It’s a cert!

“It’s a classic “win-win” situation for you and your employer,” said Linda Musthaler, vice president of IT researcher Currid & Company.

The main bonus of certification comes through promotions and better salaries, but IT pros can also expect other rewards within the workplace, like the respect of colleagues, customers and peers.

More than half of the respondents in a survey last year of 10,000 IT professionals by Certification Magazine felt they got more on-the-job respect because of their technical certifications.

For IT pros, there is also the attention from the key vendors they deal with, particularly if they are the ones that have issued the certifications. Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Novell and Oracle, among others, issue well-respected technical certifications, according to Musthaler.

“If you make the effort to complete their certification programs, they treat you better than they do the average guy off the street,” she claimed.

That special treatment, she said, usually includes access to pre-announcement product information such as roadmaps and strategies; offers for discounted equipment, training and services; in-depth technical information and tools that help you perform your job better; and access to priority support. “It all adds up to helping you be a better technical professional.”

When vendors are in a major upgrade cycle, this creates a surge in certifications in IT companies’ new product releases, Steve Ross, Dimension Data Learning Solutions’ general manager, said.

For example, with Windows 2003 Server just released this year, and both vendors and end-user organisations on the upgrade path from Windows 2000 and Windows NT 4.0, techos in the vendor and integrator space in particular need to ensure they’re maintaining a current level of knowledge of those new technologies, Ross said.

The need for IT pros to get certified is all about having current qualifications in a relentless industry. And in today’s competitive marketplace people need to differentiate themselves.

“The biggest fear of any techo is the currency of his skills,” Ross said.

Picking winners

The way for IT professionals to determine the right certification is to “pick the stayers — those that will be there for the next few years. “I believe Cisco, Microsoft and Oracle are all going to be around. And generically, security, and communications will be there,” he said.

“At the end of the day your [marketability] is often about personality, but the guy who has current technical skills is more likely to be shortlisted. [Considering] the large number of candidates applying for the same jobs, and opportunities being scarce particularly at the high end, you get an interview if you can present a more holistic set of qualifications,” Ross said.

Also driving takeup of certification is contractors’ eventual displacement within industries which may no longer be considered state of the art as an IT skills base. As Ross sees it, contractors often need to re-skill in new technologies such as .Net.

In turn, certification is a way for them to prove they have knowledge of newer technologies like .Net.

Icon Recruitment’s human resources services consultant, Jill Noble, said certification is crucial to IT professionals who want to work overseas, because it means that experience is recognised and qualified.

Noble said new demand and employment opportunities in the .Net and Java space have prompted IT professionals to invest in gaining certifications.

Cisco Systems’ business development manager for the Networking Academy program, Peter Scope, said that certification “is really the only practical way to measure base-level technology skills; it provides some form of a benchmark in each of the various disciplines.

“With the amount of expertise that a large enterprise needs to have across a broad range of vendor-based products, certification is mandatory,” Scope said.

Scope said that storage, wireless, virtual private network (VPN), optical and IP telephony are the developing topics in IT certification.

He said numerous vendors offer certification-based education, from Cisco, Microsoft, Novell, Sun and Oracle through to the vendor-independent CompTIA certifications in A+, Network+.

The private sector has traditionally been the market leaders for vendor-based certification training, Scope said. “However, Cisco has also been working very closely with the public education sector and has implemented CCNA and CCNP within the high school, Tafe and university sector.”

Some 27 universities and 45 Tafe institutes have taken on the Cisco Networking Academy Program, Scope said, adding that many Australian universities have integrated CCNA and CCNP into undergraduate and postgraduate programs delivering an outcome that industry highly values, a Bachelor Degree along with industry relevant certification, certifications that also encompasses significant practical skills.

Spherion Education Solutions senior project manager Bronwyn Hanley said certification has experienced renewed credibility in recent years and gained greater acceptance, and therefore demand, from employers.

“Demand for new courses has mostly been driven by the private sector wanting to increase the knowledge base of their staff. We’ve also seen a renewed focus on certification from the public sector too,” Hanley said.

Spherion provides A+, Network+, MCSA, CCNA certifications and is also increasing its offerings to include RHCT/E (Red Hat Certified Technician/Engineer), .Net and jCert (Java).

Novell Australia and New Zealand’s partner relationships manager, Steve Martin, said Novell is experiencing increased training activity “as CNEs (Certified Novell Engineers) are going through a continuing certification requirement at the moment, updating their skills to NetWare 6 so they can maintain their certification”.

Martin said Novell is seeing increased pressure on training budgets due to the higher number of certifications that are now in the market.

“Novell is seeing a strong interest in deploying Linux, along with increasing requirement to understand how it can be better integrated into the organisation,” Martin said.

To address these requirements, Martin said Novell will be launching the Certified Linux Engineer (CLE) course in early 2004 which has already had interest from government, education, companies and developers.

Thomson NETg marketing manager, Kathleen Norman, said the trend is for employer organisations to pay for training to upskill their staff. “However, they are usually not prepared to pay for them to sit their exams to gain the certification.”

“Employers want their staff to have the skills to undertake the role, but not to have the approved certification, so in many cases their staff will look for another position and leave. This is a bit of a catch 22 situation, but has been the trend for a number of years,” Norman said.

Norman said Thomson NETg — which provide courses that cover the vendor certification tracks including Cisco, Compaq, CompTIA, IBM, Lotus, Microsoft, Novell, and Oracle — conducted a three-year research project which examined how companies could increase their ROI by using blended learning.

She said the project, the Job Impact Study, The Next Generation of Corporate Learning, found that by using a mix of online training and instructor-led programs, workplace accuracy increased by up to 163 per cent. A 30 per cent improvement in performance accuracy was delivered, and performance and speed of performance over single-system training improved by 41 per cent, the study showed.

The training priorities of DiData Learning Solutions’ certification customers this year are to develop their skills in security, IP telephony and networking technologies in order to better manage the corporate IT infrastructure. Ross anticipates these will be the hottest growth technologies in the enterprise over the next few years.

“All technologies in the IS security and networking area are equally vulnerable to spam and hackers. Security in all its forms is not going to be exempt from any tightening of IT budgets over the next year. And we’ll see a growing need for the enterprise security manager,” Ross said.

He points out that due to local legislation, every large enterprise must have a security strategy. “And almost all vendors have security-specific technologies and software and certification to address this critical area,” he said.

Addressing this trend are Cisco’s certifications such as the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE), which are considered first-rate credentials around the IT traps.

With employers seeking IT pros with skills in Windows 2003 deployment, there has also been steady takeup of the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA) certification this year, according to Ross.

He said Microsoft’s CRM software also has huge growth potential in the certification market because the offering is a breadth product that reaches into all types of businesses. “And all organisations, large and small, sell something,” he said.

One product support engineer with a networking company (requesting anonymity) hailed Cisco certifications as one of the most valuable technical qualifications because of the sheer difficulty of attaining them.

“There are several hard exams to pass with Cisco certifications, but the pay-off is that the knowledge can be transferred into other key areas of IT such as security, as the [training] content is not heavily vendor-specific,” he said, adding: “Security is big at the moment so certifications like Security+ and also Check Point Certified Security Administrator (CCSA) are hot.”

In Ross’ eyes, the tech sector’s bull run into the late 1990s caused the supply of IT skills to outstrip demand. “During the boom, private industry had to skill up a large, non-IT workforce to certify [and enable] people to enter into the IT profession,” he said.

He argues that the tech sector has now “turned around” for the worse, leaving Australia with a skills mismatch. “There are lot of IT jobs still out there, but employers are not seeing people with the skills they need,” he claimed.

“Now we’re seeing an adjustment in the market. Back in the boom, there wasn’t as much opportunity for people to acquire hands-on knowledge. So people are re-equipping themselves and seeing what the next big thing is, like security. After 2000 and Y2K there were a whole lot of Cobol guys who suddenly decided to get new skills because there wasn’t a great need for them.

“Also IP telephony is another big technology. IP’s quite a complex technology and took a long time to take off. But now [companies] have planned to replace their PABXs bi-annually as they’ve had a fairly long depreciation schedule. We’re seeing a lot of IP telephony being installed and plenty of takeup of specialist training on the IP front.”

Meanwhile, with the IT industry forced to do more with less in its three-year slump, certification and training numbers at DiData have fallen by 25 per cent this year, Ross told Computerworld.

Takeup of certification remains steady within the vendor and integrator community, as technical specialists in these domains must have current knowledge and skills in the latest products when engaging with end users. But within vertical industries, Ross sees companies who use candidates’ certification to identify employees with suitable skills for their technology projects and only spend on IT training where essential.

“IT training budgets really vary across the board. Some organisations are stretching their PC cycle and determining what technologies they’re investing in over the next few years,” he said.

What shows that an organisation has a very ‘current’ IT workforce is the number of days of training it gives each staff member. According to Ross, if companies are deploying major new technologies and have five or six IT staff, five to 10 days training is the standard to skill people up.

Director of IT certifications provider Educom Holdings Shane Paola said that in the past 12 months demand for certification has dipped substantially “but recently it seems to be increasing again”.

Paola said certification is much more important within “large technical focused companies that need to maintain a certain number of certified staff to maintain their partner status with vendors who they have partner relationships with”.

“Individuals tend to want to get certified more so than employees of organisations as they see this as an opportunity to make them more mobile and more desirable in the IT job market,” Paola said.

Paola said that Educom offers certification training programs including Microsoft, Citrix, Cisco, Novell, Nortel and more.

“From our experience, the CCNA is still in hot demand along with MCSE including upgrades to Windows Server 2003. The MCSD and MCAD .Net is beginning to grow along with CCA and CCEA. Demand for ITIL certification from clients appears to be growing almost exponentially along with security,” Paola said.

Paola said he suspects that .Net certifications are growing in demand due to the Web-based nature of today’s society.

“Along with security and ITIL voice over IP and IP telephony is increasing in demand and I suspect that there will soon be an increase in the demand for training in SAN technologies,” Paola said.

While cost-cutting continues to dominate private industry’s’ financial agenda, Ross is confident technology will be the “saviour” to help commercial giants like Coles-Myer, Woolworths, ANZ Bank and Telstra lower their operating costs in the long term — a goal those organisations have been vocal about in recent press.

He expects the certification market to pick up modestly early next year, regarding this type of qualification as immune in a downturn. “Certification has become such an accepted way of testing current knowledge. It will continue to be an effective form or training [by] allowing IT pros to maintain their skills or acquire new skills. The first thing that goes in a downturn is employee training and therefore the very last thing to recover is IT training and certifications. But I’m seeing certification used by people to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.”

Ross concedes that certification does test one body of knowledge, but points out that higher-level programs are made up of a number of skillsets which a person must apply together in order to attain their certification. For example, Microsoft’s MSCA requires a person to pass four exams, and Cisco’s CCIE has nine exams.

Demanding tests

Those who judge certifications as merely a way for someone to show they’ve passed a few tests at one point in time have no idea how demanding the study is, said Ross.

“Not everyone thinks certification is great, but go along and sit an exam and see how you go. A lot of people who don’t think it’s worthwhile have trouble passing them — that’s the reality.”

He argues that certification is the difference between being able to demonstrate specific IT skills needed within business and talking about it.

“Certification alone doesn’t mean that you’re capable of doing a job, but combined with business skills like communication, leadership and time management,it gives a more rounded view of a person. It can prove to an employer that you’ve acquired certain skills by passing an exam. And a lot of organisations will continue to invest in you if you’re passing those exams.”

Certification students sponsored by an employer tend to do instructor-led training in classrooms, whereas those doing certification on their own are usually motivated to study the course textbooks alone. Most training houses also offer an e-learning option with IT certifications and opportunities for people to refresh their acquired skills through additional e-learning programs.

Ross sees most certifications being designed to ensure people do lab work in their coursework because people learn better ‘by doing’.

“Just listening to an instructor read from a textbook isn’t very exciting, but doing lots of practical exercises means you’re exposed to hands-on activities. This is the discipline of the classroom: five days, an identified outcome at the end of it, a professionally-developed program from [a vendor] to achieve certain outcomes, and it exposes a student to all aspects of the technology.”

Meanwhile, companies today are much more pragmatic about the way they invest their training dollars and are turning to courses in a classroom setting because of the disciplinary aspect. “There’s no doubt that people still prefer face to face learning,” Ross said. “You come in, the doors are closed, you’re with your peers and you learn just as much from them as you do the instructor. You can share the sum total of all the knowledge and you don’t get disrupted.”

Ross sees large organisations as more serious about creating a workforce of continuous learners and are thus more willing to spend on getting their IT staffers certified. And it all comes down to their culture.

“Each organisation’s training budget is determined by their attitude towards training. For example, a brokerage firm that was in Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list spent 4.6 per cent of their annual turnover on training. That company didn’t want their staff trapped in the present. Their philosophy is that if people have the right skills then they treat their customers better — a win-win for everyone.”

Training ROI

CISCO systems' business development manager for the Networking Academy program, Peter Scope, said for organisations to work out ROI, they have to consider what the cost is to an organisation of not having a skilled workforce. “Technology that industry requires to maintain a competitive edge is advancing, even in these uncertain times, at an astronomical rate and those enterprises that have the workforce to take these forward steps will succeed,” Scope said.Roger Purdie, general manager of The Art of Service, which provides service management consulting and ITIL-accredited education services with service and systems management professionals in Asia Pacific, said the question of ROI has everyone immediately running for the calculator. “In my book, the ROI for investing in employee skill updates is that it is one of the tools available to employers to keep their staff. So I don’t look at skills update from a quantitative point of view, but rather a qualitative one that helps to maintain a consistent work force,” Purdie said.

Acronyms

  • Cisco Certified Network Associate(CCNA)
  • Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer(MCSE)
  • Office Suite Professional(OSP)
  • IT Infrastructure Library(ITIL)
  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer(MCSD)
  • Microsoft Certified Application Developer.NET(MCAD .Net)
  • Citrix Certified Administrator(CCA)
  • Citrix Certified Enterprise Administrator(CCEA)

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