Does IT Certification Matter Anymore?

Wednesday May 9th 2007 by James Maguire
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The value of IT certification changes as technology changes, so it benefits tech workers to stay current with employers’ attitudes toward certs.

You can hear the grumbling from a far distance. It’s the sound of tech workers complaining that IT certification gets you nowhere. Perhaps tech certs worked magic in the past, but now they’re just a waste of time (and worse, money).

In contrast is the sound of companies that sell certification tests to IT staffers. Buy one of our courses, they say, and employers will open their doors wide. Fame and glory in IT is just one $750 cert test away.

In truth, an accurate assessment of IT certification’s true value appears to lie somewhere between the vendors' drumbeating and some workers’ “just say no” attitude.

“Some companies believe more in certification than others,” says David Foote, CEO of Foote Partners, a firm that tracks tech salaries. But frankly, he tells Datamation, "The news that we’ve been putting out recently is that certifications don’t mean much anymore, because people are not paying for them."

Adding clarity to the topic is Cushing Anderson, an IDC analyst and author of “Worldwide IT Certification Training and Testing 2006–2010 Forecast.” He sums up the value of IT certification: “It always comes down to ‘it depends.’”

“Certification is still valuable in areas where there is a lack of talent,” he tells Datamation. In those specific tech sectors for which employers have a hard time finding qualified workers, a cert establishes bona fides immediately.

In those cases, the right certification really does open doors.

The areas that Anderson points to: security, high end architecture, and complex networking. Employers have a hard enough time filling these posts that if you have the right cert (and some experience, of course) you’ll have an edge on the competition.

And if you’re shopping around for certs that will serve you well in the years ahead, Anderson recommends these “emerging certification” areas: RFID, Wireless, VoIP, SOA, SaaS, and Grid Computing.

In short, IT certification does count – but you have to earn the right one at the right time.

IT Certifications that Matter

There are areas in which certification really isn’t profitable for an IT worker, Anderson notes.

“We don’t need low-end server administration certification anymore, because the tools are better, and you can pretty much get all you need to know by working at it for a year and a half,” he says. “And there’s enough people out there [who know it] that employers don’t need to have special talent.”

The importance of certification has changed since the ‘80s and ‘90s, he says. Then, the lack of qualified IT workers in many areas meant getting a cert was an inarguable way to demonstrate skills.

But now, “We’re settling into a pattern where a relatively small percentage of IT workers will need a certification to work in the area that they’re in.”

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One of those areas is high-end IT architecture, and there are several certs that are profitable, in his view. They include the architecture-related certs offered by Cisco, Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, and EMC.

A certification like one of these can make or break a job interview. Anderson gives the example of a hypothetical worker who can boast of having just completed a six-month assignment co-designing a storage area networking project. The employer might be skeptical, wondering if the applicant was in reality merely a flunky on the project.

But then out comes the cert. At which point the employer is likely to realize, “Okay, you have an EMC certification, I believe you not only have that bit of experience but you probably have more capability beyond that.”

Good Certifications vs. Worthless Certifications

Neill Hopkins, VP of skills development for CompTIA, a leading provider of certifications, concedes that some tech staffers feel unenthused about certs.

Helping create this disenchantment is the plethora of cheap, essentially worthless certifications flooding the Internet. Fly-by-night vendors, he says, hawk them constantly: “’Just take this quick exam, it’s $10, and you’ve got something on your resume.’” There might be as many as 600-700 of these exams, Hopkins says, “And they’ve probably given our industry a bad name.”

It’s up to tech staffers to sift through the bad offerings and find certifications that Hopkins refers to as “legally defensible.” That is, certifications put together with such rigor, and with enough reputation in the industry, that they’re an unquestioned credential.

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These tests can be expensive in relative terms, “but they should be," he says, because the student can present the cert and honestly claim real proficiency.

Still, he realizes that some IT workers – even knowing that some certs are well regarded – say, “Why should I get certified, I should go and just prove that I have the knowledge to do that.” But, Hopkins says, “The old question arises, ‘how do you prove it?’” It’s the immediate proof of competency that certs offer that make them valuable.

Naturally, Hopkins recommends CompTIA’s certifications as among those worth taking. The CompTIA certs are designed to lay the groundwork for a tech career at a fundamental stage.

Among those offered by other vendors, at an upper level, he notes the continued popularity of Microsoft’s MCSE and MCSA, and the more specialized niche offerings by Microsoft. Additionally, he points to those offered by Sun and by Oracle.

And, “I certainly wouldn’t overlook the open source products,” he says, pointing to certs by LPI, Red Hat, and Novell, which he calls the market leaders. “There are more and more Linux servers being deployed…I think those certifications are becoming a little bit more in demand than they used to be.”

Also hot: networking and security. “We’ve seen a huge surge in security certification,” Hopkins says. “There’s a huge demand for people with broad security knowledge in the IT industry – that seems to be one of our fastest growing areas.”

And don’t forget help desk certification, however unglamorous. “Surprisingly, the help desk is still a hot job,” says CompTIA’s Steven Ostrowski. “There’s a high demand for help desk technicians.”

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