Apple Needs to Get Behind Certifications

Datamation columnist John Welch says Apple needs to create awareness about its certifications, because right now they're just hidden gems.
Apple Computer is riding a real wave of good feeling, and they've earned it.

They have great hardware -- in the current G5 Towers, Xserves, and the Xserve RAID. Mac OS X 10.4 and Mac OS X 10.4 Server are earning accolades at a furious pace, and Xsan is one of the cheapest SAN file systems out there. Apple has great hardware, and solid software. The Mac is rapidly moving out of the graphics and education oubliette that it had been forced into for the first part of its history.

But there's a third leg here, and that one is, well, perhaps not on shaky ground, but it's so well-hidden as to almost be nonexistent: training and certification. Regardless of your opinion on certification, and allowing for the unfortunate issues of the ''paper MCSE'', (not by any means limited to MCSEs. All certifications have their share of people who only care about the acronym after their name), there is value in certification.

As a hiring manager, if I know what is involved in a certification program, then I can use that to balance out qualifications. If I have to choose between someone with a decade in the IT field, but almost no direct Mac experience, or someone with three years of IT experience and a current Apple Certified Systems Administrator (ACSA) qualification, then I'm going to look at the less-experienced candidate a little closer for any Mac system administrator jobs, because I have a good idea of their baseline knowlege.

I know that because I know what an ACSA is.

The problem here is that I only know what an ACSA is because I'm friends with a few of the people who teach the program. I certainly don't know about it because of any great marketing or PR on Apple's part. What's worse is that there are a lot of enterprise IT departments in the same boat. They either don't know that Apple does have a certification program and it's really quite good, or if they do, they've not seen any information on it from anyone but Apple. Now, I'll allow for the natural cynicism of IT managers. I think it's reasonable to assume that you're not going to get an objective view from Apple on Apple training.

I do understand that you cannot directly compare a rather young and small program like Apple's IT certifications to the beast that is the MCSE program. However, regardless of size or newness, certification and training are critical to a platform in the IT space, and Apple is now a platform in the enterprise IT space.

But right now, the training program's marketing and PR is best described as ''winking in the dark''. They know what they're doing, but no one else does.

Apple needs to promote this, even if it means that sometimes you're going to lose money on a class. Considering the competition, they need to promote it in some high-profile ways. The most obvious one would be to have an ''ACSA boot camp'' at the upcoming Macworld Expo next January. (I know the Paris Expo happens well before Macworld Expo, but putting together a certification ''boot camp'' of this type by September, assuming they're starting cold, would take a Herculean effort if everything went perfectly.)

The current ACSA track, as advertised on Apple's site, normally would take nine days if you took all the courses back-to-back, with each day being a normal 9 to 5 schedule. However, if Apple were to do this as a boot camp in conjunction with Macworld, you could set up 12-hour classes across seven days, (Sunday through Saturday) and have a rather large group of people ready to take the certification tests by the end of it. Apple would have to chop the normal costs for these classes, (Normally US$5,000 for the base ACSA classes) rather sharply, but they would end up with a great ROI on this.

Considering how often I've heard requests for this kind of thing, I think it's safe to say that you'd have quite a few people in these classes -- far more than the normal 15 to 20 students per class. That would greatly increase the number of ACSA's without diluting the quality of the course.

Secondly, Apple could take advantage of the PR bonanza that is the January Macworld Expo and get information about the certification program to the Mac IT community in far larger numbers than they have so far. So right there, you have a sharp increase in word of mouth and more formal PR and marketing. I'm pretty sure the folks running the conference track for Macworld Expo would have no problem with this concept, since it would help give more IT pros a reason to justify coming to Macworld Expo. The co-marketing potential here is huge.

The other way that Apple needs to promote this is directly to the technical press.

Now, Apple does a great job with folks like Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, David Pogue at the New York Times, and Andy Ihnatko at the Chicago Sun-Times. I know some of those guys, and they're not just good writers, they're quite smart, too. But they're not in the same space as the people who care about the ACSA. For that, Apple needs to look into the technical computer news space. Pick 20 technical writers from (Yes, if Apple wants to offer this to me, I'll certainly say yes, but they don't need to market the certification program to me), and run them through the ACSA course. Perhaps they don't need to offer it as a boot camp, but just have all the courses back-to-back. Pay for it all, the courses, the hotels, the plane fare. Give the writers picked for this access to the people teaching the class and setting up the curriculm, and even engineers.

The only thing Apple would request from the folks they invite would be to write about the classes and the tests. Not ''write nice things'' but ''write an honest opinion/critique''. Yes, Apple would make zero dollars on this.

But Apple would gain something that the certification programs desparately need; awareness outside of the converted.

Having the Mac community know about this is nice, but not particularly advantageous. It's the people outside of the community who need to know. I can tell you from experience, that when you're considering adding a platform or switching platforms, you want to know that there's a ''real'' way to get your people trained on administering that platform.

Having the vendor tell you, ''Hey, we have a great certification program.'' Not so useful. Having the vendor and articles from outside sources tell you the certification program is great? That starts getting useful.

By not having a well-known certification program, Apple is hurting themselves in the enterprise IT space. I'll almost guarantee that the relative anonymity of Apple's certification program has cost them sales.

My final suggestion would be that Apple offer a program similar to the one I outlined for technical journalists to the CIO/CTOs, even CEOs, at any major account they're working. Or better yet, create a custom program for the people at that level. There's nothing like getting the people at the top on your side. Just ask Microsoft.

Apple has a great certification program, one that can and should grow to become even better. But they have to start creating awareness outside of the people who already know about it, or it's going to be yet another hidden gem on Infinite Loop.

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