Dice Learning: Certifications More Complicated Than Ever

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

Dice LearningRecruiters 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,”

What’s Hot?

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.


18 Responses to “Dice Learning: Certifications More Complicated Than Ever”

  1. Doug Cook

    I firmly believe that IT is not a career for people to go into. It boils down to everyone wanting experience and in this economy even if you go back and get an education with certification you still lose. What is the technology world doing? Looks to me like not giving anyone a chance. If you look back to the late 90’s everyone was getting a chance. The market must be full of good qualified people so the other people forgot how they got to the top. Opportunities are not available.

  2. I’ve been in IT for about 12 years now and I don’t think I will ever pursue another certification. I think they lost it’s value and I believe the certs aren’t very practical. For example I’ve been working with W2K3 Server since it came out and I feel I know it fairly well. I figured to take the test last week for MS Server 2003 and I got alot of questions that I believe over 90% of Net Admins in the field today wouldn’t know off the top of their head… Ex: If you want to log into a TS and cannot use RDP what comand line switch would you use? Well, in the real world I would google it and find out in less than 30 seconds, but since I got the answer wrong I’m sure on the test I guess that means ‘I’m not qualified” now to manage a W2K3 server…what a joke.
    It’s also a money making business for the cert vendors as well as all the 3rd party companies that sell the answers and questions.
    Even if you study hard and get your certs, in a year or so they will be ‘outdated’. So I think the best thing is to just learn on the job and in the end experience trumps everything and many recruiters and company’s are selling themselves short if they filter out resumes that dont have certs compared to ones that do.

  3. In IT for 12 years and I don’t think I will ever take another cert. They lost value and aren’t very practical. I’ve been working with W2K3 Server since it came out and I feel I know it fairly well. I took the test last week for it and got alot of questions that I believe over 90% of Admins in the field today wouldn’t know off the top of their head… If you want to log into a TS and cannot use RDP what command line switch would you use? Well, in the real world I would google it and find out in less than 30 seconds, but since I got the answer wrong I’m sure, I guess that means ‘I’m not qualified” now to manage a W2K3 server…what a joke.
    It’s also a money making business for cert vendors and those that sell the answers and questions.
    Even if you study hard and pass, in a year or so they will be ‘outdated’. Learn on the job and in the end experience trumps everything and many recruiters and company’s are selling themselves short if they filter out resumes that dont have certs.

  4. I wouldn’t go into IT as well if I was just starting out. I actually tried to get out last year and pursue something totally different but it didn’t work out. So I had to go back into it cause it was the only thing I know really. The IT field is saturated with good qualified people and there is a high burnout rate. You’re expected to be on call 24x7x365 and they will squeeze every ounce out of you. It can be a rewarding field but I know many, including myself, who have burned out already.

  5. mrssaclewag

    I agree with so much that has been stated above about the IT industry. My background is in IT, but I’ve never been a programmer… I was on the “relationship” side of things as a Business Analyst & then moved into software process design and a Six Sigma Change Process champion and Green Belt Candidate. This means nothing these days. I agree that certs are half-baked at best, not only b/c of the money-making scheme behind it, but as soon as you complete the exam, the technology is old. However, if I had taken the time to become certified in something as simple as SQL or .NET, I would probably have a job now instead of raised eyebrows from the HR interviewer asking me, “So what did you DO?” Be wary noobies – software quality & IT professionals are the first to get chopped when budget cuts roll around.

  6. I am in IT from the last 13 years now. Have seen 2K recession and had faced it. More than that, I am firm not to have my kids into IT ever. Not that IT didn’t make me a successful person. But all the fake compitition, red-tapism within the corporate and putting people down by doing blame games, I feel is the most prevalent in IT. Recently, I had been in a gathering where I saw around 20 IT professionals — analysts, engineers, managers and others. And then I saw few people from other professions – research, teaching, sports, medical etc.
    Think what – The IT guys were busy talking about all their issues and worries, making their life miserable even during their personal hours. The other set of folks – watching them curiuosly, thinking that afterall, which might be the problems of the world they are discussing that it shows up so much stress on their faces ?
    So for me, IT is not the right field to be in.

  7. mindwander

    Ditto M. Ray and others, but M. Ray hits the nail on the head (ouch). Simply, IT used to be fun. Even in the “hot houses” of Web-related development, it’s a never ending scramble with the top looking to cut costs to the bone. Which means emphasis on young programmers who will accept lower rates and haven’t been around enough to become hardened by the high level of b.s. that seems to be generally rampant in IT. Then there is the continued push for outsourcing and usage of H1B workers. It’s this latter that has me concerned. Having looked at outsourcing directly earlier in the decade (doing a formal review of the work of a big name from India that I’ll keep anonymous) I’m wondering if we’ve reached a tipping point some have been concerned about for some time. IT? I look at grad students and wish them luck.

  8. As a noobie in the IT world, i would have to say its definitely worth it in my area (atlanta). I’ve got a degree in Network Administration, and i can’t get so much as a email reply with it. Now i’m in school again, refreshing my memory and taking some A+, MS and Cisco tests so i can try again. It really sucks because i know i’m really good at this and its something i truly love, but nobody will give me the time of day for an interview without 20 years experience or a cert…

  9. IT used to be fun. There was opportunity, there was hope. Not anymore. Back in the 90’s I always felt that management across the board didn’t like the fact they depended so much on IT, and well, IT enjoyed that power. Management worked hard to change support pros into fast food level jobs. No respect, no clout – NO PAY. Mission accomplished. I have 14 certs and an associate’s degree, a recruiter recently contacted me for a support job – $11 / h. Talk about an insult. I made over twice that amount back in 2001 w/o a degree or any certs. Plus when the economy tanks, servers, networks and computers must automagically fix themselves because IT departments get axed. For all the n00bs out there do yourself a favor, don’t believe all of the cert training centers/mills out there, get into a different field.

  10. Edward Hess

    Certification is nothing more than an additional revenue stream for vendors. Over time, IT people tend to approach projects and problems in a practical manner. The certification tests do not use this approach. These tests tend to ask for the most esoteric information – none of which you will see in the real world. After you fail the test, you get to spend more money to get that certification.

    It seems like employers are avoiding asking the appropriate questions during interviews and instead relying on certification status.

    I know several people who certified through the bootcamps that you see out there. Their certifications did little good when it came to real problems.

  11. To some extent, employers are simply looking for ways to reduce the number of resumes they look at. Certifications are frequently more relevant than most college degrees, and now many employers want both. For new and seasoned IT people, certifications can provide a goal for learning and keep your mind sharp. For many, the goal of certification may not be necessary, but it helps. Perhaps the best strategy is to study for the certification, but don’t pay the money to actually get it. If you’re going to take the exam, know that it’s more about your ability to study for an exam and memorize information than the ability to use that information.

  12. Steve M

    20 years of IT, from Help desk to Small Business consultant have given me the experience to walk into a small shop and fix almost any issue with server, network, or PC. All this with NO certs. The cert issue rises and falls with the number of jobs out there available. If you have the experience, I’ve found that trumps the certs, but does not get you the job. You have to have the customer skills to excel. If you can hold a good conversation with anybody about anything, you stand a better chance of getting an IT job than someone with all the certs. Companies are looking for good all round employees, not just a body with paper. It sounds strange, but IT is more of a people skills job than a geek position, but you still need the geek inside.

  13. Tom Johnson

    Nowadays an HR person is the only person looking at your resume. They don’t know a good IT person from a plumber. It isn’t until the second or third interview that you actually get to speak with the real IT department.

  14. Lev Desmarais

    Take this with a grain of salt because it comes from the Engineering Department Head of a local community college that offers several classes leading to CompTIA and Cisco certifications. He said that a large local IT consulting firm is using certifications to weed through the piles of resumes that they get. They are looking for four out of five certifications on their list. Certifications may have some value helping you get through the first cut with some employers. I can understand that if you get 500 applicants for a position that you need a way to weed out the bulk of the resumes. Whether or not it is a good way to do it, some companies will use certifications to cherry pick resumes.

  15. Joe Cavalcante

    My first comment is…WOW! How depressing! For the most part all of the comments were doom and gloom. I’m sorry to hear that others are having a tough time in this field, too.
    Like a few of the guys above, I have 12 year of experience but most of it has been through contracting. I can’t seem to find a “real job”, one that’s as permanent as you can have in California where employment is “at will”, meaning employees can be canned without notice and then lied to about the reason for being fired.
    Last year I got out of IT out of discouragement at this state of affairs but my new career didn’t work out well. So now I’m back and wondering if I should try to pick up some Microsoft certs and give the MCSE a shot. The previous comments seem to say, “NO!”, but I can’t seem to get interviewed except through recruiters.
    I’ll second what others have said about not getting into IT. Spend you resources on another career field.

  16. Carlos Williams

    I just graduated from Devry University in Houston,TX. I don’t currently work in the industry, but I am looking for work. What I have found is that a lot of what I’m looking for requires experience or a certification or both. I just need someone to give me a chance to show what I can do. I would like to get into IT security, so I am currently studying for a certification. I’m looking for this certification to give make me more marketable in the IT security world. We’ll see how it turns out. If anybody has any suggestions I would surely appreciate it.

  17. I tell you what. I am now persuing a degree because I graduated from an IT academy with a MCP,MCDST,SCA, and MCSA and I have been looking for a full time job for a year and a half. I depend on staffing companies that last a couple months and then i’m unemployed a couple months. It seems that even entry level help desk positions require 1-2 years experience and to be a network admin many companies want you to know a database program inside and out. I love IT, but when are people gonna start cutting some slack and have faith that people just starting out have a great ambition to succeed.