Certifications: Worth It or Not?

Are certifications like MCSE, CNA, CCIE or A+ worth it — from the perspective of network managers and other IT management in hiring and retaining qualified network staff? To answer this question, we polled experienced network/IT managers and former trainers.

The short answer: Certifications don’t hurt — but they aren’t sufficient. They don’t guarantee the kinds of skills and experience a network manager wants their staff to have. (However, there did turn out to be one circumstance where certifications have clear importance to the company.)

“As we go to hire folks, we’re always faced with the concern, ‘Gee, did this guy go spend two days in a seminar and pass the test but knows nothing, or has he been doing this for years and just waltzed through the test (like I did)?” says Dan Bent, CIO, Benefit Systems Inc.

“I typically make an attempt to ascertain this when I’m hiring. Folks can fool you in the interview process, of course, by knowing the buzzwords, but for those of us who have been around the block, we can tell if they know whether they know what they’re talking about.

“Certifications do give us a benchmark, but in terms of on-going value, I have found with my employees and myself that it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans,” Bent states. “When evaluating candidates, it indicates commitment to a career and professionalism, but given the choice between somebody with certification and somebody who can actually do stuff, I’ll take the latter any day.”

“I find that certifications are a start but they doesn’t guarantee anything,” agrees Beth Cohen, Director of IT at engineering firm Foster-Miller Incorporated (fostermiller.com). “I don’t necessarily look for them. If I had two equal candidates I might be swayed, but I find the certifications’s don’t tend to give depth of knowledge in what’s important to me, which is the ability to take their knowledge about computers, networks, systems, and apply it to other vendors’ equipment. So I tend to look for college courses over certifications. I’d rather hire someone with a good solid background in systems and computer engineering.”

“You want people who have experience using their certification knowledge, and who acquired their certification slowly,” cautions Howard Marks, Chief Scientist at Networks Are Our Lives, Inc. (naol.com), a independent network architect who was one of the first CNE trainers. “If you went to the five day boot camp and took the test at the end of that, that’s only a test of short term memory. But if you look at somebody who’s been a router jockey for three years, and over that three years worked their way up through the Cisco certification levels, one at a time, then they have the ability to take the classroom and practical knowledge, and synthesize them together.”

“I’m been fairly vociferous on the issue of certifications since I became one of the first nine Novell CNIs (Certified Novell Instructors),” comments Howard Lubert, Managing Partner at SafeHatch LLC, which provides technical due diligence, valuation, business acceleration and remediation services. “My overall philosophy to this entire issue: certification will never replace expertise. And it is not a guarantee of expertise.

There is one major exception, Lubert points out — on the channel side. VARs, dealers, integrators, resellers, et cetera. Here, customers want, often mandate, that people providing services be certified. “So resellers almost always wants the people to be certified, because that’s the foot in the door.”

“Sometimes, when you have a disaster, it’s people without the certifications who can do it, because they understand what’s happening at the network level, not just the vendor and API level,” points out Mark Lesswing, VP at the National Association of Realtors’ Center for Realtor Technology. “I look for people who had been in a shop that had undergone a paradigm change while they were there, such as taking subnetting a corporate network, or moving to a new vendor or technology. These are fundamental changes you need to understand. I look for people who have lived and survived changes like these.”

A Prerequisite In The Employment Process
Regardless of whether they mean someone will be a more valuable employee, certifications are often in the employment criteria.

“Requiring a candidate to have the certification can be used as a high-level discriminator to help a hiring manager quickly cull out some people. However,” Lubert cautions, “Some of those culled may be highly qualified individuals who don’t believe in certification or who haven’t gotten them yet.”

“Having a certification often pigeonholes someone,” points out Jason McKinney, a independent network administrator previously in charge of the networks and systems for a small multinational corporation. “The argument can be made that the major value of it is to provide search engine fodder, e.g. to enable a person to be found by the hiring manager, so that they get an interview.”

The Life Cycle of Certifications — And Knowledge
The ‘life cycle’ of the certification is also a growing issue. Ernest Lilley, an independent network engineer, previously Director of Operations at Synaptic Pharmaceutical Corp, points out, “Though corporate buyers and consumers alike are rebelling against the short OS and Software product cycles that we’ve experienced for the past decade, software developers aren’t going to give them up without a fight. As a result, the useful lifespan of any given certification is often no longer the period it takes to acquire it.”

A similar argument can be applied to the amount of experience, though.

“Two to three years of applying a technology is enough,” states Howard Marks. “Frequently, five to seven years becomes two to three of experience and then more of it over again.” On the other hand, though: “The only people who can do something like design a Win2K network are those who have done it three time. The first cookie is always burnt, and the second cookie is always underdone. The third time is the charm.”

Education’s What Counts
“Certification should never be confused with education,” states Lubert. “If you take education away from your people, you’ll never keep them. Really good people continue to reinvent and improve themselves.

Be sure to support on-going learning. “If I were the CIO or MIS manager, the last thing I would care about whether they were Cisco-certified, but would care if they were educated,” stresses Howard Lubert. “I’d make sure they went to class, went to school, had the tools needed, and had the time to work on — in a non-production environment — the products. This would enhance their value to the company.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean certification-oriented courses are without value.

“People who take the vendor training on top of the knowledge of a computer science background will get a lot more out of that training than just cookbook knowledge,” says Beth Cohen.

The flip side, Lubert notes: “It is almost never in a company’s best interest to encourage people to get certifications, because that makes them more marketable to companies who place a value on certification.”

Advice to Network Managers

“More of the work today on networks and PCs is troubleshooting and fixing things — more of the routine activities have become automated,” points out Cohen. So try to hire people with good troubleshooting skills.”

“Be very leery of employees who are discussing wanting to continue or get certification, as opposed to getting experience, when they are in the interview process,” cautions Howard Lubert. “That’s a big red flag to me.”

Daniel P. Dern is a free-lance technology writer. Most recently he was Executive Editor of Byte.com. His web site is at www.dern.com.

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