IT Paper Chase

 
 
By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2001-09-03
 
 
 

Is your IT certificate worth the paper its printed on?

It depends on whom you ask. James Kotwicki, for one, thinks his prove that hes got pluck. Kotwicki has an A+—a broad hardware and software certificate for entry-level computer service technicians—and a Network+—a vendor-neutral certification that measures the technical knowledge of networking professionals with 18 to 24 months of experience. "[Certifications] say, This persons committed to going out and doing everything required to get certified: reading books, studying, taking practice tests, taking the time out of your life to do that," said the third-tier analyst at a large banking company in Charlotte, N.C. "I know what it takes to take tests. They may not be the hardest in the world, but its definitely something you need to devote time to."

There are those who would beg to differ.

Steve Farr, a Microsoft Certified Professional and assistant network administrator at Salerno/Livingston Architects, in San Diego, thinks Kotwickis certifications are, basically, fluff. "A+ is very easy to obtain," Farr said. "I dont think thats very respected. Neither is Network+."

And even Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers arent a sure bet if you ask somebody such as Hsin Feng. The former network administrator for Porter Novelli International, a public relations company in San Jose, Calif., got laid off recently. Will his MCSE help him get rehired? Nah. "I have an MCSE. So what?" Feng said. "Theres so many out there, anyway."

Clearly, as the number of IT certifications—and the number of individuals holding different credentials—proliferates, its getting harder for IT professionals and hiring managers to tell which certificates have real value and which are merely paper. That means, even as they flock to skills certification for security in a down economy, IT workers had better think twice about where they spend their hard-earned time and money. Not all certificates are created equal, and not all hiring managers consider them all that important. According to David Foote, managing partner at research company Foote Partners LLC, enterprises are showing a marked lack of enthusiasm for traditional entry-level certifications such as A+ and MCP, which are scoring their recipients far less bonus pay than a year ago.

"[Enterprises] arent rewarding people with entry-level [certifications]," said Foote, in New Canaan, Conn. "Theyre putting more money toward experienced people than inexperienced."

Other certifications that are netting ho-hums in the paycheck arena are application development and programming language certifications—such as those associated with Lotus Development Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.—and Webmaster and Internet certifications. The upper-level certifications that are still going strong in managers eyes include database certifications such as those having to do with Oracle Corp., Microsoft Corp. DBA and IBM DB2.

The upshot: Certifications can help you keep your job—if youve already got a pretty good job. "Certifications, basically, will help you maintain what youve got," Foote said.

And layoffs or no, downturn or no, theres still a need for technical skills. As recently as about seven months ago, IDCs research showed that the No. 1 factor affecting the size of enterprise IT departments was the skill level of IT employees—above and beyond other factors that included network traffic, the number of end users and the primary network audience (customers vs. suppliers, for example). The more skilled the IT staff, the lower the head count needed.

The emphasis on skills may explain the exploding number of different IT certifications being offered. Foote Partners, in its 2Q2001 Hot Technical Skills/Certification Pay Index report, lists 15 new certifications added just since the fourth quarter of last year, including CompTIA I-Net+ Internet technician, CCA (Citrix Certified Administrator) and Compaq Master ASE (Accredited Systems Engineer), among others. (The report is available at www.footepartners.com.)

Indeed, pillars of the economy such as construction companies and automakers may be trembling, but the IT certification market is going strong, still growing at about 15 percent globally, according to International Data Corp. None of that is coincidence: Experts say that no matter what kind of ambivalence the IT profession holds toward certification, when the going gets tough, the tough get certified. "As far as certifications in general, the downturn hasnt been so severe yet," said Mike Brennan, an analyst at IDC, in Framingham, Mass. "People need that currency when theyre going for new jobs. When you show someone you have the base-line [skills], it [makes certification] worthwhile."

But Bill Stapelfeldt, for one, is ambivalent about certifications worth. The director of technology at BayShore National Bank, in La Porte, Texas, was planning to take the MCSE Windows 2000 exam when this story was going to press. That will certainly stand him in good stead at BayShore, which was acquired in March by SouthTrust Bank, which is planning a migration to Windows 2000 next year. Stapelfeldt has signed on to stay with the newly merged company through December and has every hope hell be there into the migration.

But on the off chance that things dont work out, that MCSE Windows 2000 certificate might help him in the job market. "Windows 2000 is an important thing right now," he said. "A lot of companies Ive talked to are considering upgrading or migrating to Windows 2000. The certification will be valuable."

But if you talk to the IT professional in his role as a hiring manager, his support for certifications grows tepid. "As an IT manager, I always found practical experience to be more important than certification. Certifications are like icing on the cake," Stapelfeldt said.

While many IT pros question the value of technology-focused certifications, such as the MCSE, theres a growing demand—at least from corporate management—for training and certification that indicate proficiency in soft skills such as teamwork and communication skills in IT workers. That call for soft skills has been around a long time, but its increasing in urgency, thanks to the growing trend for IT to turn its face outward, away from routers and toward customers. "The number of systems integrators and service providers, theyre both growing," IDCs Brennan said. "You have IT pros working on projects for customers as opposed to just working on a network or OS within a corporation. Youre facing customers, their inquiries and demands, as opposed to just your fellow employees."

There are plenty of people working to create soft-skills certifications and related training. Education Development Center Inc., a nonprofit education organization that works on creating tools for, among other things, grooming students for IT careers, is one of those groups. Joyce Malyn Smith, senior project director at EDCs Center for Education, Employment and Community, said that from the point of view of educators trying to gear up students to enter IT, soft skills are just one of a core set of foundation skills that are lacking in the plethora of vendor-neutral certifications.

"There are certifications for network specialists, Webmasters, programmers, but people are seeking a way to be able to attest to the fact that their students have developed a good grounding to move into a place where theyll develop skills in the workplace or move into a program of higher IT skills development," said Smith, in Newton, Mass.

EDC has been working with educational bodies, the Information Technology Association of America and the National Association of Business to identify just such a core set of IT skills. After a surprising amount of dissension among all involved regarding exactly what such a concept should encompass, the IT Career Cluster model was born (to view the cluster model, go to www.edc.org/EWIT/ITCARMD8.PPT) and is now being piloted in selected educational sites as a means to address what skills should be instilled in students and at what point. Whats notable about the model is that at its very base are the soft skills enterprises are now clamoring for: teamwork, employability skills, communication and even ethics.

Experts say that such a model should help solve the fact that, up until now, certifications have been lacking context.

"A vendor certification program can be a great guide for educators in designing good IT education programs, but entry-level and recareering students need the contextual learning, which is already a given for incumbents wishing to advance," said Peter Saflund, associate director of the National Workforce Center for Emerging Technologies, in an e-mail interview. The center, in Bellevue, Wash., is a nonprofit organization working to improve IT education and the supply, quality and diversity of the IT work force.

Passing Doesnt Matter

If theres one thing David Pasquantonio knows, its that in the end, the certification just doesnt matter. To Pasquantonio, training manager for Epsilons Training Team, in Burlington, Mass., whats important is not whether his IT staff pass the certifications—and they do fret about it, he said—its whether they use the knowledge they gain through study. "Boston University ran the project management certification class," he said. "[My people] went through, took their eight courses, and now whether they get a certification from Project Management Institute or not, is it going to change how theyre using stuff on the job or not? If theyre good project managers or not? The success or failure [depends on whether, given] the money weve spent on certifications, theyre using the knowledge."

Much of this pooh-poohing of certifications has to do with the fact that theyre multiplying like bunnies. But sometimes enterprises get riled up when certifications go away, such as when vendors drop support for widely held certifications, supplanting them with certifications for new products that many arent so sure they even want to buy. Such was the case when Microsoft Corp. announced last fall that the Windows NT 4.0 MCSE will expire on Dec. 31. The announcement meant that thousands of MCSE certification holders will greet the new year holding essentially worthless pieces of paper—not the confetti you like to be tossing.

Of course, the bigger the enterprise, the more severe the headache caused by these shifts in technology that make certificates, hardware and software useless. The Boeing Co., with its 198,000 employees in 25 states, is one of those that tends to be left rubbing its temples, according to Jerry Bunce, who heads up the companys IT K-to-Ph.D. Education Relations division.

"Is it a problem how we get everybody up to speed as we roll out new technology? Absolutely," said Bunce, in Seattle. Boeing is about halfway through a migration to Windows 2000, he said. Luckily, Boeing has internal training that isnt reliant on vendor certification but is instead designed to bring staff such as PC and network support workers up to speed. Plus, a close relationship to next-door neighbor Microsoft means help is always a stones throw away.

But still—nobody appreciates being forced into a migration or having his or her certificates turn worthless. As Bunce pointed out, though, enterprises form juicy, somewhat helpless victims for vendors to take a bite out of. "Certifications are a business," Bunce said. "Theres a lot of money being made. What I see Microsoft and Oracle and others doing is, as they bring out new products, theyre bringing out the next generation of certification so people that have the current level of certification now have to go back and spend money to get recertified. Its not a bad thing, but it is a business aspect for some companies."

But then theres the good kind of certification proliferation—the kind that keeps pace with technology innovation. One example is voice/data convergence certifications such as those created by Avaya Inc., a Basking Ridge, N.J., maker of communication systems and software that integrate voice and data for large enterprises. The company also offers services including consulting, outsourcing and support and makes networking systems and software.

Avaya was one of the first companies to come out with a voice/data convergence certification. The first, ACACN (Avaya Certified Associate Communications Network), was launched in November. Since then, the company has launched ACSCD (Avaya Certified Specialist Communications Design) and ACSCI (Avaya Certified Specialist Communication Implementation). The reason for the new certifications? "We as a company have been developing products that are more and more entering into the convergence space," said Caren Weiss, marketing program director of IS certification. "This certification is intended to say, OK, whats the shift in skills in the marketplace, and whats an easy way to help the market to get there? Theres a lot of cross-training thats started to be required."

The initial reaction from user groups? A bit wishy-washy—just like much of enterprises attitude toward certifications. "A year ago, we were at InAAU [an Avaya user group] and talked about the impending launch of the program," Weiss said. "But the marketplace at that point understood convergence was coming but felt it was a little far away. This June, I heard, Yes, were experimenting with these convergence solutions; yes, as a data manager, I need to be integrated with requirements of voice and as a voice manager vice versa."

Thats the kind of feedback on certifications that makes an IT pro sure that he or she has latched onto a certificate thats worth more than the paper its printed on.

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