Certification: The Year In Review

Thursday Jan 3rd 2002 by Anne Martinez
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Even as some certification programs grew at an astounding rate, others quietly slipped away.

What's happened over the past year in the world of certification? You already know the bits that affect you directly, but there have been plenty of moves and shifts that affect the state of certification as a whole and its value to IT professionals and their employers. Whether you've already earned a certification (or three) or are still assessing the opportunities offered by certification, understanding the position of certification in the IT community will help you define your future certification efforts.

From 1998-2000, certification exploded into our consciousness and onto hundreds of thousands of resumes. Its initial appeal lay in its ability to add an extra sparkle to a resume that would quickly catch the eye of potential employers -- a way to demonstrate self-motivation, professional competency, and knowledge of the latest technologies. And it did so without requiring an additional two to four years of formal schooling. Often the necessary learning could be accomplished through self-study. Pretty good return for an investment of a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars.

In 2001, the beacon of certification continued to shine brightly, although perhaps with a steadier, less consuming flame. Over the past year, certification has begun to settle in as a well known, accepted way to credential expertise. It's not just the hot new thing anymore. IT professionals and their employers have a better understanding than ever before of what certification can and can't bring. Certification vendors have learned that creating and managing a certification program is not something to be done on a whim, or to create a quick new profit center; it takes time, commitment, and organization.

The following notable developments occurred in the certification marketplace during 2001.

Growth!
The number of certified individuals continued to grow at an astounding rate. More than 230,000 new Microsoft Certifications were handed out. The CompTIA's (the Computing Technology Industry Association) A+, another biggie, now boasts more than 500,000 certified individuals, up from 269,990 at the close of 2000. The relatively new (launched in 1998) Certified Internet Webmaster went from 20,000 to over 35,000 certified.

In 2001, many new certification programs were launched and others expanded. Cisco Systems , CompTIA , IBM , Lotus , Microsoft , Novell, Oracle and Sun all added additional designations to their existing certification programs. Newcomers to the certification marketplace include Active Education , Apple, Brocade Communications Systems, EMC Corp. , Hyperion , Planet3Wireless, SAGE (the Systems Administrators Guild), SeeBeyond , Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), Security Certified , Service & Support Professionals Association (SSPA) and Vignette.

New certifications clustered heavily around new technologies and areas of high interest, with most newcomers covering security or information storage. New security certifications include the Cisco Security Specialist from Cisco, Systems Security Certified Practitioner from the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (ISC2), CIW Security Analyst from ProsoftTraining, and entirely new, multi-level security certification programs from Symantec, Security Certified , and ICSA Labs . On the information storage front, new designations were created by Brocade Communications Systems, EMC Corp., SNIA, and Sun.

Implications:
The certification marketplace is solid and robust, with strong demand by IT professionals and plentiful opportunities for companies and organizations considering new certification possibilities. Certification continues to serve as both a blueprint for learning new technologies and a doorway into working with those technologies. Organizations are quick to latch on to certification as a way to develop a loyal following of IT professionals.

Changes and Departures
During 2001 a surprising number of certification vendors left the certification marketplace, either by simply fading away or by transferring ownership to another organization. Among the departed or transformed:

  • In April, Intel announced plans to shut down its certification program and transfer already-certified individuals to CompTIA and ProsoftTraining programs.

  • Also in April, the Gartner Group ended its "Gartner Group Project Management" and "e-Business Fundamentals" certifications. Both were transferred to CompTIA, where they were relaunched as IT Project+ and e-Biz+.

  • In May, the well respected Certified Technical Trainer designation left its home at The Chauncey Group and moved to CompTIA. Two months later it was re-launched as CTT+.

  • iGeneration merged its program with ProsoftTraining's CIW program and vanished from the Web.

  • In the course of becoming Gupta Technologies, Centura Software's certification program seems to have quietly slipped away.

  • Baan Certification has fallen dormant, and is reportedly under redesign.

  • Marimba Certified Castanet Developer - suspended after less than two years in existence.

  • Computer Associates Certified Professional (CACP) program - also gone. (The Unicenter certifications are still there.)

  • The Dialogic (now part of Intel) CT (Computer Telephony) Solution Developer and CT Professional certifications are gone.

Implications
Starting and running a successful certification program requires substantial resources, including time, money, and skill. It isn't worthwhile for everyone (or every company).

Rising Exam Costs
Exam prices have crept upward. Early in the year, Cisco raised the price of its CCIE qualification exams from $200 to $300, and the hands-on lab from $1,000 to $1,250. Later, most other Cisco exams were bumped up from $100 to $125. Microsoft recently announced plans to raise exam prices from $100 to $125 on Jan 4, 2002. New certifications launched during 2001 feature exams costing between $125 and $150 each. In years past, $100 was the norm. Brainbench's free online certification program has largely been retired and replaced with a for-pay exam model.

Implications
Nothing is getting cheaper. Although the price jumps are substantial, many certification vendors have kept their exam prices unchanged for years, so the increases are not unreasonable. Given the value that certification delivers, the higher exam costs are unlikely to significantly deter certification candidates.

Cross Pollination Increasingly Common
As previously predicted, networking and cross-certification dependencies have continued to form. The jCert Initiative was a pioneer of this concept back in 1991, and during 2001 more certifications than ever began to recognize and/or rely on each other.

The most prevalent form of this interreliance comes in the form of product vendors accepting or requiring a vendor-neutral certification as a requirement toward earning the vendor's certification. Vendor-neutral CompTIA certifications are the most heavily represented in these arrangements. Consider that:

  • Novell Corp. announced this year that it will be replacing its Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) Networking Technologies exam with CompTIA's Network+ exam, that CompTIA's ITProject+ will become a core requirement for the Master CNE (MCNE) level, and that CompTIA Server+ will become an MCNE elective.

  • Microsoft will accept a combination of CompTIA certifications in place of an elective in its new Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) track - either A+ and Network+ OR A+ and Server+.

  • LPI Level 1certification is a qualifying technology for the IBM certified for the e-business Solution Technologist role.

Although it's much less common, this cross-recognition goes the other way as well, with vendor-neutral certifications accepting or requiring vendor-specific certifications. For example, candidates for ProsoftTraining's CIW Security Analyst title must hold a networking certification from either Microsoft (MCSE), Cisco (CCNP or CCIE), which are vendor-specific. Several vendor-neutral Linux certifications also qualify. The most advanced CIW titles provide "fast tracks" for individuals who already hold a Microsoft, Novell, or Intel certification.

And it even occurs, on rare occasions, between vendors. EMC's Architect Master certification, launched in 2001, requires evidence of certification from Oracle (DBA, DBO, Application Developer), Microsoft (MCDBA), Cisco (CCNA, CCDA), SUN (Solaris), and CompTIA (Server+).

Implications
A side effect of this cross-linking is that keeping track of which certification counts toward what is getting more complicated than ever. On the other hand, choosing certification exams wisely can get you double or triple bang for your buck when one exam counts toward multiple certifications. It's also becoming easier to gain certification in multiple areas without having to repeatedly demonstrate the same skill set on different certification vendor exams. This is also likely to strengthen demand for the certifications that are used most frequently as cross-requirements.

Certification Popularity and Salaries
In 2001, several new studies came out supporting the value of certification. Most came from or were sponsored by certification vendors, who obviously have a vested interest in promoting the value of certification. As you might expect, the vendor sponsored studies paint a very positive picture of certification. For example, the 2001 Global Training and Certification Study , jointly released by CompTIA and Prometric, found that 66% of certified professionals received an increase in salary after becoming certified and 83% said it helped them gain a new position. The same study said that IT managers cite a higher level of service, competitive advantage, and increased productivity as key benefits of having certified staff.

But there is independent evidence as well. For example, a recent edition of the Hot Technical Skills and Certifications Pay Index compiled by Foote Partners LLC, found that overall premium bonus pay for 53 certifications has risen 8% since the end of last year.

Although computer-related certifications continue to show strong value overall, there is evidence that the hottest certifications of years past will give way to new stars. For example, for the first time, MCP Magazine's annual salary survey found that the average MCSE salary dropped slightly from the year before, and that individuals holding a Microsoft certification didn't necessarily earn more than their non-certified counterparts.

The Foote Partners research provided similar findings, stating that bonuses paid for systems/network operating system certifications have leveled off, even as bonuses for other certification areas, particularly security and database certification, continue to grow.

Uncle Sam Takes Notice
2001 wasn't the first year that the U.S. Government took notice of computer professional certification; they've been supporting it through their America's Learning eXchange Web site for several years. But this year, certifications gained more credence when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs began reimbursing veterans for the cost of certification exams (up to $2,000 each) taken after March 1, 2001. Eligible exams include those from Cisco, CompTIA, Microsoft, Oracle, The International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium, and The Project Management Institute.

Implications
IT Professional certifications continue to gain recognition as legitimate career credentials.

Signs of a Serious Crackdown on Cheaters
Shortly after certification became popular, cheating reared its ugly head. For almost as long as certification exams have been around, before taking an exam test takers have had to agree that they wouldn't disclose its contents. Occasionally a vendor will threaten to decertify anyone caught cheating, as Microsoft did a few years ago. But that hasn't proved a sufficient deterrent. It's become apparent that more serious steps are needed.

The most prevalent form of cheating is rote memorization of illicitly acquired exam questions in place of studying the material to be tested. Repositories (often called braindumps) of purported exam questions exist on the Internet, both for sale and for free. Given the difficulty and often arcane nature of many certification exams, and the increasing importance of certification in the IT job market, the temptation to take shortcuts can be strong.

But of course such cheating provides an ephemeral form of success. If the cheater does manage to get certified, their lack of actual knowledge will quickly become apparent on the job. And when there are certified individuals who lack the competence that should accompany their certified status, the status of certification as a credential is damaged. This is harmful for the certified as well as the certifying authorities.

But not all certification candidates have recognized the use of braindumps as significantly unethical. While some cheaters know exactly what they are doing from the outset, others may use such resources inadvertently without realizing the consequences. Or confuse them with legitimate practice questions that are created to help test or reinforce knowledge. Two significant events this year show that the industry is gearing up to put the kibosh on the use of braindumps.

First, CompTIA settled a lawsuit with Keen Interactive, owners of Cheet-Sheets.com. The suit charged that Cheet-Sheets.com violated CompTIA's copyrights by selling questions that appear on CompTIA exams. As of this writing the Cheet-Sheets.com Web site is gone. As part of the settlement the customer list was provided to CompTIA, who, it has been reported, sent everyone on it notice that they were in possession of materials that violated copyright law and asking them to destroy all materials they had purchased from the Cheet-Sheets site. However CompTIA stopped short of decertifying anyone. Action was taken against another alleged braindump site as well.

Second, an Information Technology Certification Security Council (ITCSC) has recently been formed to promote and protect the integrity and value of information technology certifications for test takers, employers, and the industry through enhanced security, standards, and public awareness. Current membership includes The Chauncey Group, CompTIA, Microsoft, Novell, Prometric, ProsoftTraining, Sun Microsystems, and VUE. The Association of Test Publishers (ATP) is also a participating allied organization and one of the group's founders. Many additional corporations are in the process of joining. The ITCSC vision is to eliminate practices or unethical activities that result in the granting of certifications to unqualified candidates.

Implications:
Clearly, certification vendors are girding themselves for the not very pleasant, but very necessary, task of cracking down on cheaters. In addition, there are now literally millions of certified IT professionals worldwide, each of them with a vested interested in protecting the value of their hard earned credentials. Expect the issue of cheating and other abuses of certification to become much more of an issue.

The Davids Wear Down Goliath
One of the most prominent certification stories of the year happened when Microsoft retracted its plan to decertify hundreds of thousands of MCSEs at the end of the year as part of the move to Windows 2000. IT professionals who spent substantial time, effort, and expense to earn the MCSE certification following the Windows NT track were outraged that their certification would essentially be nullified, even though many companies continue to operate on a Windows NT platform. At the eleventh hour Microsoft relented. Now those certified following the Windows NT requirements will retain their designations, and future MCSE titles will be version specific.

Implications:
Certification has been so successful because it benefits both the certifying company and those getting certified. Inadequate attention to the second half of that equation can create a serious backlash against the perceived offender. Certification vendors must respect how certification fits into the individual's agenda, not just how it furthers the corporate vision.

What Didn't Happen (But Will...)
One thing that's glaringly absent from the IT certification arena is a set of standards that define a minimum quality level for certification programs. Right now, anyone can throw together a list of questions on any topic, call it a certification, and start selling it as a professional credential. This cheapens the value of certification for everyone.

A voluntary set of standards - which certification vendors can choose to follow - would go a long way toward assuring that a certification is a meaningful measurement rather than a fancy certificate quickly thrown together. The ideal standards would define a minimum level of quality, without adding unnecessary hurdles and expense to the certification development process.

New certification vendors could use standards as blueprints to follow when creating a new certification. Existing certification vendors would benefit by assuring that the value of certification isn't diminished by the presence of certification programs that are poorly developed or prove disappointing to employers.

A standards program would also protect the value of certification for the individuals who earn credentials. By choosing a standards-compliant program, a certification candidate could receive some level of assurance that the program they are considering is of reasonable quality. Employers would receive the same assurance.

Professional certification programs have proven valuable to those who create them and those who participate in them. Creation of voluntary, industry-wide standards would protect that value. Sooner or later standards will arrive. Perhaps 2002 will be the year.

Anne Martinez is the author of Cheap Web Tricks: Build and Promote a Successful Web Site Without Spending A Dime and Get Certified and Get Ahead: Millennium Edition. She is also the founder of GoCertify.com, a gathering place and resource center for people interested in computer professional certification .

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