A decade ago, the value of IT certification was straightforward: if support professionals received one, it benefited them, in the pocketbook as well as on the organization chart. However, today, the straight line between certification and a better career has bent. Consequently, techies need to do a lot of prep work to determine whether or not a certification will enhance their job prospects.
Certifications became popular because of their potential benefits. These (increasingly electronic) pieces of paper enable businesses to ensure that potential hires have a baseline set of skills to support or manage a particular technology. “Certified IT workers have a greater ability to understand new or complex technologies, are more productive, and bring more insightful problem solving to the workplace,” states Terry Erdle, executive vice president of skills certification at CompTIA. Techies pay for certification courses because they open up new professional opportunities for them.
However, the type of certifications that vendors desire has changed as technology has evolved. When certifications first became popular more than a decade ago, businesses were building out their data centers and deploying servers in rapid fashion. Microsoft’s Windows was the main server operating system, and Cisco’s solutions were the primary network devices. Consequently, related certifications, like Microsoft Certified System Engineer, led to pay raises and promotions.
The Certification Boondoggle
At the height of their popularity, vendors added a plethora of new, ever more specialized certification programs. Microsoft, for example, broke its certifications into dozens of subcategories—each touching upon multiple products—and certification tiers. The end result? One simple certification became a mishmash of layered degrees.
In 2012, Microsoft overhauled its certification program, and the Microsoft Certified System Engineer program was consigned to the scrap heap. In its place, Microsoft implemented four certification grades: Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate, Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert, Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer, and Microsoft Certified Solutions Master.
Today, there are more than 100 different Microsoft certifications. Whether or not so many are needed (or were developed to serve Microsoft’s own interests: the more courses held, the more revenue reaped from these programs) is debatable. What is clear is that the growing cornucopia has blurred the clear connection between certification and professional advancement.
Everyone Has a Certification Program
Observing Microsoft’s and Cisco’s success with certification programs, and the bottom-line value an organization could gain from them, the number of certification programs on the market exploded in the years after Microsoft and Cisco launched their certification programs. In addition to well-known names, like Apple and Oracle, smaller suppliers, like Axis Communications (a surveillance video supplier) and Fortinet Inc. (a network security supplier), developed certification programs. Rather than a select number of certification programs being available, there are now hundreds of them. “It may seem that there’s an alphabet soup of IT certifications in the marketplace,” says CompTIA’s Erdle.
Another mitigating factor is the growing diversity in IT systems. Companies want employees with the latest and greatest skills, and the days of buying Windows servers and Cisco routers are over. Now, the hot markets are cloud computing (private, public, and hybrid), Big Data, and mobile systems.
“Cloud postings are up 22 percent year over year, and more than 5,000 positions are available on any given day,” states Shravan Goli, president of Dice, a professional career site for technology and engineering professionals. New certifications—for instance, Cloud Professional and Cloud Architect—have been created in this emerging area. In addition, vendors have developed certification programs for their cloud services, such as Salesforce.com’s Certified Service Cloud Consultant. This expansion has further weakened demand for certifications.
IT’s Changing Skillset
Another factor is the fact that the skillsets businesses expect their data center staff to possess have changed dramatically. The rise of automation and virtualization has altered the role of the data center technician. In the past, much of their work centered on developing a deep understanding of how hardware worked. The majority of their day was spent configuring various devices and then troubleshooting problems whenever they arose, which was quite often. Consequently, the data center team spent its days running tests and perusing reports, all with the goal of improving network and system performance.
But hardware has become much smarter in recent years. Rather than a tedious, linear process requiring many hours, configuring a system often takes only minutes, with the device itself, rather than the staff, doing the bulk of the work. In addition, troubleshooting tools have evolved and become much more effective. Previously, managers collected performance data from a variety of sources, and then sliced and diced it until they found the source of a problem. Now, with the advent of Big Data analytics tools, much of that work is done automatically. As a result, the skillset for IT specialists has evolved. In the past, value was placed on possessing deep technical knowledge about select devices. Now, enterprises want IT professionals with a broad understanding of how systems impact the business.
Finally, there has been a recent rise in open-source sites that offer individuals IT certification benefits via new channels. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are part of an educational movement designed to provide anyone with an Internet connection access to online courseware and communities—usually for free. As a result, alternatives to the traditional certification houses are emerging, and techies, like software development, are increasingly self-training rather than going the certification route.
Reaching a Transition Point?
In sum, certification programs are at a crossroads. The simple path from Cisco Certified Network Engineer to a better-paying job has branched out and become more complex. “It’s important to remember that not all certifications create the opportunity for a new job or a bigger paycheck,” states Dice’s Goli.
A Dice survey found that the group that benefits the most from certifications is contractors. In fact, 40 percent of technology consultants told Dice that obtaining a certification helped them land a new job, and that number is about 10 percent higher than technology professionals working in traditional roles.
So, IT support professionals need to be aware of how the certification market is changing. On the plus side, they now have more choices and therefore more career decision points than in the past. In some cases, the traditional certification route will deliver better pay and more advancement opportunities. In other cases, a crowdsourced self-study option may offer a techie the same benefits. Deciding whether or not to get a certification is not as simple as it was a decade ago when these programs first gained significant traction.
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer specializing in IT support issues. Based in Sudbury, MA, Paul has been covering technology for a few decades. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.