Certification and the great paper chase

Certification in IT is an ongoing investment in career development. It's ongoing because technology evolves, changes - even sheds - ways and methods of meeting existing and new demands. And it's an investment in time and financial commitment.

Whether an IT professional starts out in one of the 'pure' streams of IT with a university degree, many find an interest or company-driven need leads them to product-specific or vendor-specific certification.

The proliferation of some products - such as those from Cisco and Microsoft - means vendor-specific credentials are often the first certifications for many people and form the foundation on which they go on to build their store of knowledge.

Certification continues to be among the primary demands in recruiting and, according to industry sources, it is not likely to change in the near future. At the same time, however, hands-on, practical experience is equally well regarded but - unless it covers an extremely broad range of tasks - is unlikely these days to get you past the 'resume' stage when applying for most jobs.

For many IT professionals though, this is precisely the reason they choose to invest in the expenditure it takes, along with the time, to gain certifications: to get that valuable piece of paper and the all-important initials for their business cards that 'validate' their skills.

With so many certifications available, covering so many different specifics of IT that, unless a particular product or vendor has caught your attention, there is almost a degree course waiting for those who wade through the mountain of information beckoning takers for the numerous courses on offer that will set you on path and take you in the direction you want your career to go.

For employers too, certification of staff - and particularly of project team members - is a marketable commodity when pitching for new business. Whether employers will part with some, or all, of the cash to cover the costs of certification is a case-by-case outcome.

While some companies include ongoing specialist training as part of company policy and use it in their recruiting "lures", other managers say that such education just makes their staff more attractive to other employers. Many companies claim that allowing time away from the office for ongoing study is a sizable contribution to the cost of training, but some will also cover the cost of accommodation for the duration of courses held in out-of-town locations.

Finance, though, isn't the only cost involved in certification; study for certification - and some such 'tickets' demand intense concentration - also cuts into home and family time and demands a balancing act that would challenge any trapeze artist.

Intending IT high flyers, however, are made of sterner stuff; they must be because, while the halls of academia fail to attract undergraduates to computing courses in universities, providers say the demand for certification is growing.

Sometimes the choice of which certificates is thrust upon you because of vendor or technology selected, but when it's open, how do you decide which will be of the greatest benefit?

As the greying of the IT workforce progresses, and the exodus of the baby boomer group heads for tsunami proportions, extensive research into the IT workforce is producing some interesting predictions. For instance, and this is where that dreaded word - to died-in-the-wool techies and geeks, at least - "business" looms large on the horizon: while a technology background may be required, it will be as a support for those with inside-out knowledge of business who can architect and deliver plans for IT that will add business value and boost relationships internally and with customers.

That's the general consensus of three research groups that have studied the IT workforce landscape through to 2010. What's driving these changes? Several culprits including changes in consumer behaviour, an increase in corporate mergers and acquisitions, outsourcing, the proliferation of mobile devices and growth in stored data.

What's more, the skills required to land these future technical roles will be honed outside of IT, the analysts say. Some of these skills will come from artistic talents, maths excellence or even a knack for public speaking -- producing a combination of skills not commonly seen in the IT realm.

On the edges of this new world, expertise in areas such as financial engineering, technology and mathematics will come together to form the next round of imaginative tools and technologies. Google, eBay and Yahoo are already hiring maths, financial analysis, engineering and technology gurus who will devise imaginative algorithms to fulfill users' online needs. One budding area of expertise combines technology capabilities with artistic and creative skills, such as those found in computer gaming.

Diane Morello, an analyst at Gartner and author of the report, IT Professional Outlook, says the most effective of workforces will be outward-focused, business-driven competency centres.

Project management and application development skills -- "whether for service providers, software developers or IT organizations -- are characteristics that will be absolute" in 2010, Morello adds.

By 2010, six out of 10 people affiliated with IT will assume business-facing roles, according to Gartner. What's more, IT organizations in mid-size and large companies will be at least 30 percent smaller than they were in 2005. Gartner also predicts that by 2010, 10 to 15 percent of IT professionals will leave their IT occupations as a result of the automation of tasks or because of a lack of interest in the sector.

In just four years, the hot jobs in 2010 will be "enabler" jobs: business enterprise architects, business technologists, systems analysts and project managers, says David Foote, CEO and chief research officer of Foote Partners, an IT management consultancy and workforce researcher. But a lot of people are pure technologists and there are some pretty safe bets for them both inside and outside the service industry, Foote said.

- With Stacy Collett

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