Networking certification: Are those initials worth it?

They can get your foot in the door and better pay

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 that you have a professional certification. The question is, for a networking professional, are those initials worth the effort necessary to acquire them?

"It's a tough question," said Robert Rosen, president of the Share IBM mainfrane user group and CIO of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases in Bethesda, Md. "But I know a lot of people who use them as a gating factor [when hiring], so if you want to maximize your opportunities, they're a good thing to have."

"It certainly is worthwhile," said Matthew Cody, now a convergence engineer at Verizon Business in Maplewood, N.J. Desiring to specialize, he began acquiring four different Cisco Systems Inc. certifications four years ago, and the effort eventually led to a new job with a 10% pay hike.

David Foote also tends to agree. As head of Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Conn., 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 a networking certification results in an average pay premium of 9.2%. The average for all certifications is 8.2%. Noncertified networking skills result in a 7.1% premium, barely above the 7% average for all noncertified skills. (The best premium he found was 14%, for project management certification. The worst was 5% for a general certification, which was lower than the premium for any of the non-certified skills he tracks.)

But certifications offer benefits to organizations as well as to individuals, said Cushing Anderson, an analyst at IDC, a market research company in Framingham, Mass. As opposed to having a staff with no formal training, having a staff with certifications should increase the organization's ability to resolve networking failures by 20% to 40% and reduce the number of unexpected outages by 10%, he said.

Bosses who resist promoting certification among their staffers, fearing they will leave, are wrong, Anderson added, since training programs 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 noted.

As for the effort and money required to get certified, Anderson estimated 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 a classroom, the training might amount to 10 to 12 days at a cost of $500 to $1,000 per day, often funded by the esmployer. Online and self-directed study through books and videos are less expensive alternative. Anderson estimated that about a sixth of the students are "certification junkies" who collect certificates regardless of any financial rationale and may spend their own money.

Cody recalled that each of his four certifications required passing four or five exams each, and an instructed class for each individual exam would have cost about $3,000 in metropolitan New York. He instead used self-study and less expensive third-party online training, taking about six weeks for each. Each test costs $125 and could be repeated if failed, but participants would pay the money again.

Of course, there are certifications, and there are certifications. Neill Hopkins, vice president for skills development at The Computing Technology Industry Association Inc. (CompTIA) in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., divided 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 proctored setting, meaning there is a supervisor who checks the test-taker's ID and prevents cheating. Low-stakes tests may take place online and there is no precaution against cheating or imposters. But low-stakes testing can be beneficial for self-assessment, he added.

Beyond that, there are vendor certifications, such as from Cisco, Novell Inc. and Microsoft Corp,, and vendor-neutral certifications, such as those offered by CompTIA or the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP) in Des Plaines, Ill. Anderson said that vendor-neutral ones are useful mostly for those starting out, with financial benefit mostly arising from the vendor certifications.

But Kewel Dhariwa, executive director of the ICCP, noted that vendor-neutral certifications give an organization more flexibility in terms of integrating diverse products and moving people between projects.

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 said. "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?"

Bureaucrats love certificates because it gives them a box to check off, "but that's not doing due diligence," Rosen complained. "You have to ask things like, 'Tell me about a really interesting problem you solved and how you solved it.'"

"Having that piece of paper is proof that you have the baseline knowledge," agreed Cody. "But it would be foolish to hire just based on certification, since you also have to make sure they know what they are doing. It's possible to have a good career without certifications, but certifications make it easier to get in the door."

Meanwhile, Hopkins noted that the industry is still young and credentialing standards are still evolving. "I would not be surprised if licensing were eventually required for those managing network infrastructures, especially for government accounts," he said.

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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