Are you certifiable?

Get a grip on what's involved before you join the Internet certification craze.


In this article:
Choosing The Best Certification Option
Best practices: Things to do when getting certified
The Nuts And Bolts Of Certification
Paying The Price
A Savvy Career Move
Internet certification providers

For most companies, the Internet is just another part of doing business at the end of the 20th century. But to truly succeed in the online world, organizations must fundamentally alter the way they conduct business. For instance, several of my current clients are in the process of redesigning their Web sites. Originally "slapped together" to simply give the firms a Web presence, these companies are now scrambling to accommodate constantly changing business needs and huge traffic increases. As a training consultant, I have seen a dramatic increase in the call for Internet-savvy IT professionals resulting from such challenges.

Because of this trend, many IT professionals are adding Internet skills to their skillsets and resumes. Still, while experienced Internet and Web professionals are highly desired, many organizations can't find truly qualified professionals to do online-related work despite skyrocketing salaries and perks. The reason? There's a great deal of difference between taking one or two HTML classes, and really knowing your way around JavaScript. According to the human resource director at a large Midwestern food producer, she finds that over 50% of applicants either "enhance" their resumes or lie outright.

To filter out those who might add HTML to their resumes after creating a simple home page, many organizations now ask applicants for technical certifications to provide "proof of resume." Certification adds credibility to an applicant's resume and provides a way for hiring managers to know the job candidate has demonstrated an understanding of the technology. Plus, organizations often consider the fact that a certified person had the discipline to invest the time, effort, and money to become certified. This not only verifies skill levels, but it also demonstrates an applicant's willingness and qualification to take the necessary next step toward a better career path.

Certification can be a career-enhancing step. But be careful not to get caught up in the certification rage for the wrong reasons. Here are some areas to consider before you start to take your first steps toward Internet certification.

Choosing The Best Certification Option

Before you make the investment in an Internet certification, make sure your skills, talents, and interests are in line with the appropriate certification path. "The certifications preferred in the marketplace depend on what technologies you will be using in your position. For example, if you plan on working with Microsoft NT Web servers, the MCP (Microsoft Certified Professional) is becoming the standard for Microsoft Internet skills," says Beth Wegmann, a contract recruiter for Minneapolis-based Professional Alternatives, a supplier of temporary professionals and human resources staff.

Best practices: Things to do when getting certified
Decide what you really want to do before you spend money on getting certified. Make sure it's a technology area you enjoy.

Be sure to find a reputable company. Stick with well-known names.
Find out which certifications are in high demand in your area.
Use Web sites such as GoCertify.Com to find certification resources and tips.
Read certification requirements thoroughly. Don't waste money on classes that aren't valid toward certification.
Keep the certification current.

Ask yourself the following questions: What is it that I want to do with my career? What do those goals have to do with the Internet? Do I want to write Java code? Do I want to be a Webmaster? The certification you target should depend on your current skillset, the area in which you want to work, your desired skillset, and how much you want to spend.

To satisfy the increasing demand for Internet skills, many vendors and training organizations are starting to offer Internet-specific certifications, including IBM Corp., Microsoft, and the International Webmasters Association (www.iwanet.org) (see, "Internet certification providers"). Examples include Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java designations, Microsoft's MCP+Internet, MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) +Internet, and MCP+Site Building, and Novell Inc.'s CIP (Certified Internet Professional) designation.

"Until recently almost all IT certifications fell into one of two categories: vendor-specific or vendor-neutral. Over the [past] several years, new programs that attempt to combine the best features of vendor-neutral and vendor-specific certifications have begun to appear. I call these hybrid certifications," says Anne Martinez, editor of www.gocertify.com, a Web site that provides news, information, and other certification resources, such as a job board and a discussions forum.

Vendor-specific certifications are offered by vendors and are tailored to a particular product or brand of products. They focus on practical skills and knowledge geared toward making the sponsor's products work as efficiently and effectively as possible. Vendor-neutral certifications, on the other hand, focus on competence in a technology area rather than expertise with a specific product. These certifications can have a broad focus, such as creating an Internet architecture for e-commerce, or they may hone in on the details of a particular technology, such as the setting up a UNIX operating system on a Web server.


Certification adds credibility to an applicant's resume and provides a way for hiring managers to know the job candidate has demonstrated an understanding of the technology.
Hybrids incorporate components from both vendor-specific and vendor-neutral certifications. They often start with broad coverage of a particular technology that a neutral certification would cover, and then add in vendor-specific information. HyCurve Inc.'s Internet certification follows this model. The San Francisco-based company identified the skillsets, knowledge, and best practices needed by Internet professionals, and developed the curriculum and exams that support these core competencies. After passing HyCurve Certification Exams for foundation and skills-based knowledge, a HyCurve Specialist candidate completes the technology-implementation certification requirements by choosing one vendor program that provides in-depth training in a specific set of tools.

There are advantages and disadvantages to being certified through a vendor vs. a third (or neutral) party. The advantage of a vendor-specific certification to the individual is in-depth knowledge of the product; for the organization it may mean that the vendor is more willing to work with a certified individual. The disadvantage for individuals with vendor-specific certification is that it may limit the scope of their job possibilities.

The Nuts And Bolts Of Certification

Getting certified can be accomplished several ways. Certification materials are available via mail, computer-based training (CBT), instructor-led training (ILT), self-study, and distance learning on the Web.

Web-based distance learning uses CBT-type materials delivered over the Internet. In the Web-based model, the CBT materials (traditionally stored on a local PC or server) exist on the training vendor's server, and the student accesses it via the Web. Which method is used to complete the certification depends on the student's learning style and the particular certification being pursued. According to Martinez, many people choose self-study. This method includes such options as online training through "virtual universities" like New York-based Ziff-Davis University (ZDU) (www.zdu.com), Lafayette, Calif.-based CyberState University (www.cyberstateu.com), and Magellan University (www.magellan.edu) in Tucson, Ariz. ZDU offers courses in everything from basic HTML to advanced JavaScript. Both CyberState and Magellan offer classes on Microsoft's Internet Information Server and other Internet-related skills.

There are many books on Internet certification topics. Some, such as the Microsoft Certified Professional + Internet Training Kit from Microsoft Press (list price $299.99), also include a CD ROM for additional training. Others are technology specific, such as the CCNP: Cisco Internetwork Troubleshooting Study Guide from Sybex ($49.99 list price). Fatbrain.com has a list of certification books, including Anne Martinez' Get Certified And Get Ahead: Millennium Edition, from McGraw-Hill (list price $24.99)."

In some situations, only hands-on, instructor-led training will do the job. A student who thrives in a collaborative learning environment and requires face-to-face interaction with an instructor, for example, will probably not fare well in a self-study situation. Also, some skills, such as administering a Web server or configuring a router, require a hands-on lab environment. Vendors such as Learning Tree International Inc. and ProsoftTraining.Com in Austin, Texas, offer complete classroom curriculums for Internet certifications. ProsoftTraining.Com has training centers in the United States and Europe and works with accredited learning centers such as Sylvan Prometric, which administer the certification tests. (See, " Internet certification providers.)

And don't overlook on-the-job training. This is a big source of contact-based learning for many certification candidates. This real-world training, provides certification candidates with the opportunity to gain hands on experience and talk to other professionals who went through the certification process. The candidate can learn tips and tricks about the certification tests from those who have already experienced the test (see, "Best practices: Things to do when getting certified").

According to Martinez, many certifications earned through self-study or instructor-led training culminate in passing a predefined set of exams. Certification exams are generally administered by either Sylvan Prometric or Virtual University Enterprises (www.vue.com), or by the certification sponsor. Many certification programs require you to take the exams in a proctored setting at an authorized testing location, but a few are now being offered online. Intel Corp. and Vienna, Va.-based TekMetrics were among the first to offer online certification exams. For example, TekMetrics offers its E-Certified Professional exams online. Although online testing is the natural next step for certification assessment, concerns about the validity of unproctored exams and test security have limited its growth and value so far.

Many certifications require you to stay current. Be sure to check the currency requirements so that your certification doesn't lapse. For example, every two years, Cisco Systems Inc. requires CCIEs (Cisco Certified Internetwork Engineer) to take an exam. As a general rule, the certificate (usually a piece of paper) you receive will have dates that indicate the start and end of its validity. Some organizations have continuing education classes to maintain currency. If your certification lapses, or you don't continue to stay current, you will need to get re-certified, most likely on a new release of a product.

Paying The Price

While the cost of certification varies greatly depending on the type of certification, the training delivery method, and the certifying organization, the biggest contributors to the bottom line are training costs and exam fees.

Classes can begin as low as $500 per day, and weeklong classes can cost up to $4,000. It's important to note that multiple classes are usually required for one certification, meaning that the cost of a single certification can easily top $5,000, and some cost as much as $20,000 or more. Microsoft's MCSE+Internet training, for example, can run $10,000 if done completely through instructor-led training. A Learning Tree sequence of MCSE+Internet Web certification courses will cost between $8,000 and $9,000. Be sure to understand exactly what the course fee includes before you sign up-books, study materials, and testing fees are not always included in the cost.

Tuition for online courses is typically less than the cost of classroom training but more than simply using books and manuals to self-study. For instance, ZDU is $7.95 a month or $69.95 a year for unlimited access, so you can take as many courses as you want each month; learn from industry experts, book authors, and professional trainers; exchange ideas with fellow students, instructors, and others through discussion forums; and earn Continuing Education Units (CEUs). CyberState and Magellan charge per course or per program. Both organizations range in cost from about $500 per course to $4,000 for an entire certification program. The costs for a self-study certification program usually include the study materials as well as access to a Web site for help. The test is usually extra, and that fee can run from $500 to $2,000 for a full day of testing.

Fees also vary greatly for just taking the exam. TekMetrics' E-Certified Web Programmer exam can currently be taken for free, although this is expected to change in the near future to about $25. ProsoftTraining.Com's Certified Internet Webmaster (CIW) Application Developer program exams cost $150 each, and two are required.

Since there are so many variables, either you or your IT or training manager should carefully research all the options before making a decision on the type of certification education to pursue.

A Savvy Career Move

According to GoCertify's Martinez, certification can benefit both IT veterans and newcomers to the field, such as recent college grads. They can take Internet skills courses and become certified through programs such as the Webmaster Certificate Program at Penn State University (http://webmaster.outreach.psu.edu/). This program is designed to help individuals learn the basics of Web-based communications and gain the skills needed to meet the requirements of Internet developer positions.

Internet certification providers
Certification Resource

ProsoftTraining.Com

HyCurve Inc.

International Webmasters Association

Association of Web Professionals

Association of Internet Professionals

Catapult/Performance-Based Training

Microsoft Corp.

Novell Education

IBM Corp.

Lotus Education

"Many IT professionals, particularly those focused on more technical specialties than on management, see certification as a way to learn new skills and advance their careers. So, anyone looking for better industry credentials, career-enhancing tools, and better consulting jobs may want to look at certification as a means to meeting these objectives," says Wegmann of Professional Alternatives.

Be careful, though, about expecting big increases in pay for Internet certifications. Some IT professionals overestimate what the certification will contribute to their paycheck. According to Wegmann, "Certificates don't matter much if the job candidate doesn't have real world experience. "

Certification can be a plus when it comes to job advancements and promotions. Training and certification can also be used as an award and incentive. Most employees respond very well to incentive programs based on increasing their own skillset. A direct mail company, for instance, added the MCSE+Internet certification to its senior Web developer job description and provided full subsidies for employees who wished to obtain the certification. Because of this incentive, turnover in the Internet group dropped from nearly 50% to about 20% last year.

As the business of Internet development continues to grow, Internet skill certifications will become more common among Web professionals, much like the MCP and MCSE certifications are now common among Microsoft-skilled professionals. As more people become certified on Internet skills, more companies will require certification; it will become a differentiator. //

--Charles Trepper is a Minneapolis-based consultant specializing in IT training and human resources development. He can be reached at chtrepper@uswest.net.








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