We try to answer some of the general questions, that someone new to technology or to computer certifications might have, such as: What does it mean to be PC certified, what are the benfits of being certified and how do I get started get started…
Certification provides independent verification of a certain level of expertise in a particular area. Basically, it means you’ve completed the steps required to receive a particular designation. But this basic definition comes with a weakness–in some cases, individuals can become “certified” simply by paying a particular membership fee or by attending the required seminar. Such certifications are meaningless and a waste of time and money.
Certifications that mean something are about achieving designations that demonstrate to your employer and/or clients that you are, indeed, an expert in a particular area or areas, and that a reputable, recognizable organization is willing to attest to that.
Such certifications typically arise from a scenario like this: a computer–related organization, vendor, or consortium identifies a particular function that requires specific skills, knowledge, and expertise–for example, intranet security. They detail just what those skills are and which knowledge is critical. This information makes up the common body of knowledge (CBOK) related of the specialty. The sponsoring organization also identify a series of steps that will enable you to obtain the targeted level, and they implement methods of assessing your progress. Certification is conferred when you prove that you have, in fact, obtained the specified abilities and knowledge.
With many certifications, you’ll also be granted a privileged relationship with the program’s sponsor. The relationship can include priority technical support, early product updates, access to special forums, or other perks that will enable you to perform at a higher level.
You’ve probably heard of certifications granted by Microsoft, Novell, and maybe a few others. But most information systems pros don’t realize that there are currently more than 200 technical certifications you can earn. You can become a 3COM Master of Network Science (MNS), Sun Certified Java Developer, Certified Network Expert (CNX), or an IBM Certified AS/400 Professional System Administrator, just to name a few.
With so many certifications out there, it’s helpful to divide them into categories by type of sponsor. The largest chunk of the certification list is taken up by vendors who offer certifications related to their product lines. Cisco Systems, IBM, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Adobe, Microsoft, Novell, and Bay Networks are examples. In fact, the vendor-sponsored category of certifications is so expansive that everything else can reasonably be grouped into one additional category: vendor-independent certifications.
Vendor-independent certifications include those sponsored by professional groups. As examples, the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP) developed the Certified Computing Professional (CCP) designation, the A+ Service Technician Certification is overseen by the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), and the Network Professional Association (NPA) has come out with the Certified Network Professional (CNP) program.
The vendor-independent group also includes certifications developed by independent training companies. Learning Tree International, a well-known training company, has developed it’s own certification programs covering a variety of technologies. ProSoft administers a series of Certified Internet Webmaster certifications.
Certifications can have a broad focus, such as open systems, or hone in on the details of a particular technology, such as the Unix operating system or TCP/IP. There are many to choose from, depending on your goals and needs. A few certifications enjoy much wider recognition than most, but that doesn’t mean the others won’t prove valuable to you. It’s all a matter of matching your work goals, time availability, and financial resources to a certification program. If you choose one of the lesser-known certifications, you may have to take greater pains in explaining and promoting it, but if it’s in-line with your goals, it’s a better choice than an instantly recognized certification that doesn’t relate to what you really want to accomplish.
Certification programs can benefit people and organizations that work in the computer field, sell to the computer market, or employ technical people to perform computer-realted tasks. Those with the most to gain are:
* Computer professionals
* Certification sponsors
* Clients and customers
Virtually any IS professional can get something (in addition to the official piece of paper) by pursuing a well-chosen certification. Most will reap many benefits. The payoffs may come in the form of a salary increase, better job, added confidence, or additional skills that allow you to move into a new area or perform your current functions more effectively. Course work often includes hands-on exercises with up-to-the-minute software and/or equipment, exposure you might not otherwise have.
This is not to claim that every certification program is equally valuable. But when the urge strikes to branch into something new or simply to escalate your level of expertise in something you already know, certification is a good way to go.
Certification sponsors benefit from the deal too. In addition to revenue from training courses and materials, certification programs generate product and company recognition. Every Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) is a confirmation of the power and importance of Cisco, every Certified Banyan Instructor an endorsement of Banyan. By establishing the A+ Technician Certification and the Certified Document Imaging Architech (CDIA) designation, the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) has enhanced its own value and reputation.
The more people vendors can teach to master their product, the more likely it is that the product will be successfully utilized to its fullest extent, an added plus for both.
To employers, certification serves as independent evidence that you have demonstrated the skills and abilities required to complete the program. It also offers a method for bringing employees up to speed on the latest technologies, as well as a way to provide for the continuing education computer people often crave. Certification training can reasonably be billed as an employee benefit. Research has also shown that certified employees are more satisfied and more productive than their non-certified counterparts.
Customers benefit, too, because a certification gives them additional evidence of your qualifications and suitability for the task at hand. Nontechnical clients especially find that reassuring. Witness that some reseller programs require certified personnel to be on staff.
Although increasing income isn’t the only reason for obtaining certification, it’s certainly a frequently cited motivator. In some cases, certifications can translate directly into increased rates. Several recent salary surveys reveal the power of certification to boost income. The American Society for Quality (ASQ) reports a salary differential of $14,136 between Certified Software Quality Engineers and their non certified counterparts. Guess who earns more? MCP Magazine reports that individuals who hold a basic MCP/operating system title report an average salary of $61,200; $4,600 more than professionals with no Microsoft certifications.
But even when a certification doesn’t translate readily into a pay increase, it can be used as an effective tool to accomplish the same thing. Even if you’re not a consultant or contractor, as your technical skills grow, you can command a higher paycheck. That’s a fundamental of the job market. Your current employer can be “encouraged” to face up to your greater value. Or perhaps you might discover that to get that salary increase, you’ll have to move on to another position.
If you don’t parlay your certification into a raise in the short term, it will, nonetheless, add to your base of knowledge and qualifications, which should pay off in the long term.
As long as you choose a certification with your career goals in mind, it should serve admirably as a marketability booster. First, certification training listed on your resume demonstrates your ability and your desire to stay current; this is no small task in an industry where skills can become obsolete as quickly as they became cutting edge. Second, it shows that you take initiative, a trait many employers look for.
The computer field continues to be a worker’s market. Almost anyone who’s any good at all is able to get work. But when it comes to landing just the position you’re after, you’ll always benefit by differentiating yourself from your competitors, especially when it comes to the more desirable positions. Usually those with higher salaries and cutting edge work will have plenty of applicants lining up for consideration. Picture a hiring manager sorting through a pile of resumes, searching for clues that elevate one candidate above another. She may have six resumes that indicate the desired experience level and qualifications. Yours includes a certification in just the technology used in the position she’s hiring for. It’s a no-brainer to slide your resume into the “schedule an interview” pile. That’s a successful competitive edge.
Although technical recruiters report few requests specifying a desire for individuals with a specific certification, such positions are beginning to show up with increasing regularity. So far, employers only ask for the more widely known certifications, such as Novell’s Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) title. But as more individuals obtain certification and employers become aware of the availability of professionals with specific certifications, demand is likely to grow. By starting a certification program now, you won’t have to play catch-up later.
Not entirely. Hands-on experience is still a key criteria in determining your qualifications for a particular position. And in some ways, tests have gotten a bad rap; some think good test scores only prove that you’re a good test taker, so the fact that you passed a particular exam may be taken with a grain of salt. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that certification absolutely does supplement experience. If you have some experience and a related certification, you’ll come out ahead of the person with only the experience, and you may be considered at least equally as qualified as a person with slightly more work experience.
On top of that, certification is something you can earn now, starting today. Work experience requires time to accrue and there is little you can do to speed the process. Going back to school for another degree (or your first) usually takes years.
Many certification sponsors are addressing concerns about the meaning of exam scores by adding experience requirements and/or hands-on training as part of their certification process. Completing one of these certification programs will give you the professional designation and that invaluable practical experience.
Most definitely. Although certification can’t completely replace experience (see FAQ 6), it can effectively serve as a bridge to a new specialty. Suppose you’re an experienced intranet or Internet developer and want to get into systems security consulting. Although it might be possible for you to talk your way into a first, entry level security-related position, it would be difficult at best. But if you first complete one of the applicable certification programs, suddenly you will have something exactly on target to add to your resume. Not only that, but there are several programs to choose from, depending on the depth of knowledge you seek and the time and money you’re willing to invest.
For example, you could enroll in Learning Tree International’s System Security Certified Professional program, which promises that by the time you graduate you’ll able to design and implement an organization’s security strategy, expound upon threats from Internet hackers, secure an operating system, implement firewalls, and perform other security tasks. You’ll have to complete five courses (averaging four days each) and their related exams. Most of the courses are hands-on, so you won’t just read about configuring a firewall, you’ll do it. Other possibilities include the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) program overseen by the International Information Systems Security Consortium (ISC2), the USWeb Certified Internet Security Specialist certification from USWeb, or several designations sponsored by Check Point Software.
Want to slide into a Java opening? You can go right to the source and become a Sun Certified Java Programmer or Developer. Learning Tree offers a Java certification, too.
Technical training is another hot area that you might aspire to. Again, there are several certifications to choose from, depending upon your goals. Many vendors, including Adobe, Banyan, Cisco, Corel, Microsoft, and Novell will certify you to teach their products. Or, you can go with a vendor-independent certification like the Certified Technical Trainer (CTT) from Educational Testing Service. The possibilities for this kind of bridging are many.
It’s true that there are classes you could enroll in to learn new software or hardware skills, but a single course listed on your resume is much less impressive than a completed certification. And if you go with individual courses, you’ll have to figure out which classes appear best suited to your goals, which can be difficult when moving into an area you are less familiar with. Certification programs offer a complete curriculum developed with the intent of providing skills that have been identified as critical to success in a particular area. That’s not as rigid as it sounds, because most programs include a choice of electives in addition to core courses. Why build your own bridge when you can cross one a cadre of expert architects has already constructed?
Certification programs offer a good way to learn a new area and obtain a credential at the same time. That’s a hard to beat combination.
You could just pick a certification based on a gut feeling, but if you want to be certain of the best match, it’s going to take a bit of homework. First, you’ll have to identify just what it is you’re trying to accomplish, which can be more difficult than it sounds. It’s like deciding what to major in at college, but at least this time you’ll have the advantages of perspective and experience, which will allow you to visualize the options more clearly.
Second, once you’ve managed that, you’ll have to pin down the details of your current skills and experience and see where the bridge needs to be built, or maybe just the foundations strengthened, to get where you’d like to be. These two steps come easily to some people, but take quite a bit of thought for others. Completing them will put you halfway there.
Next comes the research part. Because there are more than 200 certifications to choose from, and more are being added all the time, you’ll want to browse through the options until you identify the ones that might suit your purposes. Don’t stop when you uncover the first possible program because there may be several that make the first cut. Then you’ll want to find out as much as you can about the certifications on your tentative list before settling on one.
Again, this process will cost you some time and effort, but putting in the work up front will be time and effort well spent if it lands you in the right certification program.
The price of certification is difficult to pin down in advance. There are many variables, the first and largest of which is your choice of certification to pursue. In some cases, the sole requirement for initial certification is that you pass the exam. An example is the Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) program from the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA). In 1999 the exam fee is $295 for ISACA members and $385 for nonmembers (more for late registration).
You might be able to pass a qualifying exam strictly by drawing on expertise you already have, but that’s risky. Consider that of about 4,300 people who took the 1998 CISA exam only 54% passed. So most likely you’ll want to study the relevant material first. A study guide may be all you need, or a series of hands-on courses might be more in order. Your needs will probably fall somewhere in between. A manual is obviously drastically less expensive than instructor-led training.
Most certifications require some degree of continuing education over time to retain the certification. Generally there’s a lot of freedom about the exact nature of the training, a community college class, a professional seminar, an employer run seminar (which costs you nothing), or an online course might all qualify. The cost of your continuing education can vary greatly, depending on how you choose to accomplish it.
In some instances, you’ll have to pay an annual maintenance fee to the sponsoring organization. The annual CISA maintenance fee, for example, is $35 for ISACA members and $45 for nonmembers.
Word on the street is that an MCSE certification (one of the hottest at the moment) can run you ten thousand dollars or more by the time you complete the necessary classes and requirements. There’s no denying that’s a serious chunk of change, but it’s alleged to have a major impact on future earnings that begins before you even complete the certification. Apparently you can gain value in the eyes of some employers simply by being in the process of earning an MCSE. A similar effect probably applies to other designations as well.
Monetary expenses aren’t the only costs of earning certification. You’ll also have to devote time and effort, often a substantial amount.
As you can see, it’s impossible to state that certification will cost X dollars or will take every candidate Y months to obtain. On the one hand the uncertainty can be very annoying, but the pay off is the flexibility that allows each person, to a large degree, to map out their own path and their own pace. Only after you’ve decided which certification to go after, and figured out which learning alternatives are most attractive to you will you be able to come up with a reasonably close cost estimate.
Absolutely. If you are on a company payroll, there may well be dollars in the budget that can be funneled your way. If you can convince your employer that the training will benefit the company as well as yourself, then the company’s training budget may cover part or all of your expenses. Another employer source to look into is the tuition reimbursement program, which may refund part or all of your tuition fees, provided you meet the company’s requirements.
Uncle Sam is sympathetic to students, too. If you’re an American, funds you expend on education (in some cases, including related transportation costs) in your current field can be deducted on your federal income tax return, either on Form 2106, Employee Business Expenses or on Schedule C, Profit or Loss from Business. The 1997 tax act created a lifetime learning tax credit that may apply to you as well.
Judicious selection of learning alternatives and a little shopping around can save you money, too. For example, some community technical colleges have begun offering some of the same exact classes you’ll find at Novell Authorized Education Centers at a fraction of the cost. You’ll often have the option of purchasing a package deal that includes several courses but at a discounted rate that is more affordable than purchasing each course individually. It’s the certification version of bulk discounting. And then there’s the ultra-condensed version, where you travel to a learning center, bury yourself in theory and technology for two weeks, and emerge certified (or nearly so), though perhaps a bit dizzy as well.
Another, somewhat less desirable alternative, is to finance your certification by paying for it in installments rather than large lump sums. Alternatively, you can extend your chosen program over time, enrolling in courses as you feel financially able to do so. Recently, loan products specifically geared to certification candidates have appeared on the scene.
You may also be able to get your (or your employer’s) training money to serve double duty by parlaying your classes into college credits.
How long it takes is largely up to you. If you choose a route that includes one four-day class followed by an exam, then you’ll finish in less than a week. But to do this, you’ll either have to have a depth of knowledge in the relevant technologies already or select a certification that’s very narrowly focused.
There’s also the cram course version, where you basically put the rest of your life on hold and completely immerse yourself in training for an extended period. For many people this isn’t practical because it would interfere with their home and work obligations. It can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Of course it can also be exciting if you’re learning technologies you’re passionate about. But not all certification programs offer condensed training regimens.
The most common path is less frantic: you sign up for self-study for the first course, complete it, take the exam. Then you move on to requirement number two, and so on. This method isn’t as likely to consume all your spare time and allows for less rushed learning.
Most certification programs specify a time limit within which you must meet all the requirements. Such deadlines are particularly helpful for procrastinators but can help anyone determine a workable pace.
The bottom line is that earning certification can take a week, or it can span several years. It’s basically up to you.
You can go back to school or travel to a training site if you want to, but these days there are so many alternatives that it’s unlikely you’ll have to. You may have to attend some courses at a training center or school if equipment you don’t have (such as an Internet server) is used as part of a required, hands-on course. But most of your learning can be done from home, work, nearby independent training centers, or anywhere you can haul your notebook computer or printed study guide. You can thank your own career field for that–computers and technology have freed classes from the classroom. Today, training can be completed in many ways. Learning alternatives include:
* Self-study texts, workbooks, and videos
* Computer based training (CBT)
* Online classes
* Classes at an authorized or third-party training center
* Community college programs
These aren’t all available for every certification, but usually there are several options to choose from. You’ll have to decide which ones will work best for you by analyzing your learning style, degree of self-motivation, and other factors.
Absolutely not. In fact, there are generally no educational prerequisites. Even lack of a high school diploma won’t bar your entrance to computer certification programs.
That’s always been one of the great things about computer work–there’s room for everyone who is capable and often even for those with marginal skills but burning passion for the field. Good educational credentials, however, will often smooth the way into the upper ranks of computer professionals and are listed as a requirement in many job postings. Larger companies, especially, seem to automatically expect candidates to hold a bachelor of computer science degree. Startups are often more flexible.
But we’ve all heard of the self-taught hacker who founded a company in his garage and moved on to become an industry mover and shaker.
It seems pretty much a continuation of that tradition that certification programs basically work like this: you fill out the paperwork and pay your money–you get in. You complete the requirements, which often include exams and sometimes a record of related work history, and you get certified.
You’ll have to undertake a difficult task: nailing down your goals. If working in a management capacity is important to you, the MBA might be the way to go, especially if you like to work for large corporations. Keep in mind, however, that an MBA doesn’t command as much respect as it used to. That’s probably because it’s become a more widely held and widely available credential, perhaps losing some of it’s value in the process.
If, on the other hand, you’re seeking increased pay and responsibility but aren’t necessarily attracted to the management route, an MBA might not do you a whole lot of good, and certification might be just what you’re looking for. People with top technical skills can command a premium in the job market because companies desperately need them to keep up with technology.
The bottom line is that the only person who can decide what sort of career move is best for you, is you. Ranking one opportunity above another is meaningless without doing so in the context of your personal goals and aspirations. You’ll have to figure out just what those are, research your options with an open mind, and decide for yourself.
Going back to studying after a long hiatus is rather like programming in a language you haven’t used in awhile. At first you may feel hesitant and keep double checking your syntax, function calls and so on, but as you write line after line, your hesitation shrinks and your fingers begin to fly over the keyboard. It’s as though an unused section of your brain dusts itself off and clicks back online. Study habits come back the same way.
But what if you never had very good study habits in the first place? Don’t worry, it’s never too late to learn how to learn. In fact, you may be among the many people who find studying much easier this time around simply because there are specific reasons and personal goals driving your effort. But whether your study brain cells never developed much muscle, or if they’re simply a little “dusty,” tips and techniques available in books such as Get Certified and Get Ahead can help you brush up on efficient and effective study habits.
You’ll find information on the more popular (and better funded) certifications all over the Internet and on the shelves of your nearest mega bookstore. Materials covering lesser-known and newer programs will require more detective work, but frequently available resources include:
* Internet forums and discussion groups
* Study guides and text books
* Self-assessment tests and computer programs
* Expert instructors
* Materials provided by the certification sponsor
* World Wide Web sites
* And, of course, Get Certified and Get Ahead.
Thanks largely to the Internet, you’ll be able to access many powerful and useful learning aides right from your computer. If you’re not already set up with an Internet connection, this is a good reason to get yourself a modem and sign up for service. You’ll be giving yourself virtually twenty-four-hour access to others who’ve obtained your certification already, are in the process of doing so, or who write or teach about it or about related technologies.
There are plenty of offline resources, too. You may have to special order books and study guides, but your certification sponsor will be able to tell you which materials you need and how to obtain them.
Industry magazines such as LAN Times, Information Week, and Contract Professional periodically run articles about certification. If you’re in the computer field, you should already be reading one or more of these on a regular basis just to keep up with the industry.
There are a number of excellent sites on the Web that cater to people in various stages of obtaining certification. GoCertify.com is, of course, our favorite. The Mining Company’s certification section is worth a look too.
You’ll also find certification news on the sponsors’ individual sites.
To make the most of your certification, you’ll want to learn how to maximize its value as a career tool. Filing it away in a cabinet won’t do that. The most obvious thing to do is advertise your new status by adding it to your resume and business cards, but don’t stop there. You can also learn to be your own PR person. With a little effort you can get your name out in the world as an expert in your field. The Internet is an excellent tool for this purpose. Through well-planned use of web pages, forums, and other Internet resources, you can get your name to pop up in association with your area of certification. But be careful to abide by Internet etiquette (often called netiquette); indiscriminate self-promotion will annoy other Internet users and ultimately work against you. You can also establish expert status by providing useful information to media outlets such as newspapers and television.
There are also techniques you can use to move up in the ranks at your current company or in billing rates if you’re an independent. These include finding ways to demonstrate your enhanced value, and simply asking your boss for a raise or promotion. After you obtain a certification, you might also decide that it’s time to move on to a new company or perhaps become an independent contractor or consultant.
The value of computer professionalcertifications appears to be on the rise. Judging by the rapid emergence of new programs, big business and professional organizations appear eager and able to fuel the market.
Consider that approximately 445,000 Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs) are already in the job market, along with more than 140,000 Novell CNEs and 55,000 ICCP Computer Certified Professionals (CCPs) , and those are just a few of the biggies.
Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that the certification marketplace is still young, and like a young child, charging ahead at great speed but not necessarily in a straight line. Many factions–professional associations, software and hardware vendors, nonprofit organizations, and consortiums–are working themselves into the picture, and right now that’s not too hard to do.
But as the marketplace matures, stratification is likely. Just as traditional academics has two-year degrees, four-year degrees, and postgraduate levels, certifications are likely to break into basic, advanced, and exceptional designations, with plenty of special interest/continuing-education offerings on the side. And, as with academic degrees, there will likely be a significant correlation between certification level and salary level.
In January 1997 IBM, Lotus Development, Netscape, Sun Microsystems, and Novell formed a worldwide training and certification consortium to establish standards for Internet-related certification programs. These are not companies that jump first and worry about the landing area later. Their joint commitment strongly suggests that certification is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, even if their vision has not fully materialized.
Many computer people are increasing their earnings by getting certified. They are finding great personal satisfaction in measuring themselves against the latest and best technologies and receiving independent confirmation that they have what it takes. And they are using certification to bridge to a fresh specialty, add in-depth expertise, or bolster professional credentials.
But not everyone who completes a certification program walks away a satisfied customer. Sometimes precious time and money spent on training returns nothing but a sense of disappointment. When that happens, it’s usually because either the program wasn’t well matched to individual goals and aspirations, or because the person didn’t know how to take advantage of the certification once they received it.
Neither shortcoming is surprising since most people are aware of a mere fraction of the certifications open to them. You’ll should learn what you need to know to differentiate between the 200 plus certification options, how to select and obtain one, which mistakes to avoid, and how to get the most out of a certification once you’ve earned it. Do that, and yes, you really can advance your career through certification.
This FAQ excerpted and adapted with permission from chapter 1 of Get Certified and Get Ahead: Millennium Edition , by Anne Martinez (McGraw-Hill, 1999). All rights reserved.