Solving the Cert Puzzle

As options proliferate, IT pros must get smarter about which path to take.

Some would say Robert McMullins thirst for knowledge is an inspirational thing. In his 18 years as an IT professional, McMullin claims to have accumulated more than 200 skills certifications in disciplines ranging from Linux administration to project management.

Others, however, would no doubt say McMullins pursuit of certs borders on an obsession. McMullin says his wife, for example, often complains about the 4 hours of mostly evening and weekend time McMullin spends each week preparing for new certifications or maintaining the ones he has.

"She says I spend too much time studying," said McMullin. "Basically, its something you have to schedule and treat like a part-time job."

McMullins dedication to skills certification is perhaps understandable. One of his responsibilities as IT coordinator at reseller and services provider Micrologic Business Systems, in Independence, Mo., is to decide which training and certifications his company will subsidize for its 40 or so technicians.

Most IT professionals, however, have neither the time nor the money to emulate McMullins all-inclusive approach to IT skills certification. For most, the real challenge is selecting the right certification to pursue from a rapidly lengthening list of possibilities.

As the IT job market remains tight and hiring managers insist on skills certifications from job seekers, the number of training and certification programs coming from vendors and independent providers is still growing, although not as quickly as during the late 90s, according to David Foote, president and chief research officer of Foote Partners LLC, a New Canaan, Conn., research company that follows IT salaries and bonus pay.

Certification options are proliferating fastest in hot disciplines such as security, project management and Linux, where experts expect job opportunities to be greatest over the next couple of years. (For more on specific certifications see "Breaking the Code on Security Certs", "IT Pros Flock to PM Certifications", and "Getting a Line on Linux Certifications")

Adding to the confusion, the list of whats hot and whats not changes about as fast as teen-age fashions. During the past two years, for example, holders of general and entry-level certifications such as the Microsoft Certified Professional have seen certification-related bonus pay drop 21.4 percent, according to Foote Partners. At the same time, certification bonus pay in the hot security space has jumped 31.2 percent.

As a result, say experts, IT professionals and hiring managers alike must become smarter about choosing the certifications into which they should invest their valuable time and training dollars. That means understanding what characteristics allow certifications to deliver and retain value over time.

So what should you look for in evaluating IT skills certifications? Some criteria are obvious, say experts. A good first step, for example, would be to conduct a "buzz" test, an unscientific study of which certifications are generating interest and activity in your field or related fields. Just because a certification is generating lots of buzz now doesnt mean it will stand the test of time, experts caution. But, at least in the short term, its going to carry some weight with hiring managers.

"Certifications are in some ways like popularity contests, and certain skill sets can gain popularity quickly," said Michael Skaff, IT manager at AdSpace Networks Inc., in Burlingame, Calif., and an eWeek Corporate Partner. "Theres nothing wrong with jumping on the bandwagon."

Some certification-sponsoring organizations are attempting to boost their buzz. Next month, for example, the Project Management Institute Inc., of Newtown Square, Pa., will launch an advertising campaign in the hope of boosting interest in its already-popular PMP (Project Management Professional) certification.

In assessing the momentum behind a given certification, experts say, its important to narrow your focus to the specific industry in which you work (or want to work) and even to a specific potential employer you may have targeted.

Another way to determine the momentum behind a given certification is to simply look at the number of your IT professional cohorts who are going after it. Full classes suggest healthy employer demand. But be careful, say experts: Jump into a popular certification too late, and you could be buying into a certification that does little to differentiate you from hordes of other IT professionals with the same initials behind their names.

"You have to look at whats going to maximize your marketability," said Micrologics McMullin. "The last company I worked for already had a lot of Novell-certified people, so I went after Microsoft certification. ... It helped me stand out."

In the certification arena, buzz is beautiful. But its also a moving target, and its important to anticipate where it will move next. In recent years, for example, the focus of much investment has been on technical certifications related to successful vendor platforms. More than 166,000 IT professionals, for example, have received Oracle database certification, and many more have received MCSE (Microsoft Certified System Engineer) certifications on Windows NT and other popular platforms.

Those technology-oriented, "hot platform" certifications will continue to appear. But, as more organizations look for IT professionals who can apply their skills to multiple platforms and who can help make IT organizations more efficient, certifications that stress cross-platform operational issues and even softer strategic skills—such as project management certifications or management-focused certs such as the Certified Information Security Auditor and Manager—will become more important, predicted compensation researcher Foote.

Focusing on such vendor-neutral certifications will also allow IT professionals to avoid finding their vendor-specific certs devalued when, for business or market share reasons, a vendor recedes in importance. "In the recession, particularly, a lot of people played the wrong vendor card while a lot of generalists made out well and kept their jobs," said Foote.