IT's paper tigers

by Anna ChenWhen the technical things go wrong, you can always rely on your systems engineer to bail you out... or can you?
Written by Anne Chen, Contributor
by Anna Chen

When the technical things go wrong, you can always rely on your systems engineer to bail you out... or can you?

02 May 2000 - You can't believe your good fortune. In the middle of one of the tightest IT skills markets in memory, you were able to find and hire a real live MCSE to keep your network up and humming.

Just as you're patting yourself on the back, however, your Web servers suddenly begin to crash. Online customers, tired of waiting, bail. Your company is losing thousands of dollars in e-sales. Meanwhile, your shiny new Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer sits there frozen, clearly uncertain about what to do. Funny, didn't he ace all those certification tests? Shouldn't he know how to fix the problem?

"We've spent so much time, especially in our company, with too many people claiming they know how to do something and we end up letting them go because they don't know how to do the job."

Welcome to the realities of IT skills certification. In a world where test takers can see all the MCSE examination questions on the Internet, what you see when you look at a résumé isn't always what you get. Concerned that all the fancy letters behind many job applicants' names are, in fact, nothing more than alphabet soup, a growing number of IT managers are balking at paying higher salaries for people with skills certification.

But it's not just cheating they're worried about. As the number of engineers with MCSE and other certifications continues to grow, some IT managers say the same tests that once separated the haves from the have-nots no longer carry the same cachet they once did.

As a result, many IT managers are raising the bar by demanding that job applicants demonstrate the skills that their certifications promise. In interviews, they're asking IT job seekers to solve hypothetical networking breakdowns, and they're looking for people with certifications such as Cisco Systems Inc.'s CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert), which requires the demonstration of real-world problem solving. Some are also hiring uncertified employees with experience and training them internally.

The message to IT job applicants is clear: Certification does not necessarily mean a higher salary—unless you have the experience to back it up.

One dot-com IT manager who has grown disillusioned with skills certification is Christopher Plummer, senior systems architect at Español.com Inc., in Wakefield, Mass.

Recently, Plummer interviewed a handful of MCSEs, all of whom looked stellar on paper. But when he started asking them how they would solve a specific real-world networking problem, a number of them choked. This has caused him to wonder, Is certification really worth it?

"It used to be you could be sure you were hiring an expert if that person was certified," said Plummer, whose site targets Spanish-speaking consumers. "Now a number of MCSEs come in to defend their résumés, and it all falls apart. Some people never call back after the interview."

Plummer's experiences and his attitude toward MCSE-holders are not unique. "There are a lot of certified people out there, and we've reached a level of saturation that has caused some companies to be somewhat soured on [certification] programs," said Barbara Gomolski, an analyst with the Gartner Institute, in Fallbrook, Calif. "But employers haven't given up on certifications yet. They may be more wary of the tests, but they're still sending their employees to get certified."

Paying the price
Certification is certainly not going away. Many IT organizations continue to use certification as a way of filtering applicants. In fact, spending on IT certification is expected to increase by more than $1.5 billion over the next three years, according to International Data Corp.

One factor behind all the growth is the increased need for recertification. Companies are finding they need to send their staffers back to the classroom as a result of changes Novell Inc. and Microsoft Corp. made to their certification programs last year. In October, Microsoft announced that it will revoke the certification of its MCSEs in December 2001 unless engineers recertify on Windows 2000. And in November, Novell announced that all CNEs (Certified Novell Engineers) will lose their certification unless they become trained on NetWare 5 by the end of August 2000.

But recertification doesn't account for all the increased spending. Some studies have found that there are real benefits to hiring certified IT staffers. According to IDC, companies with certified employees report a decrease in unscheduled server downtime and an increase in the efficiency and productivity of IS functions, including lower help desk costs. In addition, IT organizations with certified staffers tend to enjoy better retention rates, said Cushing Anderson, an analyst with IDC, in Framingham, Mass.

That explains why some companies are still willing to pay substantial sums to hire certified personnel or to help current staffers get certified. According to IDC, a North American company shells out more than $5,000 for a single employee to become certified by Novell (see chart, right). And more than 50 percent will pay a 14 percent premium for a certified employee.

Many companies, including Mellon Financial Corp. and Bidcom Inc., continue to value certification as a tool for screening applicants and offer training and testing as an incentive to employees. They say that, properly implemented, a good certification program is a way for the profession to ensure that a standard of competency exists.

"Bidcom does use certification for filtering job applicants depending on the job description," said John Payne, vice president of engineering at Bidcom, in San Francisco. "Oracle is absolutely important. MCSE is nice to have, but not necessary."

"I like to see something that is indicative to me that somebody actually knows something about the hardware we're using and has hands-on experience."

Paper chase

But despite the benefits, many IT managers say that hiring certified network professionals has changed in the past few years. Some, like Plummer, have been burned by certified employees who turned out to be unqualified and are now beginning to wonder if certifications are worth the paper they're printed on.

Part of the problem, IT managers say, lies in the cottage industry of test preparation companies flooding the market with unqualified people. In many cases, these organizations do not train people in any way but show would-be IT professionals how to pass certification exams. There are also hundreds of Internet sites that give test takers a peek at the exam questions before test time.

One such site, BrainDump (209.207.167. 177), posts questions, answers and advice submitted by individuals who have taken the MCSE and other certification tests. There's no charge for the information.

The presence of such sites means it's uncertain if certificate holders know their stuff, some IT managers say. As a result, some refuse to hire "paper MCSEs," or MCSEs who lack real-world experience.

Plummer, whose IT department is made up of 10 people, says no one on staff at Español.com is certified.

Three months ago, Plummer needed to hire systems administrators who understand DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol), a standard used to configure computers on a TCP/IP network. In interviews with job candidates, Plummer mapped out his plan: He wanted to have each of his client computers on the LAN configured with TCP/IP software to request an IP address from the DHCP server running on Windows NT. And he wanted his job applicants to tell him how they were going to get it done.

The concept, which experienced network managers understand, befuddled nine certified candidates, all of whom had either an MCSE or MCP (Microsoft Certified Professional) certificate. By the end of the day, it became very apparent that, while they had all heard of DHCP, few had actually used it. In the end, Plummer hired an engineer without certification but with years of work experience.

"We've spent so much time, especially in our company, with too many people claiming they know how to do something and we end up letting them go because they don't know how to do the job," Plummer said. "Come out and just say you've never done it before. If a person is certified, that's impressive in itself. But we don't administrate networks on paper."

Microsoft gets the word

It's not just IT managers like Plummer who have become disillusioned with IT certification programs such as the MCSE. Certified Solution Provider partners have begun to tell Microsoft that the once highly prized MCSE certification is losing value because of market saturation and cheating on exams. In response, the Redmond, Wash., software giant in October announced that it will develop a set of certified solution courses for its training partners that will include simulations to test knowledge of real-life situations.

Still, tweaking the tests won't change the perception that people with certificates such as the MCSE are a dime a dozen. There are 138,000 MCSEs and 345,000 MCPs worldwide. Novell has certified 168,000 CNEs and Master CNEs. In comparison, there are only about 4,000 engineers with Cisco's CCIE, a much more rigorous program. A candidate for the CCIE certification must pass a 2-hour, written qualification exam. Then he or she must pass a two-day, hands-on lab exam that pits the candidate against difficult build, break and restore scenarios. Finally, to maintain an active CCIE status and to ensure that CCIEs are always equipped with the latest technical expertise, engineers must complete a recertification requirement every two years.

That's why Steve Broudy, vice president of IS at Mann Theatres, a division of W.F. Cinema Holdings LP, in Encino, Calif., said he's really impressed with applicants who have gone through certification such as the CCIE. He doesn't see them often, however. More common, he joked, are the résumés from starving actors who also happen to be certified by Microsoft.

"I would rather see someone with something like a CCIE because it does seem as if anyone can get an MCSE," he said. "I like to see something that is indicative to me that somebody actually knows something about the hardware we're using and has hands-on experience."

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