Certifications: Here to Stay

Since the burst of the dot-com bubble, many commentators have offered to write the eulogy for technology certifications. The industry press reports regularly that training centers are going out of business and that the number of professionals renewing their credentials is dropping. But to assume that technology certifications are finished is more than a bit premature. Certainly, certification programs have endured some tough times recently, but they're still fundamentally valuable and worth your time.

If you doubt this assertion, consider that vendors are increasing and updating the number of certifications they offer. Each week, this newsletter announces additions and changes to various certification programs. The administration of a certification program is a significant undertaking. An organization must set standards, establish curricula, and write and evaluate exams. Poorly administered certification programs reflect badly on the vendors, and as a result, weak programs don't last long. If certification were truly on the down and out, vendors wouldn't bother maintaining their programs. And you certainly wouldn't continue to see new titles emerge.

Consider also the lengths to which vendors go to try to make their certifications truly representative of the candidates' knowledge and practical skill. For each time you read in the news that employers don't value certification as highly as they once did, you'll see another story saying that a particular vendor is considering ways to make its certification more challenging. All certification programs aim to certify only those individuals who have a good practical and theoretical knowledge of a product. Vendors want to be able to portray individuals who hold their certifications as the best of the best, and they realize that this can't happen if their qualifications require little effort.

Some cynics argue that the entire point of a certification program is to provide an extra revenue stream for the vendor. This assertion is simply false. The costs involved in developing and maintaining a successful program are significant. Most certification programs have just a few thousand certified individuals. The vendors might realize a Return on Investment (ROI) but certainly not the river of money that vocal critics claim runs into the coffers of the larger vendors.

You have many good reasons to pursue certifications. Jason Couchman, author of the Oracle9i exam guides, summed it up well when he talked about his own introduction to certification. When he started preparing for his first exams, he had many years of working experience with Oracle database products. However, he says he began to understand just how much he didn't know about the products only when he started the certification process.

Prior experience in the field is often the best determining factor of whether a job candidate is suited for a position, but for hiring managers, assessing what that experience actually means and how much knowledge a candidate has can be difficult. A resume might state that a candidate has 3 years of experience with Windows 2000 Server, but he or she might have spent 3 years setting up printer shares and creating user accounts without learning anything about Active Directory (AD) or Microsoft IIS.

Windows servers and the networks that support them are highly complex. Unless you have specific reasons to explore areas of the OS you wouldn't typically need, you're unlikely to undertake such exploration. Certification provides the incentive while also giving you a broad overview of the product's capabilities. The vendor benefits because you're more likely to realize that a particular function of the product can solve a new problem, whereas your uncertified colleagues might be inclined to look to other products.

Certifications don't guarantee jobs, as perhaps they did half a decade ago, but they continue to provide an indication to hiring managers that you have a depth of knowledge that goes beyond what you might learn on the job. As a result, certification programs aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Certification benefits the vendor, it benefits the employer, and it benefits you.

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