Certifiably confused?

Love 'em or hate 'em, you can't live without certifications. You can argue until you're blue, but one fact remains: Many companies choose their technical partners by virtue of their certifications.

Don't let vendor certifications make your head spin. Here's how to ace the right exams.

Love 'em or hate 'em, you can't live without certifications. You can argue until you're blue in the face that years of experience outweigh any multiple-choice test result. But one fact remains: Many companies choose their technical partners by virtue of their certifications.

So deal with it. Skeptical? Consider two recent research reports. The first report, "The IT Certification Training and Testing Market" from International Data Corp. (IDC), says the certification trend is only going to grow. Another study, written Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, emphasizes that certification—rather than a computer science degree—is gaining importance within the IT community.

But consider your options wisely. With the right combination of certification, expertise and experience, your project whiteboard will be filled for years to come. With the wrong combo, you'll have to beat the bushes for customers.

Target Markets

Certifications serve different purposes for different audiences. For a worker, a certification can be the springboard that catapults him or her into a desirable technical job. For an integrator, it's a necessary stamp on a project-hunting passport. For a vendor, it's a way of building brand loyalty among partners. And last, but not least, for the customer, it's a way to ensure that a contractor is competent (or that's the goal, at least).

Used wisely, everyone wins. But if you don't stack the certification deck in your favor, everyone can wind up with a losing hand. Here's a guide to help you cash in.

Study The Landscape

All certifications are not created equal. A certification that's not recognized by the market is worthless. You also should be wary of certification programs for obscure technologies or from unrecognized companies or vendor-neutral groups.

Popular certifications, though, like the Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), are requested by customers and often are required by vendors to be an authorized partner. If you work in the Windows world, for example, MCSEs are as much a requirement as are PCs.

Generally speaking, the tougher the certification process, the more you can expect to get paid. Just ask Cisco Certified Internetworking Experts (CCIEs). Only one in five people who take the CCIE certification exam passes it. But with starting salaries topping $100,000, there's no shortage of people working toward this crown jewel of technology certifications.

Still, not all certifications age as well as others. Many will lose their value, as today's hot technology becomes tomorrow's commodity offering.

For most of the 1990s, Novell's CNE was a traditional VAR's best friend. But that may not be the certification you want today. Corbin de Rubertis, Novell's VP of eBusiness, concedes that NetWare is no longer at the center of Novell's business strategy. Instead, Novell Directory Services (NDS) and its Internet cousin, eDirectory, represent "the kernel of identity for any business," he says. With that in mind, Novell's Certified Directory Engineer (CDE) program is the next logical steppingstone for Novell partners.

Just because a certification is old, however, doesn't mean that it automatically loses its value. Many shops still run NetWare 3.11, and Novell still awards CNE certifications to those specializing in that OS. (Admittedly, however, NetWare 3.11 CNEs can't expect to earn top dollar, because the certification is roughly a decade old).

But sometimes a company will seek to eliminate a certification in order to further its product agenda at the possible expense of integrators and customers.

One such case is Microsoft and its handling of NT certifications. Microsoft decided that, as of Dec. 31, 2000, it will stop giving NT-based MCSE certification tests. And Microsoft will stop recognizing the MCSE diploma at the end of 2001.

On the upside, that likely will inspire many certified NT engineers to get certified on Windows 2000—which is widely considered to be more stable than NT.

But on the downside, many MCSEs note that their hard-earned certifications will become worthless. Keith Weiskamp, CEO of The Coriolis Group, a major certification book publisher, has been widely quoted on the subject. He says Microsoft's Windows 2000 certification strategy is "counterproductive" because it alienates a dedicated community of professionals.

"Many MCSEs who feel that they have invested their careers with Microsoft now also feel that their investments are being seriously and negatively impacted," asserts Weiskamp.

Redmond's Response

Nevertheless, Microsoft stands by its decision. Donna Senko, Microsoft's director of certification and skills assessment, says the Windows 2000 initiative will keep the MCSE program "highly relevant and up-to-date."

Still, some MCSEs insist there's a clear demand for NT certification. Aiming to fill the void, Lanop, a certification training company, has started its own program, known as the NT Certified Independent Professional (NT-CIP). It's worth a look, if your customers plan to continue with NT. But remember one thing: NT-CIP doesn't have Microsoft's blessing.

Meanwhile, there's just as much confusion on the Linux front. Sure, the open-source operating system is hotter than a $49 pistol. But its various certification programs are confusing and incomplete.

For example, the Linux Professional Institute (LPI) certification program has the full support of such Linux powers as Caldera, IBM, Linuxcare, SuSE and Turbo Linux, but its certification program has been slow to come together. At this point, only one program, known as LPI-1, is available. According to the LPI, this level is more than what a help-desk assistant would require, but less than what's needed to administer a small network. In other words, it's worthless to top-notch solutions providers.

What's an aspiring Linux pro to do? One option is to give the Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) program a look. Red Hat claims that the program can produce system-administrator-ready professionals. The subject matter is Red Hat-specific, but it's certainly more advanced than what LPI offers.

Other options abound, including niche Linux certifications from Sair Linux (with Corel's support) and Brainbench, a training company. There is also a proposed Linux certification from CompTIA.

Would Linux do better with a single, high-level certification? Most Linux integrators interviewed said yes. But without a single standard, unless you're wedded to Red Hat Linux, Linux certification remains a murky area.

Regardless of which path you take, you don't have to spend a lot of money on a certification school. Many community colleges offer certification courses for far less than training centers.

If you already have one certification, you may be able to use it to bootstrap your way out of some course requirements for another certification. For example, when working toward your MCSE, you can get course credit for your previous Banyan Systems, Novell or Sun Microsystems certification.

And you shouldn't overlook books alone as an inexpensive road to certification. While some are as dull as dishwater, one in five people interviewed by Sm@rt Partner got his or her certification using only experience and a few certification books. In particular, the people we talked to recommended the books from The Coriolis Group for serious certification students.

There are also free online sites that can help you reach your certification goal. The ones most often mentioned were: Exam Cram Insider; Certification Magazine and, for Windows only, Windows 2000 Magazine.

Fatter Paycheck?

Despite what many believe, simply obtaining a certification does not mean that your salary is going to increase.

According to a recent survey by New Horizons Computer Learning Centers—a leading computer-training company—87 percent of its students thought certification was important to their career goals. Another 61 percent expected an "up to 20 percent increase [in pay] upon completion of their training." Many of them will be in for a big disappointment.

Nearly half of Microsoft Certified Professionals experienced no change in income after becoming certified, according to a recent readership survey by Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine. Instead, the survey finds that "experience, as always, is the key differentiator in salary, followed by area of the country and job function."

But if you do get a raise, you can expect it to be sizable—roughly 12 percent, on average, according to Certification Magazine's 2000 salary survey.

As Anne-Sophie Dankens, an IDC research analyst, observes, "The IT skills shortage is forcing companies to offer attractive packages to fill IT positions ... these candidates need to be trained or certified before they can land an IT job."

The problem, of course, is keeping employees once they have valuable certifications. Roughly 39 percent of companies have more trouble retaining certified employees than their noncertified counterparts, according to a recent IDC study.

One simple answer is to give your newly certified employees bonuses or raises. According to the New Horizons survey, only 16.5 percent of employers give bonuses to employees with newly earned certifications.

Before you dismiss the bonus idea, ask yourself how much it would cost to replace the employee. Don't forget to include recruiting fees, training fees and your own personal time and investment. Equally important, ask yourself whether this employee is a good "cultural" fit at your company. If so, it might be time to open your wallet.

Still, money isn't everything. Of the companies that are having trouble retaining certified pros, a mere 12 percent say their employees are leaving for higher salaries, according to the IDC study.

Therefore, instead of considering such draconian methods as "payback"—which requires employees to repay tuition fees and other costs if they resign—you should investigate just what combination of job opportunity and salary you need to offer your employees to keep them with you.

Maybe another certification program is just what the doctor ordered.

6 Tips On Training

There's more than one way to skin a snake, and there's more than one way to get a certification. Whether you choose traditional course work, an online class, or the concentrated academic hell of a certification boot camp, certification holders told us over and over again that the elements of success are always the same.

1. Experts who are also experienced teachers must teach the courses. When you check out a class, make certain that the instructor has not only worked in the field, but also has a teaching track record.

2. The class must be certification-focused. Broad technology education is great, but if the main goal isn't getting you to pass the certification, you're in trouble.

3. The course must be current. Make sure your school and its courses have up-to-date accreditation by either the appropriate vendor, or by independent vendor- neutral organizations like the AIP Certification Accreditation Council.

4. The course must include realistic testing dry runs. As one CNE who has had years of NetWare experience says, "I got more mental good just from knowing what to expect than I did from the actual training."

5. Ignore any school that "guarantees" you'll pass your certification. The only certainties in life are death and taxes.

6. Check the school's references. Every school sounds good in an advertising brochure. Only former students can tell you if the course really delivers the goods.

Here's how certified professionals advise approaching an exam:

1. Experience is not enough. You need to know the right answers according to the book, not your experience. Don't give the answer you want—give the answer that the vendor wants. If that strikes you as unfair, tough. No one ever got an MCSE by bellyaching to Microsoft.

2. Cramming isn't good for you. Whether it's a holiday dinner or subnet numbering schemes, don't try to digest everything at once. Study for several weeks, then rest up for the exam. One successful CCIE who flunked on his first try notes, "A restless night and nerves are what got me. The second time around, I brought a 'what the hell' attitude and aced the exam."

3. Know your subject. If you're not ready, you're not ready. Wait until you master the material and then take the test. Limited knowledge plus crossed fingers does not equal a passing score on a multiple-choice test.

4. Don't second-guess yourself while taking the test. As Regis often says, go with your first instinct. Only go back and change an answer if information in the test itself makes you realize that you made an earlier mistake.

Certifications: What They Are And How To Earn Them

Always go straight to the source before taking any step along your certification journey. Certification programs change constantly; what might be a "must-take" course now might prove to be a waste of time tomorrow.

Vendor

Main Certification

URL

3Com Certified Solutions Expert (CSE) www.3com.com/
training/3comu/
certification/index.html
Association of Web Professionals Certified Web Designer (CWD) www.a-w-p.org/
cert.htm
Allaire Allaire Certified Professional Program (ACPP) www.allaire.com/services/
training/certification
Cisco Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) www.cisco.com/warp/
public/10/wwtraining/
certprog
Citrix Citrix Certified Administrator (CCA) www.citrix.com/training
Compaq Accredited Systems Engineer (ASE) www.compaq.com/ase
CompTIA A+, Net+ www.comptia.org/
certification
HP HP Certifications education.hp.com/
hpcert.htm
IBM IBM Certifications www.ibm.com/certify
Intel Intel Certification Program www.intel.com/training/
certification
Java Certified Programmer for the Java Platform suned.sun.com/HQ/
certification
Linux Linux Professional Institute Certification (LPIC) www.lpi.org
Lotus Certified Lotus Specialist www.lotus.com/home.nsf/
welcome/certification
Microsoft Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) www.microsoft.com/
trainingandservices/
default.asp?PageID=mcp
Novell Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) www.novell.com/
education/certinfo
Oracle Certified Professional Database Administrator (CP/DBA) education.oracle.com/
certification
Red Hat Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) www.redhat.com/training/
rhce/courses
SCO (Caldera) Advanced Certified Engineer (ACE) www.sco.com/education
/ace/acemain.html
Sun Certified System Administrator (CSA) suned.sun.com/HQ/
certification

Cashing In On Certification

What can you make with a certification? Here are this year's average salaries for some of the more popular certifications. as you might expect, the coveted CCIE is easily the most highly paid certification on the market today.

Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE): $120,000
Oracle Certified Professional/Database Administrator (CP/DBA): $82,500
Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE): $62,500
Certified Novell Engineer (CNE): $60,000
CompTIA Network+: $49,500
CompTIA A+ Certification: $40,000


Sources: ComputerJobs.com, Certification Magazine, CertITcom, Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine, Pencom Systems, Sm@rt Partner.

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