Networking certifications — are they worth it?

There are pros and cons when it comes to such qualifications, say IT and recruitment specialists. Lamont Wood reports

It’s not hard to write the initials after your name: CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert); CNE (Certified Novell Engineer), or dozens of others. They mean you have professional certification. The question is, for a networking professional, are those initials worth the effort necessary to acquire them?

“It’s a tough question,” says Robert Rosen, president of the Share IBM mainframe user group. “But I know a lot of people who use them as a gating factor [when hiring], so if you want to maximise your opportunities, they’re a good thing to have.”

Matthew Cody, a convergence engineer at Verizon, says, “It certainly is worthwhile.” Wanting to specialise, he began acquiring four different Cisco certifications four years ago, and the effort eventually led to a new job and a 10% pay rise.

David Foote also agrees. As head of Foote Partners, he tracks the career value of about 220 high-tech certifications, of which about a third involve networking.

His latest figures show that the possession of networking certification results in an average pay premium of 9.2%. The average for all certifications is 8.2%.

Bosses who resist promoting certification among their staff, fearing they will leave, are wrong, IDC analyst Cushing Anderson says. He cites research that shows training programmes reduce turnover by 25%. “People who feel invested-in take that as a benefit and are more loyal, especially as the people around them also get trained,” he says.

As for the effort and money required to get certified, Anderson estimates that most people who follow the certification ladder spend three to six months every other year in some kind of training process. If taken in the form of an off-site course, the training might amount to 10-12 days, at a cost of several thousand dollars, often funded by the employer. Online and self-directed study, through books and videos, are less expensive alternatives.

Of course, there are certifications and there are certifications. Neill Hopkins, vice-president for skills development at the US Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), divides the field into high-stakes and low-stakes exams, with the former having the most career benefit.

High-stakes certificates involve carefully developed tests delivered in a controlled setting. Low-stakes tests may take place online and there is no precaution against cheating or imposters. However, low-stakes testing can be beneficial for self-assessment, he says.

Beyond that, there are vendor certifications, such as those from Cisco, Novell and Microsoft, and vendor-neutral certifications, such as those offered by CompTIA or the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP). Anderson says vendor-neutral ones are useful mostly for those starting out in networking. The financial benefits mostly arise from the vendor certifications, he says.

The downside of certification is that it’s no guarantee of competence.

“I have seen people with great paper certifications who could not troubleshoot their way out of a paper bag,” Rosen says. “Some are great test-takers, but they can’t apply it. The certificate shows they have made some effort to learn the technology, but the key to hiring is what they have done with it. Can they address real-world problems?

“You have to ask things like, ‘Tell me about a really interesting problem you solved and how you solved it’.”

Hopkins says the industry is still young and standards are still evolving.

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