Are certification programs a scam?

'It's one thing to have a nice little piece of paper to hang on the wall, but it's another to have the experience.' says one analyst.

Depending on whom you talk to, certification programs are either borderline rip-offs that provide little useful knowledge, or valuable hiring tools that make it easier for IT execs to pick the most promising new employees.

Available from vendors focusing on their own products, or outside organizations offering multi-vendor training, these certificate programs are expanding to fill the many specialized technology subsets that have multiplied along with the growth of data storage and other IT areas.

When it comes to storage, whether it be network-attached storage (NAS), storage-area networks (SAN), backups or business continuity, the proliferation of technologies has created a burgeoning demand for qualified IT personnel -- and educational organizations to train them -- who can operate in these complicated environments. While there is no substitute for experience, a well-schooled job prospect is still preferable to a raw recruit with no storage knowledge whatsoever.

"It's one thing to have a nice little piece of paper to hang on the wall," says Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst of The StorageIO Group, in Stillwater, Minn., "but it's another to have the experience." Schulz echoes a common theme when he says that storage certificates ease the job of hiring managers by showing that certificate holders have verifiably spent the time and effort required to go through some sort of training program. That gives certificate holders a leg up on non-accredited job seekers.

Almost a scam

Tom Becchetti, a storage architect with 20 years of industry experience who is currently employed by a large financial services company in the Midwest, begs to differ. Becchetti says he is fully trained in HP-UX, Solaris, Brocade Communications Systems, McData Corp. and EMC technologies, and sees storage certificates as a scam. "The reason I say that is most of the certification tests I've taken don't show that you actually know the material more than you can just memorize," Becchetti says. "You're capable of memorizing, not necessarily understanding concepts. And to me, that doesn't help companies."

Becchetti says some of the best people he has worked with had trouble passing certification tests while other equally qualified workers didn't, which according to Becchetti gives him no indication of their true capabilities. While acknowledging that certificates at least indicate that their bearers have put in the work required to gain them, he says that he can quickly assess how much useful knowledge they actually have.

"I look at it like at least they did the work, but I'm going to dive still deeper into understanding some of the concepts they know and understand," he says. "I've had cases where they've been certified and really didn't understand the product. They basically tested for the certification, and that was all they knew."

Asked to what degree he believes storage certificates boost the careers of storage professionals, Becchetti replies, "I would have to guess it's pretty minimal."

Seeking generic certificates

Another seasoned IT professional takes a much more favorable view of overall technology certificates, but is not enthused with storage certificates. Scott Vandergriff, senior vice president for Enterprise Infrastructure, Huntington National Bank in Columbus, Ohio, says he generally views certification programs as valuable, but laments the lack of a "well-regarded, well accepted" storage certification that he could rely on when hiring storage personnel. 

Citing the Cisco Certified Network Engineer title as an example, he says that when he encounters someone with that accreditation, he knows they have gone through a process and they understand the technology. While such a title does not automatically win someone a job, Vandergriff says, it does help winnow the number of job candidates down to those who are most likely able to satisfy an employer's needs.

He dismisses the concept that memorizing materials for certification exams leads to a shallow long-term knowledge base, saying, "Isn't that true of any test? How is that any different from a bachelor's degree or a master's degree?

A plethora of credentials

IT workers can choose from a wide range of storage certificate credentials. For example, the vendor-neutral, cross-platform Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) Storage Networking Certification Program offers such titles as certified professional, certified systems engineer, certified architect and certified storage networking expert.

The vendor side offers even more options. EMC, for example, offers certificate names such as associate, storage technologist, technology architect and implementation engineer via its Proven Professional Program.

Huntington National Bank is an EMC shop, and Vandergriff maintains that his employees that earn EMC storage certificates boost their careers because of their increased knowledge. Even though he is satisfied with the EMC-specific training, he reiterates his concern over the lack of more generic storage training and education programs that could lead to common certification standards.

With so many certificates available, are there any that don't add value to the people who earn them? Schulz says yes, but while he won't name names, he will say that prospective students should beware of programs that require excessively long periods, such as a year or more. Price-wise, certificate programs run the gamut from under $1,000 to over $12,000, depending on the necessary number of classes and the time required to complete them.

Schulz also says to beware of costly recertification programs. In his opinion, these refresher courses can be scams. "Recertification should be at a fraction of the price of the original certification," he declares. "Look at a college diploma. I don't have to recertify it, but I can build on it."

Adds Becchetti, "Certifications expire in a couple of years, so if I want to keep current, I'd be doing nothing but taking tests constantly."

Real knowledge rules  

Storage certification programs are only increasing in popularity as the demand for more educated, more specialized IT experts expands. While it is clear that some people who earn storage certificates come away with less knowledge than others, it is also clear that vendor-specific training is becoming increasingly important for young people in the early stages of their careers. By retaining the knowledge they gain from storage certificates, they have the opportunity to develop specialized expertise that will enhance their value to employers.

"Specialization is becoming a key theme," declares Alok Shrivastava, director of EMC Education Services. "It's impossible for one technical person to know everything about storage technology."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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