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.
Built to Last
Built to Last?
In an effort to predict which certifications will not only gain initial popularity but also retain and reflect value over time, many IT professionals and hiring managers are beginning to look beyond buzz, into the nitty-gritty of how different certification programs are run. Before agreeing to pay for training and certification for staff members or putting in the time himself to earn a specific certification, for example, AdSpaces Skaff has begun digging into how issuing bodies devise the tests that lead to their certifications.
“I look at the exam and the body of knowledge thats being tested,” said Skaff. “For me, the best methodology is to have a mix of written and practical knowledge tested. The GIAC [Global Information Assurance Certification], for example, requires practical proof of knowledge.”
Besides looking at the types of questions and answers included on certification exams, experts recommend understanding methodologies used by issuing bodies to continually update both exams and the bodies of knowledge they test for. Organizations that update often and comprehensively, they say, stand a better chance of managing a certification that retains a good reputation and value over time.
PMI, for example, performs a comprehensive role delineation study every four to five years, asking project managers how their jobs have changed. PMI then incorporates those changes into the standards-based project management body of knowledge that it maintains. And PMI uses that updated body of knowledge to create the exams that candidates must pass to obtain its well-regarded PMP certification.
Organizations such as the Computing Technology Industry Association, of Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.—which issues several vendor-neutral certifications—conduct extensive psychometric analysis of exam data every three months to make sure questions accurately reflect the correct level of professional knowledge.
Organizations that are intent on maximizing the market value of their certifications are also acting to protect the integrity, as well as the accuracy, of the testing process. Cert issuers including CompTIA and Microsoft Corp. have formed the Information Technology Certification Security Council, in part to stop so-called braindump Web sites that illegally post exam questions and answers. (The group recently supported the successful prosecution of one such site, Cheet-Sheets.com, and its owner, Robert Keppel.)
Besides exam methodology and integrity, IT professionals should look at whether certification programs are put together with an eye toward global applicability. As more and more IT functions and projects move offshore, experts say, it will be important for organizations to choose certifications that can be obtained worldwide. That means not just that exams need to be available worldwide but also that domain bodies of knowledge must be developed with a global audience in mind, said John Hall, senior vice president at Oracle University, in Redwood Shores, Calif.
While the factors that go into making a certification that will retain value are many and, in some cases, quite subjective, a couple of things are certain, say experts: IT professionals will continue to be pressured to keep adding to the number and variety of skills certifications they hold, and the number of designations out there from which they must choose will only get larger.
“At one time, being a well-compensated specialist meant knowing about one facet of technology, but, as everything becomes more interconnected, now it means you must be an expert in more than one facet and more than one technology,” said Foote. “Thats whats driving certification, and its not going to change any time soon.”
Executive Managing Editor/Features Jeff Moad can be reached at [email protected] Additional reporting by Mary Stevens.
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