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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.
- 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
- 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.
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)
The KEY to successful certification is to match the certification to the desired outcome and current skill status.
Don't choose a certification based solely on what is currently getting all the press. Even if that certification has the potential for dramatic income and/or skill boosting, it may be completely inappropriate for a particular individual. The candidate may have no affinity or skill in the subject area, or be perfectly content with their current employer who has no need of the skill set certified by that title. Not to mention, what suddenly becomes hot, often vanishes as quickly as it came to prominence.
Choose a certification area that is directly applicable to the job you already have or to one that you want to have.
Make a preliminary list of certifications you feel meet that criteria. You'll probably need to use a resource such as GoCertify.com which lists all the certifications in one place. You can also ask colleagues and friends, who work in that topic area what they recommend. Training companies can be another source of certification ideas.
Then narrow down the list based on the strengths of the programs, including:
- how well-recognized and respected each option on your list is (or isn't).
- Accessibility to training if needed
- Cost (lab exams can cost $1000 alone)
- Reasonable continuing requirements
Entry-level certifications are:
- most useful for people moving into information technology from another career area.
- can be used as building blocks to higher level certification
- are quicker to earn
- they can also be used by current IT professionals seeking to gain entry to a new area of expertise, but often such individuals can jump right into a higher level certification that will be more valuable in the workplace.
- Exemplified by CompTIA's A+, Network+, Security+ and others
Higher-level certifications are:
- most useful for people who already have computer work experience and want to expand expertise or credential existing skills
- require in-depth knowledge of applications and processes
- take longer to achieve
- more valuable, in terms of potential income
- often more expensive to earn
- exemplified by Microsoft's MCSE and Cisco's CCIE.
Once you've chosen a certification, how do you go about earning it? Only a lucky few can walk into a test center, take an exam, and walk out certified. The rest of us have to get training. Either to build knowledge from the ground up or to fill in gaps in our skills and experience. So where do you get this training?
Popular training options include:
- boot camps
- 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 from which to choose. You can also use more than one of these at a time.
Every certification candidate will be studying on their personal time, but by self-study, I mean doing it on your own, without live instruction.
According to the 2002 Global IT Training and Certification Study, 87% of certification test takers used self-study materials for test preparation.
People choose self-study because it is usually cheaper, and is more flexible - study can be fit in at off hours or whenever it is most convenient for the student. That flexibility can also be the downfall for some people though. Because it is not in a rigid, pre-defined time frame like a class is, it's easy for study time to take a backseat to daily job tasks to the point where it never gets done. So people who choose self-study need to exercise strong self-discipline to get it done.
Thanks to the popularity of certification, there are many high quality self-study resources to choose from. Study guides, books, and resources are available for many certifications, through easily accessible outlets such as amazon.com or your local large bookstore. You can also find them on the Internet, through the certification vendor's Web site, as certification Web site such as GoCertify.com, or simply by searching using Google or another search engine.
Books are a favorite study tool because they are often organized directly around the certification objectives, usually they include practice questions, and they can be used as a reference long after the exam is over.
Product documentation can also be used for self study. Practice tests that simulate the actual exam and provide assessment of areas of strengths and weakness are another favorite.
Sometimes self-study is not the best or most desirable training option. Perhaps you do not have the self-structure and discipline to work through 400 page books on your own. Or perhaps you do not learn efficiently through reading. Or, perhaps the certification you are seeking and the skill set you currently have make it very desirable that you get hands-on access to hardware and applications that you do not have at home or work. This is when classroom training should take a starring role.
Classroom training gives you:
- a predefined, regular time to complete your training
- an expert you can ask questions, clarify points
- often, hands on access to related hardware and software
- valuable interaction with other students
But some certification programs don't have such a network. And besides, a training center definitely doesn't have to be "authorized" to be good. The authorized centers become that way by agreeing to conform to various rules and procedures defined by the certification vendor, which often includes defining exactly what texts and materials will be used to train you. This can be a good thing, but it can also be limiting, and more expensive.
Thus there is a fairly plentiful supply of third-party trainers - that is, individuals and companies that specialize in training people to achieve particular certifications. Often this type of training is offered in a condensed, crash-course format called a bootcamp. These do work - I know because I have been to one. It meant intense, long days for 5 days. But combined with self-study before and after, I was able to pass the multiple exams required for MCSE certification within a short time afterward.
Third party trainers can be found through the Internet, as well as in the yellow pages of your local telephone directory.
There is a third source of quality instructor-led training - community colleges. This route offers many of the advantages of the authorized and third-party training, at substantially less expense. Often the training is spread over a longer time period, which can be more desirable for the individual who is seeking to achieve certification while working a full time job, or who just wants more time.
Again, some of the larger certification vendors like Microsoft and Cisco have networks of officially affiliated community colleges, but your best bet is just to contact the technical schools and community colleges near you and find out what they offer.
In some cases, if an employer is seeking to get a group of individuals certified, it's most effective to hire a trainer to come into the place of employment and conduct regular classes on site. This can increase class attendance and reduce time away from work - i.e. opportunity cost.
Instructors can be hired from training centers, or through a local college. Independent trainers can also be found through the Internet, but that will not be terribly practical unless you are going to offer a private boot camp format that takes place over just a few days or a week.
Whichever training methods and certification program you choose, the decision to pursue certification is not made lightly. It requires the commitment of time, resources, and effort. But if you value increased productivity, and a more competitive stance in the marketplace, for the individual and the employing organization, then it's a goal worth striving for.