Are Vendor Certifications Worth It?

Posted by slippery on Jan 12, 2005 5:27 AM EDT
LXer; By Keith Winston
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The Information Technology (I.T.) profession is overrun with technical certifications, many of dubious value. Questions often arise about the value of a certification. I argue that vendor-neutral certifications are better value propositions in the same way that vendor-neutral standards are. A vendor-neutral certification is likely to remain relevant longer, have a longer lifetime prior to expiration, and apply more broadly. Whether you agree or disagree, there are fewer vendor-neutral certifications from which to choose.

Vendor Certifications, 90s Style

Vendor certifications have been around a long time. I remember earning my first vendor certification in the early 1990s. It was a seven test marathon that netted me a certificate, membership card, extra technical support, and a pretty logo sheet for my business cards.

For a time, I found that having it gave me an edge in job interviews and sales presentations. I honestly learned some things going through the process, too. I believe that certifications can be valuable, when combined with on-the-job experience.

In the last 15 years, there has been an explosion of vendor technical certifications. Novell was a pioneer in certification programs and continues a strong program today. Microsoft built a lengthly list of certifications to match their lengthly list of products. Cisco is well known for their router and networking certifications. IBM, Sun, and HP also offer many certifications, though slightly less known.

Certification Mills

During the personal computer networking boom, when every office was installing a Local Area Network (LAN) for the first time, vendor certifications provided a distinct employment advantage. As the popularity of I.T. certifications grew, a cottage industry sprung up to prepare students for the tests. Eventually, the value of some certifications became diluted as boot camps and mills churned out "Paper CNEs" or "Paper MCSEs".

Many of these institutions train neophytes on how to pass the exams, while imparting little context or real knowledge. The result was an army of certified, but not qualified, professionals entering the market.

When that army descended on the business world, it tarnished the reputations of the certifications, diminished the perceived value in the market place, and created a general backlash against all I.T. certifications. I sense that some of that backlash persists today.

Vendors Turn the Screws

If that was not enough to discourage many new candidates, the vendors began using their certification programs as marketing tools. Maybe it was always that way, but it never seemed so overt.

Technology changes fast. When it does, it makes sense to retire a certification and ask professionals to certify again within a reasonable period of time. It is a different matter when certifications are expired for purely marketing reasons.

I was nonplussed when I received a letter from a giant software maker, from whom I held a certification, informing me that my certification would expire in short order. It happened to coincide with the release of the vendor's latest software. What bothered me was that 90% of my skills and knowledge were directly transferable to the new version, but I had to take multiple expensive tests to retain the certification. It was clear to me the vendor desperately wanted to tell the industry that thousands of professionals were certified on their new software, when few businesses or professionals were interested at the time. It felt like I was being strong armed into upgrading my certification to foster sales of a lackluster product. Many professionals revolted and the vendor backed off on the expiration date.

That experience convinced me to steer clear of vendor certifications when possible.

While I believe vendor certifications are valuable, professionals should be aware of a couple of truisms up front. First, the vendor will expire the certification as quickly as possible when a new generation of products is released. This places you on their certification treadmill. It is the duty of the vendor to extract maximum profits from their customers and partners. Second, a vendor certified professional is a marketing extension of the vendor and should expect to be used that way.

Vendor-Neutral Certifications

The idea of vendor-neutral certifications is not new. It is easy to recognize that many skills in I.T. are not tied to a particular vendor. But it is not easy to build a community or organization around those skills and follow it up with a comprehensive certification program. The logistics are enormous.

For this reason, I believe, most certification programs are managed by vendors.

Notable exceptions are the Linux Professional Institute (LPI) certifications, and certain certifications such as A+, Network+, and Linux+ from CompTIA.

For example, by focusing on a broad set of Linux administration skills, the LPI has created a valuable certification not tied to a particular distribution. It seems to have gained a lot of credibility over the last few years.

Other than the well known A+, I have a hard time measuring the acceptance of the CompTIA certifications.

The one thing vendor-neutral certifications have in common in a basis in open standards. Taking a vendor neutral approach helps my clients, and helps me as an administrator. It allows for better interoperability and does not lock anyone into a single supplier.

The Debate Rages

There are many angles to the certification game that have not been explored in this brief exposition.

What is the return on investment of a certification vs. a college degree?

What is the relative value of a certification vs. on the job experience?

How many certifications should you obtain before your email signature line looks ridiculous?

These issues further complicate the picture when trying to determine where to spend your professional development time, energy, and dollars. I still hold two vendor certifications, at least until they expire. The more recent -- and more important -- certifications I hold are vendor neutral. As I design systems and plan for the future, I am planning a vendor neutral one.

Keith Winston is a Linux consultant, administrator, and PHP slinger.

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
The LPI community ExamDev 0 2,634 Jan 13, 2005 11:31 AM
Had very similar experiences... DaGoodBoy 0 2,772 Jan 12, 2005 5:51 AM

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