|September 25, 2000|
Demand For IT Pros Drives Vendor Certification Growth
But multiple-choice tests aren't always a true measure of skills and experience
By Candee Wilde
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"Certification can't take the place of experience, and it doesn't necessarily indicate a particular level of experience," says Scheil, chief technologist for Delta Corporate Services, an IT consulting firm in Parsippany, N.J. "But if a hiring manager looks at two equally qualified candidates and one has certification and the other doesn't, the certification is a differentiator."
Scheil has reason to believe in the value of certification. He's invested time and money in earning vendor certification titles such as LAN Server Engineer, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer + Internet, Microsoft Certified Trainer, Certified Novell Engineer, Certified OS/2 Engineer, and Certified Network Professional.
IT certification is on the rise, according to vendors and analysts. Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education, estimates that as of last year, IT vendors had issued 2.4 million certifications to almost 1.6 million people. Microsoft had awarded just 35,000 Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certificates by the fall of 1997, but that number soared to 231,000 by February 2000. For the more-rarified Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer, the numbers rose from 3,000 to nearly 24,000 in the same period, according to Adelman. There are about 300 types of IT certifications available--quite a jump from 10 years ago, when Novell became the first vendor to create a certification for engineers specializing in its technologies.
The strong demand for IT professionals worldwide--and the opportunities that demand presents for those looking for jobs--is perhaps the biggest catalyst in the rise in certification. Even the most difficult certification requires far less preparation time or financial investment than a four-year degree in computer science. Certification can give an individual a quick introduction to the IT industry and the newest technologies, as well as an advantage in the job market. In employment advertisements, companies often list specific certifications as a requirement for a job.
But certification isn't always a true measure of a person's skills, knowledge, or experience, particularly if the certification exam is exclusively a written test. Passing a multiple-choice exam might be a better measure of test-taking skills than absolute knowledge of the technology or product involved, says Scheil, who worked as an instructor for Microsoft's Windows 2000 Readiness World Tour last summer, and has evaluated newly certified individuals for potential employment. A high score on a written test isn't very useful when a network crashes--unless that score is backed up by hands-on expertise.
In fact, not all certifications guarantee that the holder has any measurable real-world experience with the product on which he or she is certified. "Most vendors will say that people need experience to complete the certification tests successfully, but I don't think it's always necessary," says Scheil. "When I got my Certified Novell Engineer, it meant 'certified--no experience.' And it was true, I had no experience."
But Susie Spencer, Novell's certification program manager, disagrees. She says that while people can prepare for CNE certification through self-study or instructor-led courses and don't have to document industry experience, the six tests that candidates must pass ensure that they're prepared to work in the field.
Spencer also points out that most vendors have overhauled or are re-evaluating tests to ensure that individuals who pass and receive certification are equipped with the skills they will be required to use. To obtain Novell's Certified Directory Engineer title, for example, candidates must pass a practical test by dialing in to a live network environment on the Internet. The certification candidates must bring the network back to a healthy state. If they don't, they fail the test.
Ben Briggs, manager of the professional certification program for Tivoli Systems Inc., says it would be very difficult to gain Tivoli certification solely by reading a book or taking a class. "In order for us to certify that a person is competent to implement our products in a commercial environment, he or she needs hands-on experience," Briggs says. "We build that into the test."
Cisco Systems includes real-world problems on its test, such as requiring a test taker to repair a router. For this reason, analysts and IT professionals say that Cisco's tests are considered difficult and a true gauge of an IT pro's knowledge. Scheil says companies know that when someone has a Cisco certificate, that person didn't get there by spending 20 hours memorizing the answers to sample tests.
Because Cisco products are widely used in the development of Web-based systems, people who obtain the title of Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) are in high demand at IT consulting firms and other businesses, says Kevin Warner, Cisco's director of worldwide education. He says there are more than 800,000 job openings nationwide for network specialists and that number is expected to grow to more than 3 million in the next five years.
Cisco offers two stepping-stone certificates--the Cisco Certified Network Associate and Cisco Certified Network Professional--to recognize people with lower-level networking skills. The CCIE represents two years of on-the-job experience, on top of the knowledge necessary to become a CCNP, according to Cisco.
Illustration by Dave Black
Illustration by Dave Black
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