How Valuable Are Computer Certifications?

Despite the widespread popularity of computer certifications, many people still have unanswered questions about choosing, earning, and benefiting from them.
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Since Novell first created the CNE program in 1989, certification of computer professionals has gone from an unknown factor, to a credential with the power to elevate one candidate above others, to a virtually essential component of the IT resume.

Despite this widespread popularity, many people still have unanswered questions about choosing, earning, and benefiting from computer certifications. This article provides some answers.

Why is Certification Useful?

The certification process rewards both the employer and the individual earning the certification. It can do this because certification can serve more than one purpose.

For the person who earns the certification:

  • credentials skills an individual already holds
  • serves as a blueprint for learning a new technology or furthering skills in a familiar technology
  • acts as a way to increase individual marketability, and evidence suggests earning potential increases along with that.
  • can be an ego boosting thing - a way to challenge oneself

For employers:

  • certification improves employee performance as they learn more while preparing for certification exams
  • can be used as a marketing/credibility tool for the company
  • in some cases for vendor-specific certifications certification can translate directly into increased reseller status
  • it often serves as an incentive to employees - demonstrating that the company is interested in their continued professional development and willing to assist in attaining that. This can help reduce attrition.

The Difference Between Certificate and Certification

What one company or vendor calls a certification, another may call a certificate. To help you identify what really is a certification, apply the following criteria:

certificate: - signifies completion of a training program taken through a specified outlet. Testing may or may not (often not) be required. While this can be a valid and useful thing to have, it is often somewhat less meaningful than a certification. It does not assure particular knowledge or skill levels.

certification: - signifies attainment of a particular skill level/knowledge base. earned through passing exams - either standard question and answer or, arguably more meaningful but more difficult logistically to administer, hands-on lab exams. These exams are developed after a through examination of the subject domain, and the identification of objectives necessary for functional success in that domain.

Generally certifications do not require training attendance, and how the training or knowledge is achieved is an entirely separate issue. Often there will be training keyed directly to the certification objectives available, many times by the certification vendor themselves, but the key to achieving the credential is the demonstration of skill through passing proctored exams. Sometimes there are experience requirements as well.

Available Certifications

Now that it's clear what does and doesn't qualify as a certification, you may be wondering, what actual certifications are there for computer professionals, and in what areas?

Many people are familiar with a few widely known titles, such as the Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE) or CompTIA's A+ hardware technician certification. But there are many, many more. Over 500 at my last count. Offered by more than 120 different vendors.

Formal certification is available in virtually any area of IT: programming, system administration, database administration or development, project management, help desk/troubleshooting, hardware and software service and repair, system security, and expertise with specific applications such as ERP, software version control, and more.

With so many areas of certification, it helps to organize the options into groups. Generally certifications can be divided into two classes: vendor-specific or vendor-neutral.

Vendor-specific certifications are tied to a particular vendor's products - i.e. the Microsoft Windows Operating system or the Macromedia Flash development tools.

Vendor-neutral certification seeks to certify skills in a particular area of technology, independent of any particular product, for example system security or Web site development.

A few certification programs attempt to blend the two categories together- covering both topic specific expertise and throwing in a distinct component focusing on one or more related software/hardware products.

Here some examples of certifications in various areas and how they fall into these categories:

  • Programming certifications: Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD), Sun Certified Java Programmer(both vendor-specific)

  • System Administration certifications: Microsoft Certified System Administrator or Engineer (MCSA/MCSE), Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE), Sun Certified Solaris Administrator, LPI Certified, LPI is vendor neutral, the others vendor-specific.

  • Security certifications: CISSP, Security+ (both vendor-neutral)

  • Web Development: CIW (Certified Internet Webmaster) which is a hybrid

  • Project Management certifications: Project Management Professional (PMP), IT Project+ (both vendor-neutral)
Certifications can also generally be divided into three skill levels: entry-level, intermediate, advanced.

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