Revisiting the debate on IT certification

ZDNet Asia's Isabelle Chan revisits the longstanding debate over the value of IT certification, to find out if there is a correlation between certification and salary.
Written by Isabelle Chan, Contributor
commentary Cisco and Microsoft dominated the top 10 list of IT certifications in ZDNet Asia's IT Salary Survey conducted in 2006.

Curious about the importance of certification to Cisco and Microsoft technology specialists, and their career prospects, I decided to speak to both vendors, as well as a headhunter to get a neutral industry perspective.

The vendors' comments were to be expected.

According to Kyle Uphoff, regional sales director for Microsoft Learning, IT certification "absolutely" matters, and interest in courses and certification has increased. In the 13 years since Microsoft launched what is now called the Microsoft Certified Professional program, almost 3 million certifications have been issued, and almost 300,000 people have been certified in the last 12 months alone.

"Certification is an internationally recognized standard of skills sets and it validates that [a particular] skill set is in place," Uphoff said.

According to Uphoff, today's software industry landscape has changed dramatically compared to 1992, and Microsoft has updated its certifications programs to reflect the requirements of today's IT workforce.

The software giant has introduced what it calls a new generation of Microsoft certifications to help individuals identify what capabilities and skills they need for the roles they specialize in.

"[The industry today] is more complex, more interdependent, and more prevalent. People working in IT are more experienced, savvy and sophisticated, and job roles are becoming more diverse and more specialized," Uphoff said.

Like Microsoft, networking giant Cisco Systems says certification does matter.

Sandy Walsh, regional manager of the Cisco Networking Academy Program for Asia-Pacific, said: "Holding a certification is a strong indication that you are well qualified in a certain technology area. An increasing number of employers view vendor-based certification as important employment criteria."

When it comes to the Cisco career certifications path, Walsh said: "Obviously the higher you go, the more marketable you are. So, for example, Cisco Certified Internetwork Engineers (CCIEs), the cream of the networking industry, are very highly sought-after and command significant salaries."

"The only company that has managed to create a serious currency out of their certification program is Cisco."
-- Roger Olofsson, Robert Walters

So is there a direct correlation between certification and salary?

In most cases, certification has little impact on salary levels, according to Roger Olofsson, associate director of executive recruitment agency Robert Walters.

When it comes to Microsoft certifications, most do not make a significant difference to a person's paycheck, Olofsson said.

According to the IT recruitment veteran, even though the Microsoft Certified Developer Professional (MCDP) credential, for example, is highly valued, he has hardly seen any difference in pay levels between one who is certified and one who is not. The same goes for those in junior networking roles and who posses the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) credential.

But one certification that does tip the pay scale is the CCIE credential. "Being CCIE certified makes a huge difference. There is significant premium placed on the role because it's very difficult to get the certification," Olofsson said. "You have to be very, very good. You can have years of experience but yet not be able to get the certification."

According to Olofsson, those who are CCIE certified can make 25 percent to 30 percent more than those who are not.

Interestingly, Olofsson also said "the only company that has managed to create a serious currency out of their certification program is Cisco".

In the specialist field of SAP, Olofsson said, the impact of certification on the compensation package has reduced. "About seven years ago, there was emphasis on SAP certification, but these days, as long as you've been in the right projects, we don't see any differentiation between whether one is certified or not," he said.

The demand from Cisco's partner ecosystem is another possible reason why the CCIE credential is so highly prized. "If you are a Cisco partner, and you want to be a gold partner, you need a minimum number of CCIEs, so that also creates a demand for such professionals," Olofsson offered. "Cisco can do it because they have such a dominant position in the networking space."

Overall job prospects
IT certification aside, career prospects for both Cisco and Microsoft technology professionals in the Asia-Pacific region are good.

Citing a Cisco-commissioned regional study conducted by IDC, Walsh said there is a shortage of people with certain networking skills to support business functions. In particular, there is an acute shortage of advanced network technology skills in wireless, VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol), and security.

In 2006, the Asia-Pacific region lacked 113,000 people with advanced network technology skills, and the number is projected to grow to 221,000 in 2009. The demand for these skills is driven by rapid adoption of advanced network technologies in the region, Walsh said.

"Networking skills across several technology areas is also becoming a critical requirement for highly integrated data center environments. Networking is seen as foundation to support critical data center function including applications, transactions, storage, security and access control.

"More than 65 percent of respondents in the IDC competency study consider data center and cross-technology skills gaining importance. IT professionals now spend 70 percent of their time on tasks that involve the network," Walsh added.

Indeed, the job market is looking up for networking professionals, particularly those who specialize in Cisco networks.

"Cisco technology professionals are in demand," said Olofsson. "They face a bright future for the next three to five years."

Cisco professionals need not worry about being boxed in. Olofsson said there is room for them to grow when they accumulate expertise in different areas. For example, Olofsson recommends developing expertise in voice, local area networking and security.

And what about the career prospects for Microsoft technology specialists? Well, considering that its ecosystem--defined as companies that service and distribute, as well as create or sell products that run with or on Microsoft software Microsoft software--is reportedly responsible for 40 percent of IT employment in the Asia-Pacific region, there should be no lack of job opportunities.

According to Olofsson, there are lots of opportunities for Microsoft specialists, particularly since Microsoft, despite being a provider of "mass market" technology, has proven its technology to be suitable for large enterprises.

"If you move yourself up to the enterprise level and gain experience in more tools, there are plenty of opportunities," he said.

Microsoft systems engineers who are looking to progress in their careers could consider becoming solution architects, Olofsson said. He recommends they accumulate experience in areas such as messaging, collaboration and workflow.

Microsoft solution architects who have hands-on experience in a wide range of older and newer Microsoft technologies are well placed for lucrative careers. This includes having worked in large-scale enterprise environments that cater to, say, 20,000 users, and having technical knowledge and experience in architecting solutions based on Windows NT, Windows networking, newer versions of Windows XP and right up to Vista and later platforms of Exchange, Olofsson said.

"We've been looking for Microsoft solution architects for the last couple of months, and it's hard to find good people," Olofsson said. "They can make S$150,000. That's not bad, especially considering that 10 years ago, if you said someone with hands-on technology experience earned that much, you probably had to be a director or managed a lot of people to make that kind of money."

Microsoft tech professionals with C Sharp and .Net experience can also find good career opportunities in the financial services industry, where Microsoft technology is one of the key platforms. Such professionals "can make a very good living and salaries", especially in Singapore where the major financial services companies are located and have lots of software development work, said Olofsson.

The IT profession is as diverse as the available technologies, and deciding what area of specialization to pursue is no small matter. But if Olofsson's comments are any indication, staying abreast of industry trends is one of the best things any IT professional can do for himself. Those less keen on a business managerial role should also take heart that a technical role can lead to a lucrative career, too.

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