Certification Watch: Year in Review, A Look Ahead

Overall, 2003 was a pretty good year for computer certification, but there are plenty of challenges ahead.
Few people had heard of computer certification when Novell created the Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) in 1989, but what started as a simple sales tool for Novell triggered widespread recognition of the power of certification to make a resume stand out.

Now, there are so many computer certifications it can be hard to choose which one is best, and to human resource departments, the technical resume that doesn't have any certifications near the top looks like its missing something.

Going into 2004, computer certification is in somewhat of a critical, delicate stage. Will it retain value and continue to play an important role in our field? Or is it going to stumble and fall victim to the hurdles its own success has raised?

Right now the value of certification in the IT industry is clouded by the confusion that results from the sudden abundance of titles. It's a challenge for IT professionals and employers to identify which certifications are worthwhile to pursue, while noting which are undoubtedly of high quality but will not personally benefit them, and discarding those which offer little value to anyone.

And then there is the legion of cheaters, who would help those who are not deserving or skilled pass certification exams through illegitimate means. When individuals who gain certification by these methods enter the workplace and can't perform as expected, everyone else who is certified is harmed.

But neither of those hurdles is insurmountable. For the first, Certification vendors are beginning to recognize the problem and attempt to reorganize their certifications into a consistent structure with identifiable levels. Plus, there are Web sites like GoCertify.com and others that organize the hundreds of certifications into manageable groups and help people choose among them.

For the cheaters, members of the computer industry have reached out and slapped them with the long arm of the law. In 2003 industry members brought successful lawsuits against several distributors of so-called braindumps. And a special consulting group, named Caveon < http://www.gocertify.com/news/certwatch031001.php>, formed by industry experts will make their lives even more miserable.

To be sure, there are additional, smaller barriers to surmount. For example, quality continues to be of concern. Most certification programs are well-run operations that pay careful attention to the definition of objectives and the creation and maintenance of exams that measure them. But there is no watchdog to assure that. Accreditation of certification programs, just as colleges are accredited, is likely to appear in the not too distant future, perhaps within the next few years.

In case you missed any of the certification happenings of 2003 (and who can keep track of it all?) here's a review of computer certification program developments:

Security is the Word

As with 2002, the word for 2003 was security - lots of it. Quite a few designations aimed at credentialing those who can help us secure our data were launched or expanded, including:

  • Microsoft added security specialties to the MCSA and MCSE

  • Sun Certified Solaris Security Administrator was launched.

  • The National Security Agency (NSA) and ISC2 (International Information Systems Security Consortium Inc) created the ISSEP, a new computer security certification for the National Security Agency (NSA).

  • ISC2 also expanded its well respected CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) program by adding "concentrations" and an associate program.

  • Planet3Wireless released the Certified Wireless Security Professional (CWSP) title.
  • Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) was created.

  • Check Point added an entry-level security certification, the Certified Security Principles Associate (CCSPA).

Continued Integration

Certification vendors continue to integrate each others exams and certifications into their own requirements. This makes great sense for everyone - it saves time in exam development for the vendor, and avoids needless exam duplication (and extra expense) for IT professionals who already have several certification exams under their belts. As usual, CompTIA leads the way in cross-recognition. Current arrangements include:

  • Avaya and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) agreed to recognize each other's entry level exams as equivalent.

  • CompTIA's Security+ is a requirement for the IBM Certified Advanced Deployment Professional -- Tivoli Security Management Solutions title.

  • Citrix Certified Integration Achitect (CCIA) requires completion of a Microsoft design exam.

  • Novell requires CompTIA IT Project+ for MCNE (Master Certified Novell Engineer) certification, and CompTIA CTT+ (Certified Technical Trainer+) for the CNI (Certified Novell Instructor).

  • Microsoft accepts CompTIA A+, Network+, Security+ or Server+ certifications as alternatives to passing elective exams in the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) on Microsoft Windows 2000 certification.

  • Novell suggests the vendor neutral Linux Professional Institute Certification Level 1 (LPIC1) as a prerequisite to its new Novell Certified Linux Engineer (CLE) title.

Updates and Upgrades

As you would hope, the major certification programs (and by those I mean programs from very big vendors and/or with lots of certified individuals) continued to be updated and in some cases expanded throughout the year.

Microsoft added a soft skill credential - the MSF Practitioner, as well as a Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician (MCDST) title, specialist tracks for Messaging, and of course, the Windows Server 2003 tracks. They also returned to detailed score reports, so candidates can once again tell which areas they fell short on if they don't pass an exam.

Cisco Systems launched a spate of new specialist titles, and redesigned the Cisco Certified Internet Professional (CCIP) to follow the structure as the CCNP and CCDP titles.

CompTIA, which works diligently to make sure its certifications reflect current technology, updated its A+, IT Project+, e-Biz+ titles. As a side note, it's kind of interesting that CompTIA takes such care to keep its certifications up to date, but doesn't require its certified individuals to update or complete any continuing requirements to retain certification. Don't be surprised if that changes in the future.

Nortel Networks released numerous certification exams throughout 2003, with several new exams virtually every month. The current Nortel Networks certification structure reflects the movement of many vendor-specific certification programs to a three-tier model. In this model, each tier signifies a skill level, and there may be multiple certifications available at each skill level. Often the certifications are organized into tracks, with an entry-level, intermediate, and advanced title at each level for each major product line the vendor offers. This makes it easier for everyone to understand how the certification levels progress and relate to each other. Vendor-neutral programs are less likely to adhere to this model.

Apple computer appeared to work more actively on its certification program than ever before, adding an end-user certification program, a help desk specialist title, and updating its Apple Certified System Administrator (ACSA) and Apple Certified Technical Coordinator (ACTC) titles to the latest version of Mac OS X.

Major Mergers and Re-Orgs

The big merger of the Hewlett-Packard and Compaq certification programs is proceeding smoothly. All of the Compaq ASE certifications have been integrated into a unified HP certification program. Anyone who was certified under Compaq and doesn't yet know how this affects them can check the HP certification Web site.

IBM is in the midst of a large reorganization of its certification program as well. As one of the most prolific vendors of certifications, IBM has quite a bit to organize. The new structure organizes certifications around job roles, creating a three skill level hierarchy (sound familiar?). All of the IBM product lines are incorporated, including Lotus and Tivoli.

Certification and Salaries

One of the primary questions that IT professionals always want answered about certification, is - will it help me increase my earnings? At least one research study completed this year indicates the answer is yes. Certification Magazine's annual salary survey for 2003 queried more than 19,000 IT professionals. The average survey respondent held 3.2 certifications. According to the study, on average, certification brought a 15.1% salary increase to IT professionals in 2003. In the same survey in 2002, that number was just 7%.

Overall, 2003 was a pretty good year for computer certification. Many positive changes took place, and it's looking a lot like certification in the information technology industry will make it through its somewhat turbulent teen years and mature into a lasting force for computer professionals and their employers.

Anne Martinez is the author of Cheap Web Tricks: Build and Promote a Successful Web Site Without Spending A Dime and Get Certified and Get Ahead. She also is the founder of GoCertify.com.

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