Kearn's column: Certified, but qualified?

Edward Vollmer was finishing up a contract as a network support technician in Germany. He wanted to find work in the US as soon as he returned, so he updated his resume and posted it on the World Wide Web. For a lark, he decided to try an experiment to test the value of having Microsoft's Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification.

"I put two resumes on the Web," he said. Only the first was genuine, and it detailed his seven years of network and telecommunications experience working with products from ADC Telecommunications, Cisco Systems, Network Equipment Technologies, Mitel and Cabletron Systems, among others. His resume also explained he was soon to receive a bachelor's degree in computer science.

"The second resume was similar but not as detailed, with not as many years experience listed, and it did not include school," Vollmer said. "But it did include an MCSE." He used the name "Lions" on this second resume, considering he was being less than truthful.

Three days after posting the bogus resume, he started getting telephone calls and was offered positions based on phone interviews conducted while he was still in Germany.

"It's aggravating that I've spent thousands of dollars for my education and spent many hours installing fibre and crawling underground and figuring out how to configure Cisco 4000s and Catalysts," he said. "All I had to do was read a Dummies book and spend $US600 for all the tests, and I could have been called an engineer."

Indeed, the network industry is replete with certification programs. In addition to the MCSE program, there are two certification programs for NetWare engineers -- Certified NetWare Engineer (CNE) and Certified Network Administrator (CNA). Cisco engineers can become a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), while their 3Com counterparts earn a Master of Network Science (MNS) certification. The alphabet soup goes on and on. But do these certifications offer real value to the people who receive them and to their employers?

Two recent studies -- one by the researcher IDC, the other by Southern Illinois University (SIU) -- indicate employers perceive employees with certification to be more competent and productive. Further, the employees themselves view certification as contributing to their professional credibility. When SIU asked supervisors to compare otherwise similar employees, it found those with an MCSE were consistently rated more competent than noncertified employees.

But does certification reflect knowledge? "I've watched my co-workers cram for two days, take a few exams and then demand a higher salary. ... And the company gives it to them," said Jessica Feldman, a software engineer for a major applications vendor. "I've been told that if I go for my MCSE/D, I too will reap the benefits of a salary increase," she said, referring to the degree for certified Microsoft software developers.

There's even at least one test preparation company, Transcender Corp, that offers a money-back guarantee if you don't pass the test after preparing with their simulated exams -- no training necessary.

Donna Senko, Microsoft's director of certification, admits so-called 'paper MCSEs' -- people who cram and pass the tests with little or no real-world experience -- are a problem, but says current and future tests will use more sophisticated situational testing in hopes of bringing to light candidates' actual capabilities.

Many others contend, though, that hands-on experience, along with study and testing, is the only true measure of competence. Network managers point to Cisco's CCIE program as the ideal because it requires previous network experience, as well as hands-on laboratory tests using Cisco equipment. 3Com's new MNS certification goes even further, requiring the candidate to design and build a working network, according to marketing manager Joanne Scouler.

To ensure employees get adequate training, some network managers suggest putting them through an apprenticeship program. Pat MacCarthy, a network administrator who in a previous life was a chef, remembers the apprenticeship program he completed in the culinary trade. "We spent 20 hours each week in class and lab work, and 40 hours in a restaurant, garnering valuable experience," he said. "We were moved every eight to 16 weeks from one position in the restaurant to another, to make sure we got a feel for the whole house."

Novell, which started the certification craze with its CNE program and has issued almost half a million certificates, is picking up on the apprenticeship theme through its Novell Education Academic Partners (NEAP) program. Angel Sanchez, chief administrative officer for Kern County, California, schools, is administrator of the NEAP program for his school system. He said Novell -- along with Cisco, which has a program similar to NEAP -- provides software, hardware and instructional material to secondary schools. The schools use the tools to run their networks while teaching students what they need to know to become network managers. Students who successfully complete the NEAP program are awarded Novell's CNA status.

That kind of certification, the evidence shows, leads to higher pay and better jobs.

Still, most network managers agree that certification alone is a poor basis on which to judge a potential employee's worth. As MCSE/CNE Cameron Brandon put it: "Yes, experience is the absolute best judge of merit, but experience and tons of certifications are even better. If a guy has experience and continues to get certifications, that means he is at home, on his own time, studying to better himself."

Dave Kearns, a former network administrator, is a freelance writer and consultant in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at wired@vquill.com.

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