Juggling training demands

With the widespread popularity of IT certifications today, IT professionals have more choice than ever in furthering their career in the industry. But as the industry charges forward and technology changes at an even greater rate than before, IT workers are finding it difficult to match a certification to their desired outcome.

And the question continues: is it even worth an IT professional pursuing a certification?

Software Engineering Australia (SEA) CEO Nathan Brumby is not sure that certifications are useful to IT workers any more.

"If you go back eight years there was a fair bit of competitiveness, so being certified had a lot of value," Brumby said.

"Now, the shift has gone across to companies being certified and this shift is enormous."

Brumby believes that now certification is moving to a new level, with companies no longer adopting certifications for competitive reasons, but as a way of maturing their business, and are seeing real business benefits as a result.

"The industry is still very young, we should try to professionalize the IT industry and we have to try and make the IT profession be held in the same regard as other professions," Brumby said.

"I think what we need is a move towards industry certification, like the CBA certification for accountants."

However, despite Brumby's negativity on the subject, he still sees the value of having a certification when it comes to employment. "At the end of the day the challenge is to have a job, so if a certification is going to ensure that, then certification is something they should pursue," Brumby said.

"But the industry is moving very quickly. You can get certified in a field and three years later that field doesn't exist."

And of course, the fast-moving nature of the industry puts pressure on practitioners to ensure their skills are as state-of-the-art as the new technology that continues to get pumped in from the IT industry.

Microsoft's director of partner group, Kerstin Baxter, said demand for training was growing at a faster rate than for some years.

While Microsoft itself does no training it works closely with its partners to ensure skills upgrades are readily accessible to IT professionals.

Baxter said that Microsoft's research into the value of training and certification showed it produced measurable ROI. The survey indicated that 70 percent of its partners believed certified staff were more productive and 75 percent found that certification improved the level of customer service.

The survey also reported that respondents (76 percent) said that more projects were delivered on time as the percentage of certified personnel increased above 60 percent, unscheduled downtime decreased and that end user satisfaction increased.

Baxter said the blend of classroom and online training enabled people to adapt the medium which best suited their needs. It also enabled many people to gain the accreditation to match and reinforce their skill levels.

Red Hat global learning services manager Jodie Kane believes that IT professionals would have trouble deciding what certification would suit them best.

"There's so much out there in the marketplace, a lot comes down to choice and what's happening at a specific time so I think people would have some trouble matching what they want with what certifications are available out there," Kane said.

"I think the level of street cred a certification has makes a difference and because our certifications have exams that are performance-based, that gives them a lot more credibility.

"Because of this, if someone holds a Red Hat certification then their employer can sleep well at night knowing they have the right person for the job."

According to Kane, Red Hat is experiencing a huge amount of interest at the moment, with three different types of certifications available - Red Hat certified Engineer (RHCE), Red Hat certified technician (RDCT) and a Red Hat certified architect (RDCA).

In Kane's experience however, employers are divided into two camps when it comes to certification.

"In my experience people tend to fall into one of two groups. They either see the value of certifying their staff, or they're happy to train them but don't want to certify them," Kane said.

"They often reckon that if they certify their employees then that will increase their marketability, meaning they could get pinched by another employer."

Software Networking Industry Association (SNIA) chairman Australian and New Zealand Mark Heers believes that one of the challenges of working in such a fast-paced industry is staying current in the storage networking industry.

And part of the challenge is education, with many users in this field not knowing where to begin.

"Product-specific education is relatively easy to find from hardware and software product vendors," Heers said.

"However, finding credible product-independent sources of education, such as getting educated prior to making storage networking product purchase decisions, is difficult."

Since 1997, SNIA has been a popular resource for providing storage training to users and vendors alike, providing several certification programs. "Certification is good for a number of reasons. We've seen certifications grow over the past few years and I think they're useful because they're a credential a person can gain," Heers said.

"But I do think IT professionals find it hard to match a certification to their needs to a certain extent. In some cases certification isn't what it is in separate industries, and because IT moves so fast it's not as good as it could be."

As far as how people should go about choosing a certification, Heers believes it varies between employer and employee.

"I think we see a lot of different approaches to how someone will pick the right certification. In the case of companies, many may have a preference for certain certifications, but with individuals it's a lot more informal," Heers said.

"In some cases employers will share the cost of a certification with its , because there's a long-term benefit to the employee, and a short term benefit to the employer."

Another provider of certifications is ProActive Services, which provides IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) certifications with offices in most states of Australia and New Zealand.

According to ProActive Services practice manager Karen Ferris, ITIL is being embraced by more and more organizations and training in ITIL best practices should be considered seriously.

"As adoption across Australia increases, more organizations will be seeking resources with the highest level of ITIL accreditation," Ferris said.

"This enables the organization to leverage on the experience and knowledge that will have been acquired during the training and from an individual viewpoint, this accreditation will make the holder highly marketable as demand increases.

"Whether you are associated with organizations that have embarked on the ITIL journey or not, it is only a matter of time and without the right level of training you could certainly get left behind."

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Cert bashing outdated

Demand for training is definitely up at the moment, according to Paul Athanasakos, manager of vendor liaison and strategic alliances and national sales manager at Excom Education.

As companies look at upgrading their network infrastructure, they recognize a knowledge gap exists and need skills to meet that, he said.

Athanasakos who, while acknowledging the time-honoured practice of 'certification bashing', said the industry was far more mature now.

"Certification is almost mandatory now, even for tertiary graduates and particularly for new graduates.

"It would be a hard call for a prospective employer to scale down its requirements to employ someone without demonstrable skills in a specific area.

Excom, which has offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, was named Microsoft Learning Solution Partner of the Year last month and also offers training and certification in Citrix, Novell, CompTia Check Point, GNU Linux and some Cisco technologies.

While training and certification are two separate streams, with certification the lesser in terms of numbers, IT professionals should pursue certification, not for their employer but for their own sake; it's something they will always have and can keep on their resume.

"The industry has matured and IT professionals have got to know their stuff. Even though some complain that certification can be a burden to upgrade and maintain - given the time and cost involved - it is a robust and changing industry," Athanasakos said.

With both positive and negative comments about certification from the customer community, it remains that, for two candidates of equal tertiary qualifications, the certificated prospect finds it easier to get to interviews, he said.

Vendors require practitioners using their technologies to upgrade to the latest versions to fill any possible knowledge gaps. Many integrators also find that customers are now stipulating that the skill and certification levels must be documented of the people who will be working on projects.

Athanasakos said the question of who pays - employer or employee - is an ongoing debate.

"Generally, it is the employee who makes the first contact and does all the research to determine which certification to study. Each organization differs in its budgets and policies; some companies pay, some contribute, in other cases the study is self-funded.

"Ultimately, the certification is gained through independent testing, so it's always with the individual."