How good are you at what you do? And how do you know?
by Don Willmott | Dice Learning
In the world of IT, you know you’re good because you get hired, you get paid, and you get promoted. But that’s only part of the story. Because technology evolves so quickly, and because recruiters need some sort of guidance on who knows what, IT experts often pursue certifications to expand and validate their talents. Costing anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than $2,000 and ungoverned by any single entity, certification classes and tests are a huge part of the technology world.
And yet, everyone constantly wonders: Are they worth it?
No Easy Answer
Recruiters and hiring companies often make the case that certifications are helpful in making first cuts as they’re narrowing down their list of candidates. They also see them as a sign of motivation. “It gives me reassurance that the person took the class and passed it, and that tells me something about his or her personality,” says Sapphire Technologies Recruiting Manager Mike Giglio, who’s based in Woburn, Mass.
Still, at a time when there are questions about companies that sell test answers or provide false awards, the value of certifications is increasingly being scrutinized. Critics complain certifications are too vendor-centric, don’t relate to real-world problems, have a short lifespan, and don’t account for the all-important X factor of experience.
“A certification is ‘proof’ of competency – more or less – in a specific technology or family of technologies,” says Stephen Crandall, assistant professor of Information Systems at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio. “Companies who need that specific skill will be interested in certified candidates, but experience counts more.”
For more than ten years, the debate has raged over what kind of salary bumps, if any, certifications can deliver. In May 2008, a monthly survey by Vero Beach-Fla., researcher Foote Partners found the market values of 330 IT skills in the first quarter continued a steady climb begun in mid-2005 – up nearly 2 percent for the six-month period ending April 1, and more than 6 percent when measured year over year. At the same time, average pay for 164 IT certifications posted its seventh straight quarterly decline, down 1.6 percent for the quarter and 3 percent year over year.
“We’ve reached a point in our evolutionary rung that has outdistanced the value of certifications,” says David Foote, chief executive and chief research officer for Foote Partners. “It is not that technology is not important, but other skills – especially in customer-facing jobs – are more important,”
Given that, which certified specialties are bucking the trend?
Security is one, according to the Foote report. “Many companies have been seriously understaffed and under-skilled in their IT security departments for a long time, and they know it,” says Foote. “Security is a deeply technical domain, and certification is an important qualification in areas where technical skills dominate.” Indeed, nine of the 18 fastest growing certifications are in the security arena, and salaries are up 3.7 percent in the past year. Foote Partners also found that architecture and project management salaries were rising for certified experts, up 3.3 percent in six months.
Another hot area is virtualization. While median pay for a non-certified IT skill is about 8.3 percent of base salary, virtualization skills are worth 16 percent. In addition, enterprise IT experts may be interested to learn small business certifications are on the rise. “I believe the Microsoft Small Business Specialist (SBSC) title is the one to watch,” says Harry Brelsford, chief executive of SMB Nation in Bainbridge Island, Wash., and a holder of seven certifications.
Other industry watchers point to certifications such as Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), GIAC Security Expert (GSE), Oracle DBA Administrator Certified Master (OCM), and Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) as hot in today’s market.
The Right Career Strategy
It’s important to time your certification appropriately to avoid gluts, as was the case for security experts after September 11, 2001. As Crandall explains, “Because there is a time lag between pursuing a certification and getting it, chasing the hot cert is not necessarily a good idea. Unless you’re on the leading edge of the wave, you’re probably going to finish your certification at the same time as lots of others with the same brilliant idea.”
When considering if and when to pursue a certification, step back and look at your overall career trajectory, keeping in mind that ultimately experience trumps certifications in the minds of most recruiters.
You should also find out if your current employer will pay for part or all of a certification, let you study for it online, or consider giving you flextime if you need to cram for a test. Also remember that a certification can be both a stepping stone and a mill stone. “The downside is that you can get pigeonholed into that specific technology and may have trouble advancing in that company,” says Crandall. “Although they don’t say it, the company is thinking, ‘We can’t promote you. We need you to run our Exchange server.'”
The bottom line: It’s not likely you’ll be hired on the basis of certifications alone. Flexibility, experience, and teamwork will also count. As Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of IT recruiter Robert Half Technology, told Dice News, “While a certification can demonstrate knowledge in a given area, it doesn’t demonstrate ability to effectively apply that knowledge in the workplace. Ideally, job seekers should combine a certification with practical IT experience.”
Certifications may tell a recruiter something about you, but they don’t tell the whole story. As Crandall puts it, “Certifications aside, there’s no substitute for being good.”
Don Willmott is a New York City-based journalist who focuses on Internet and technology trends.