Are IT certifications worthy?

Not all IT certifications were created equal, and you should know your objectives before investing in classes and training.

IT certifications can be a hot topic of debate among IT recruiters, hiring managers and analysts. And at small

and medium-sized companies, the value of certifications may or may not be relevant at all. How important are certifications? Are certs used to rank positions and salaries? This is important to know for both hiring managers and job seekers.

As with all career decisions, research and networking are key to finding out which certifications are most valuable, if at all. Before you sign up for a certification course or exam, be sure to research each one, as well as potential jobs. The following criteria will help you pick the certifications that are relevant to your current job and interests, but are also valuable for future career moves.

Certification name recognition: How many hiring managers, recruiters or HR professionals are likely to have heard of this particular credential?

Perceived value: Does the credential have career correlations for hiring and rank high in salary and certification surveys? Does it appear on top certification lists? General certification sites such as Certmag.com, CertCities.com and GoCertify.com have such information. You can also look at specific vendor certification sites or publications, such Microsoft (mcpmag.com), Cisco (tcpmag.com) or Novell (novell.com/connectionmagazine/).

Visability or name recognition: If you visit big national job posting sites (dice.com or hotjobs.com), what kinds of results does a search on the certification name and/or acronym produce? This is a good sanity check for name recognition checks, which often depend on anecdotal evidence or reporting.

Relevance: The Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) is one of the most highly regarded IT certifications, but if you don't work in a Cisco environment or don't plan to, it won't do you much good. Certification requires not only knowing the technology but also having experience with it as well. Be sure to have hands-on access to the systems and tools that you'll be tested on.

Time, cost and effort: It takes a lot of time, effort and money to prepare for valid certifications. Be prepared to spend a lot of money (it can cost up to thousands of dollars) and time (months or years) to prepare for any worthy certifications. Plan a study process and practice using hands-on interaction with systems and software to pass most certification exams.

Skills or subject matter knowledge development: Certifications come in two primary forms: vendor-neutral credentials that stress broad coverage of relevant terms, concepts, theory and best practices; and vendor-specific credentials that stress detailed knowledge, understanding, experience and skills with specific products, platforms or systems. It's often wise to use vendor-neutral credentials to get started in a specific subject area and then concentrate on earning more advanced certifications on the tools, platforms and technologies used at your company.

Soft skills versus hard skills: Some certifications focus on general types of tasks or activities. The Project Management Professional, or PMP, cert is a great example, because it's a highly-valued credential that applies to many different job roles in IT. Others concentrate on technical details involved in planning, designing, implementing, maintaining and troubleshooting specific technologies (Microsoft MCSA and MCSE, Cisco CCNP and CCIE are hard skills.) Ideally, both types of skills are best, but if you have to choose, hard skills are often best to have first, soft skills are for management or building teams. Keep in mind that some analysts and IT managers argue that certs from Microsoft, CompTIA, Novell and others aren't worth what they once were. Cerifications such as CCIE, CISSP and SAP/R3 remain quite popular.

Return on investment (ROI): Salary surveys often indicate the average salary boost from certifications. Most certifications have expiration dates of two or three years from the issue date. To check the ROI of a cert test, check to see if the cost requirements to earn the certification matches or exceeds the salary increase over the life of the certification. Don't forget to include the value of studying time, as well out-of-pocket costs for exams, books, practice tests, etc. If these costs exceed your certification salary boost, the cert isn't worth pursuing from an ROI perspective.

ROI should also be considered in terms of employee loyalty. Be sure to have managers and employees commit to an agreed length of employment after the certifications are awarded, if your company is paying for the certification. Some companies require IT employees to earn and maintain particular certifications for their jobs, which can be a good motivation to update skill sets.

If you work at a small or midsize company, the rules for certification might not be as formal. Pick the credentials that are right for you. IT managers should help employees decide what is most valuable or worthy for both personal growth and career growth. Research is key, but in the end, it's up to you to decide whether certification is worthwhile.

Ed Tittel is a full-time freelance writer, trainer and consultant who specializes in matters related to information security, markup languages and networking technologies. He's a regular contributor to numerous TechTarget websites and technology editor for Certification Magazine, and he writes an email newsletter for CramSession called "Must Know News."


This was first published in April 2005

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