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5/22/2014
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IT Certifications: 3 Ways To Judge Value

We've debated the worth of technical certifications for decades. Here's how to determine if a program is worth your time and money.

7 Super Certifications For IT Pros
7 Super Certifications For IT Pros
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

We've all heard someone say, "I know a guy who got his [xxx] and couldn't do anything! That certification isn't worth the paper it's printed on."

Don't mistake anecdotes for reality. There's ample evidence of the value -- and more precisely, the ROI -- of certifications. A recent Lumina Foundation survey shows business leaders lack confidence in higher education institutions' ability to produce students with the skills and competencies needed in business. The same study shows support for some kind of post-secondary training while pointing out the unaffordability of higher education. Two thirds of business leaders see a candidate's domain-specific knowledge and skills as more important than their major or the university they attended.

Not exactly breaking news. But the point is that certifications are less expensive than post-secondary education, and because they're job-specific, business leaders perceive them as desirable. This is supported in the just-released InformationWeek US IT Salary Survey, where IT staff listed certification as nearly six times more valuable in developing their careers than college courses, and nearly eight times more valuable than an MBA; IT management listed certification as nearly 2.5 times more valuable than an MBA.

[The best candidates offer more than just IT skills. Read 3 Non-Technical Skills IT Managers Should Hire For.]

Even among 1,014 IT executives surveyed, most see certs as more valuable than an MBA in developing their careers.

Certs and tech-specific training are far and away the most valued from a career-advancement perspective, according to the InformationWeek 2014 US IT Salary Survey.
Certs and tech-specific training are far and away the most valued from a career-advancement perspective, according to the InformationWeek 2014 US IT Salary Survey.

Clearly, there is perceived value within the job market for certifications, and that translates into real money. The US Census Bureau reports that having a professional certification can increase your monthly earnings by as much as 40%. Certifications are not only less expensive than traditional university degree programs, but they also increase your earnings and make you more attractive to employers. Done. End of argument on value, OK?


The validity of certifications
But if value isn't what people complain about when they besmirch IT certifications, what are they questioning?

Usually it's the fit, function, or what a certification proves. Validity is, in a nutshell, the degree to which an exam measures and differentiates a pre-described level of skill or knowledge.

Validity has many enemies, including the exam design process, exam delivery and security, and the perceived inability to efficiently measure what CIOs care about: the competence of an individual instead of procedural knowledge. Let's look at all three. I'm not going to bash, or praise, any specific certification. The goal is to provide a matrix to help technical and nontechnical hiring managers evaluate any given program by asking the right questions.


1. Exam development and design
Most major IT certification programs employ a rigorous exam development process, including formal job-task analysis and beta tests that define what the exam should measure and ensure that it does so. This is standard practice, and any program that falls short should be dismissed out of hand.

Assuming that these development processes are in place, the challenge to validity is the perspective used to create these exams and the actual jobs analyzed. Here are three questions to ask:

  • Is the vendor's certification designed to validate real-world use of its products, or was it designed to validate skills needed by partners to sell more gear?
  • Does the exam validate a candidate's knowledge of only the vendor's product, or does it encompass all the skills needed to be successful in the real world for a given technology area?
  • If an individual who holds a particular certification is unable to understand or perform a given task, does that really mean the certification is worthless, or are you misinterpreting how the it meshes with your expectations?

Of course, if a certification states that it conveys a particular skill but doesn't, the problem could be exam fraud.


2. Exam delivery and security
Security of exam materials is essential to maintaining the validity of a certification. The fact is, exam fraud is rampant and probably has been since the first test was developed. People steal exams and sell them online. Vendors create test-prep materials that teach the exam instead of

Ken Salchow has worked in the technology industry for over 25 years in a variety of positions from programming to independent consulting. He has been employed with F5 Networks for the last 14 years and is currently the Program Manager for Professional Certification. He holds ... View Full Bio

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Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
5/23/2014 | 9:19:28 AM
Re: Seems extensible
Lucius, Do you see employers willing to invest in keeping their employees' certs up to date, and in new certs? I was a bit surprised to see in our salary surveys how many IT people do get company-paid training. Maybe they do it on their own time, but at least it's not on their own dime. The downside from an employer's POV would be that these workers are then attractive to other employers, and job hopping is the best way to get a nice salary bump.
LuciusD110
IW Pick
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LuciusD110,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/23/2014 | 4:20:20 AM
Re: Seems extensible
I have a masters in computer science and have been doing these certifications for the last 30 years. I can tell you first hand that some of those certifications are way beyond what I went through in college - particularly the MCSD and MCSE. There are easy certs like A+ but the majority of them are not between HS and an associates degree in the technical arena. Employers want certifications more than general degrees. Technology changes every year - its the only way to keep up as fewer employers are willing to pay for in-house training and vendor classes.

I would hire a kid with a certification before I would ever hire someone with a business degree/MBA. The BA in business administration is the new high school diploma - everyone seems to have one. The MBA is now the equivalent of an associates degree. Without the technical training any general business degree is a worthless without the ability to understand the technology - it will get you a job at McDonalds but not Microsoft.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
5/22/2014 | 11:51:57 AM
Seems extensible
As high school diplomas become increasingly worthless on their own, from a hiring perspective, employers have people coming in with certificates for everything from project management to HVAC -- this isn't just an IT issue. Seems like a standard way to rate extended ed that's in between HS and an Associate's is really valuable.
2014 US Salary Survey: 10 Stats
2014 US Salary Survey: 10 Stats
InformationWeek surveyed 11,662 IT pros across 30 industries about their pay, benefits, job satisfaction, outsourcing, and more. Some of the results will surprise you.
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