he also teaches a computer forensics course which I hope to take in the spring. (I would have taken it this fall but for schedule conflicts.) He's worked for some major hardware manufacturers (as far back as the seventies) and run his own repair and maintenance shops, and so his approach is very industry-oriented. Where my Linux instructor reminds me more of X and my co-workers in the academic computing world, this guy reminds me more of my father and his crowd--the sort of engineers and technicians who design, make, and troubleshoot commercial hardware and software. And what he has to say is that certifications are important--maybe not so much in academia, but definitely in the private sector.
I don't think I've seen such different outlooks laid out so clearly before, and yet somehow I know that I need exposure to both of them--the exacting, independent, mostly self-taught hacker who doesn't suffer fools gladly and the ex-industry guy who knows that you have to in order to survive. They're both excellent teachers...and I'm not sure I would have gotten the benefit of either of their experiences if I'd just gone directly into courses at Major Midwestern Engineering School.
I still don't know where, exactly, this is all going to take me, but I think I'm on the right track.