Five years ago technical certification was a straightforward process. If you wanted to enhance your IT career and be heralded as a network engineering god, you signed up with either Microsoft or Novell, attended a five-day training course, passed the exam and your peers subsequently anointed you as the one who knows all'.
The vendors of the day successfully pitched aggressive marketing campaigns, which built up the mystique of those certified beings and lent credibility both to training organisations looking to value-add their offerings and employees bent on scrambling their way up the career ladder. It didn't take long for the rest of the industry to catch on.
The certification bandwagon is now well and truly loaded with more than 35 vendors in Australia, each priming the status of their product with certification training programs. Prometric, the largest officiator of certification exams in Australia, holds the monopoly on certified training in a supervised environment.
Testimony to the popularity of these courses is that Prometric has examined more than 15,000 students between January and March this year.
While the vendors are gaining, so too are employers and the IT professionals.
As enterprise-wide networks become more complex, the need to have staff with the full complement of product-specific skills has grown considerably.
Likewise, IT professionals can no longer survive the career scramble if they are articulate' only in a specialised area. There is a driving need to be multilingual' and understand the complex maze of technologies that make up internetworking. Hence, certification is gaining acceptance on all sides: vendors, employers and employees.
Most recently, training providers have seen the opportunity to latch onto vendor-independent training packages that further supplement the training market.
According to training organisation Interim Technology managing director Beng Yeoh, vendors' efforts to increase the number of people capable of handling products has paid off and created a whole new certification package.
"Vendors' aggressive marketing has subsequently created a place for a new stream of vendor-independent programs," Yeoh said.
While Microsoft's certification courses hold the lion's share of volume, there is increasing interest in courses associated with certification in Internet, electronic business environments and business-oriented courses.
As the use of systems and the level of innovation increases, the need for a broader set of skills becomes greater. Courses that fit into this sector include the Certified Internet Webmaster and the soon to be delivered Gartner Group Project Management certification, both of which are rapidly growing in popularity.
Educom manager Collin Duff-Tytler agrees that the trend towards vendor-independent certification programs greatly improves the problem of filling the job gap.
"Courses such as A+ and Certified Internet Webmaster, designed to develop specific skills in the Internet world - such as electronic commerce, security, site design, are being taken up at astounding rates; all the seminars are full.
"It makes it an interesting time to keep up with the demand and roll out of courses," he said.
Interim's Yeoh says that when IT users commit to products, they need to ensure that staff are adequately skilled and are capable of handling potential issues. They look to certification programs to assure that their staff are skilled and competent, he said.
He tempers his comments with the warning that the increasing raft of available certification training packages is not without its problems, particularly for those looking to the IT industry for a change in career.
"The wide variety of programs made available over the last few years has somewhat clouded the training issue; employers are continually faced with balancing the benefits with the pitfalls of expensive training packages.
"Some employers are concerned about certifying staff at great cost versus the benefits it will bring to efficiency and the better use of products they have invested in.
"Although individuals gaining certification win by being more employable and able to advance their careers, there are hidden dangers," Yeoh said.
"It is difficult for those who have only been in the IT industry for a short time who are faced with such a breadth of choice - especially if paying for it themselves - to ensure that the certification program they choose will not be obsolete by the time it is completed, he said.
"Products are being updated regularly and require constant refresher courses to keep up to date. There is also the danger of the consumer being misled by enthusiastic training organisations eager to guarantee jobs.
"Some courses are very product-specific, so trainees need to make sure the training they sign up for provides adequate, upfront knowledge of the fundamentals," Yeoh said.
Yeoh's advice to "the newbies" is to concentrate on getting a general training before specialising.
"Get a good grounding in foundation skills first and then add on certification as a specialisation; this is more valuable to an employer in the long run," he said.
Popular certification courses for those getting into the industry are typically a three-month training program which incorporates Microsoft and A+, an entry level hardware and software course.
Com Tech's research support supports this approach which found employees do not need high-end specialisation. What they most need are entry level skills, according to Com Tech education marketing manager Lee Stockham.
An additional problem employees face is the fact that the best technical people do not necessarily make the best managers or team builders.
For this reason, employers want more from technical certification programs than purely technical skills.
"No matter how highly paid the technical the staff are, it is inevitable they will need to work with others in the workplace," Interim's Yeoh said.
He said employers are increasingly looking at developing skill clusters drawn from elements of certification courses from vendors like Cisco, Microsoft and Novell.
Traditionally, to get a complete set of skills from these vendors would require five or more certification exams, which few employers can afford in terms of time when there's a project to be completed.
Interim is eyeing this gap and has designed its skill-cluster programs that presuppose basic knowledge in enterprise development tasks.
The idea is to provide a nucleus' of core technical skills, as well as a number of electives that increase the value of an employee's tool kit', so that programs can be tailored to suit both individual and company needs.
The first four Skill Clusters available are: E-Commerce Solutions, Web Developer, Enterprise Developer and Network Administrator.
"Knowing how to manage an Internet site is not enough; there is a need to know how electronic commerce works and its implications on business fundamentals," Yeoh said.
Certification is useful in hiring considerations, but getting projects done with existing people is the real question, he added.
Just as the variety of courses continues to expand, teaching techniques are also changing.
Increasingly, there are greater challenges for trainers of certification courses to provide more online components, a greater number of case-based studies and projects in a lab environment that encourage the practical use of skills.
These changes in teaching styles also help to keep high the output quality of training. Despite the variety of certifications available, passing the exams is not necessarily becoming easier.
According to Prometric Asia Pacific channel manager Tony Harrison, the bar is constantly being raised to keep the quality up.
He says certification is becoming more difficult: the range between the easiest and most difficult courses is broadening and while entry-level courses need less expertise, there is no free ticket.
"Gone are the days when the students can take the suck it and see approach' to tests. You need to know what you're doing.
For instance, Cisco Certified Internet Engineer is difficult to achieve but once you have it, you can write your own salary cheque," Harrison said.
Multiple-choice exams that are dependent on remembering or guessing and can be completed in an hour are being replaced with a new style of examination.
The latest phase is adaptive testing, a new examination style which focuses on quizzing the student based, on the answer and depending on the difficulty and the scenario. For example, a correct answer is followed by one of similar difficulty; a wrong answer is directed to answer more similar style questions about the same topic.
It involves complex algorithms that keep track of which questions have and haven't been used.
A typical Microsoft exam using this technique would have 500 questions of which 70 questions might be presented. It also tracks who has sat previous exams so that questions are not repeated if the test is subsequently taken.
Other new examination techniques include performance-based tests, which aim to provide live' scenarios using the software; and eliminate the ability of students to guess how to perform tasks.
Both vendors and training organisations are wary of the split between the eagerness to get people certified and to produce high-quality trainees.
Trainers are aware of the need to be careful of the potential for damage by charlatans to their reputation.
This means setting minimum standards and carefully assessing student prerequisites. For example students looking to sit Microsoft's MCSE 2000 need 12 months experience with NT.
"Desire to do the course is not enough; we need to look at their ability and offer the right advice rather than taking them on for the sake of money," Yeoh said.
Com Tech's Stockham said the pressure to keep quality standards high is enormous and vendors are constantly changing the exams and testing, constantly refining the procedures.
"Certification is about continuous learning. That is, products such as Microsoft NT4 certification remain current only for the life of the product. Once it becomes obsolete, those people will need to upgrade their qualifications to Microsoft 2000 certification.
"Microsoft is constantly setting deadlines for products, forcing staff to upgrade their certificates to keep the marketplace skilled," she said.
Certification courses are not cheap and employees or individuals need to be prepared to pay $500 a day to an authorised training organisation; most courses take a minimimum of five days.
Although it is open slather to anyone to set up a training organisation, authorised training centres must meet certain standards stipulated by the vendors.
These include providing the vendor's official training materials, setting standards about the facilities and the minimal software and hardware platforms for the programs. It also subjects them to audits by the vendor from time to time.
Competition is always stiff for training organisations.
The authorised training organisations, beyond charging premium prices, still need to prove their place in the market. Stockham said Com Tech, with its corporate focus, values the knowledge of its instructors, who are also part of a large network integration company, which she says provides trainers with access to the real world.
By contrast, Educom managing director of education Colin Metz prides himself on the value of his trainers and the consulting offered to those looking to get into the IT industry.
Prometric's Harrison said students who are instructor-led are generally more successful than those who take self-paced or are self-taught.
Please pick up
With courses being so expensive, it stirs the perpetual issue of who picks up the bill.
The general rule of thumb is that employers supportive of career development will pay for staff development.
Other employers will pay if there is a commitment by the staff, such as a condition that staff will repay a portion if they leave within a certain time, generally 12 months.
In other cases, however, such as small consultancies and contractors, employees take the initiative and pay to keep their skills up to date.
The pay-off for certified employees is the anticipated hike in salary levels.
According to Stockham, changes in the certification programs are a continuing issue for salary negotiations.
"With vendors forever releasing certification programs for new versions and upgrades, old certifications become obsolete, hence increasing the need to keep certifying staff every 12 to 18 months.
"Employers invest to retain staff and build competencies. However, it is also becoming mandatory in salary packages that those with certification programs under their belt are in the stronger position to negotiate on salary, by virtue of having a tick next to the globally recognised, relevant skill sets," she said.
Com Tech Education Services
Com Tech delivers authorised training for IT professionals in Microsoft, Novell, Cisco, Lotus, Check Point, Java, Veritas, A+ and Citrix. The maximum class size is 12 students.
For those wanting a new career in IT, our NetWork program is an intense three months of training, practice and exams - guaranteeing a job in IT.
Pricing: most courses are $500 a day.
Contact: (02) 9299 3333
Educom provides certified training in Microsoft, Novell, Internet (CIW), Citrix, Unix, Linux and Lotus technologies. The courses run on a frequent basis with a comprehensive night class schedule. Educom offers courses that are specifically designed for technical staff who wish to learn about more than one technology as part of a course program, including:
Five-day courses cover Windows NT, Unix, TCP/IP, firewall security, internetworking, Internet server admin, advanced NDS tools and dianostics, Microsoft System Server Management, NetWare Directory Services, directory server technologies. Four-day courses cover Integrating NetWare and Windows NT, while a three-day course covers a Managewise network management and Zenworks workstation management takes two days. Costs range from $2500 for five-day courses to $1000 for two days.
These courses run every eight to 10 weeks. Educom also offers a variety of vendor-independent Internet training in which each course covers technologies from various Internet product suppliers.
Educom has also set up Club Educom in which students can undertake unlimited courses from a wide range of vendors for a single, fixed fee. This lets students gain industry-recognised certification and cross-platform skills at a low price. For example, students can attend Educom's entire night course schedule for a single fee of $10,000.
Contact: (02) 9409 8900
Red Hat provides Linux certification as the Red Hat Certified Engineer Program (RHCE) - the leading Linux certification. The hands-on courses include how to install and configure Linux and the X Windowing system; how to conduct basic diagnostics and troubleshooting, and more. Certification training is self-paced through one of two certification tracks. The standard track includes several in-depth skill-building courses and is suitable for beginners in IT training. The Rapid-Track certification (RH300) is ideal for Linux and Unix system administrators, engineers and power users. Tests are conducted on live equipment to gauge abilities in simulated real-world situations. Courses run in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.
Contact: 1800 733 428
Global Knowledge Network Australia
Global Knowledge Network delivers authorised training and certification programs for leading networking and internetworking vendors, as well as the company's own range of proprietary certified courses, including Cisco Career Certifications and Nortel Networks voice and data products certification.
Global Knowledge also offers RHCE - Red Hat Certified Engineer.
Pricing: on application
Contact: 1800 647 468
Hewlett-Packard (HP) Education provides enterprise businesses, IT professionals and end users with comp-rehensive, just-in-time IT education using advanced technologies.
HP Education offers HP-UX Systems Administrator and OpenView Technical Certification Programs for IT professionals.
The program, named HP Certified, focuses on job roles rather than products. HP has also restructured its HP-UX curriculum to further meet on-the-job needs of IT professionals worldwide. The certification program includes tracks for HP-UX and HP OpenView. HP Certified focuses on real-life job roles, such as those of systems administrators, rather than on specific products or features of complex environments.
Pricing: available on request
Contact: 1800 035 520
IBM Learning Services
IBM Learning Services offers flexible training solutions tailored to suit the individual business needs, from technical training through to Professional Development courses on a wide variety of platforms including AIX, Unix, SP, Linux, Lotus Notes, MS Windows NT, MQSeries and Tivoli.
Courses are also offered in consulting, enterprise resource planning, learning systems integration, knowledge management and distributed learning methodologies.
Students are offered classroom, self study, network-delivered, conferences and book learning methods.
Contact: 1800 801 088
Micro Management Services
Micro Management Services has a selection of more than 150 self-paced IT training courses for A+ CompTIA Training, Network + CompTIA Training, Microsoft MCP, MCSE NT4 and MCSE 2000, SQL, Cisco, Novell CNE, CDIA, Windows, office desk top training, Microsoft office, Cobol, Internet and basic PC training, Quick cert exam simulation modules, Unix and Linux and more.
Prices start from $49.50 per module.
Contact: 02 9972 7900
Microsoft Training and Certification
There are a number of ways for IT professionals to train in Microsoft Certification programs: for people who want interaction and a chance to talk to the experts in their fields there are instructor-led classes from a Microsoft Certified Technical education centre. For self-paced training, or where a budget is tight, there are Microsoft Press Books, and also Computer Based Training (such as SmartForce, Transcender and the like).
There are also Microsoft Approved Study Guides - available in a variety of formats, including books, CD-ROMs, online content, and videos. They also come in a range of prices to fit any budget.
The price varies based on subject, the method of training, and how much experience the person has had. It can range from $200 to $10,000.
Contact: 13 2049
Milcom offers a range of courses including Alcatel Internetworking Switch Specialist three-day course which focuses on the architecture and functionality of OS/R, OmniSwitch, and OmniStack and covers the concepts needed to tune and improve network performance and scalability through switching, VLANs and other services provided by the OmniSwitch family of products. The course will guide attendees through the installation, configuration, and support of the OmniSwitch and OmniS/R.
Marconi (Formerly Fore Systems)
LAN Certified Engineer is also available from Milcom and covers Marconi Systems LAN Certified Engineer.
Core and Enterprise Edge Product Certification courses are both five days in duration.
Core products IO&M certification course is a hands-on course covering the Fore Runner ATM switch family, ForeRunner Unix-based and PC-based ATM adapter families.
Contact: 1300 369 320
Sybase Certified Professional Program
The Sybase Certified Professional Program offers certification at two levels - associate and professional. The professional designation distinguishes individuals who have proven their advanced technical expertise in exams. Sybase certifications include Sybase Certified PowerBuilder Developer - associate and professional; Sybase Certified Adaptive Server Administrator and Sybase Certified SQL Anywhere Associate.
New certification programs will emerge to support new Sybase technologies.
Contact: 1800 645 632.