How to get value from technology certifications

Technology professionals and organizations interested in certifications have a large and ever-increasing number of choices available in the marketplace. A multitude of product companies and professional organizations offer certifications. What value do they offer? Opinions are divided. Many employers view them as a tool that helps to increase skill level within the technology organization or a hiring gate. Many technology professionals leverage them to advance their careers. On the other end of the spectrum, some people view certifications as yet another revenue stream for product vendors without significant merit attached.

I decided to do a field study and go through the certification process myself. The focus of the study has been on certifications relevant to the software application development community—programmers, software engineers, team leads and architects. Since a significant percentage of all development done today uses either Enterprise Java (J2EE) or Microsoft .Net technologies, I restricted the research to certifications offered by Microsoft and Sun. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but I believe it is fairly representative. In total, I obtained three Microsoft and two Sun certificates. These were Developing and Implementing Web Applications With Microsoft Visual C# and Microsoft Visual Studio .Net, Developing XML Web Services and Server Components With Microsoft Visual C# .Net and the Microsoft .Net Framework, Analyzing Requirements and Defining Microsoft .Net Solutions Architecture, Sun Enterprise Architect for Java 2 Platform, and Sun Programmer for Java 2 Platform.

Microsoft certifications

Microsoft offers the developer community 12 different exams in four categories. These cover Web development, Windows development, Web services and security implementation using either C# or Visual Basic .Net. SQL Server, BizTalk Server and Commerce Server have their own exams. In addition, Microsoft development methodology is covered by the Solution Architecture exam. Passing any single exam earns the title of Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP). Passing three exams—one Web or Windows development, one Web services and one elective—earns the title of Microsoft Certified Application Developer (MCAD). Passing five exams—Solution Architecture, one Web development, one Windows development, one Web services and one of the electives—earns the title of Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD). MCAD is suitable for those who build, test, deploy and maintain applications. MCSD extends this to those who in addition analyze and design solutions. Exams use multiple-choice question format centered around case studies. Descriptions of a case study, which provide a realistic work context, are followed by a number of questions directly related to the case study. Exams are administered electronically by Pearson VUE and Prometric, and the costs are typically $125. Results are available immediately.

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Microsoft Exams

Web or Windows Application Development

Exam 70–305: Developing and Implementing Web Applications With Microsoft Visual Basic .Net and Microsoft Visual Studio .Net

Exam 70–306: Developing and Implementing Windows-based Applications With Microsoft Visual Basic .Net and Microsoft Visual Studio .Net

Exam 70–315: Developing and Implementing Web Applications With Microsoft Visual C# .Net and Microsoft Visual Studio .Net

Exam 70–316: Developing and Implementing Windows-based Applications With Microsoft Visual C# .Net and Microsoft Visual Studio .Net

XML Web Services and Server Components Development

Exam 70–310: Developing XML Web Services and Server Components With Microsoft Visual Basic .Net and the Microsoft .Net Framework

Exam 70–320: Developing XML Web Services and Server Components With Microsoft Visual C# and the Microsoft .Net Framework

Solution Architecture

Exam 70–300: Analyzing Requirements and Defining Microsoft .Net Solution Architectures

Electives

Exam 70–229: Designing and Implementing Databases With Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition

Exam 70–230: Designing and Implementing Solutions With Microsoft BizTalk Server 2000 Enterprise Edition

Exam 70–234: Designing and Implementing Solutions With Microsoft Commerce Server 2000

Exam 70–330: Implementing Security for Applications With Microsoft Visual Basic .Net

Exam 70–340: Implementing Security for Applications With Microsoft Visual C# .Net

You can find more details at http://www.microsoft.com/learning/mcp/default.asp.

Sun certifications

Sun offers seven different certifications. The Java Programmer certificate covers the fundamentals of the Java programming language and is the prerequisite for all other certifications. Getting Sun certifications involves passing a multiple-choice question exam, with two exceptions. Sun Certified Developer certification is a two-step process. Step 1 is a programming assignment, and Step 2 is a four-question essay exam with questions related to the previously completed assignment. Sun Certified Enterprise Architect certification is a three-step process. Step 1 is multiple-choice test covering J2EE technologies, design patterns and the Unified Modeling Language (UML). Step 2 is a design assignment, and Step 3 is a four-question essay exam. The design assignment calls for the creation of an object model, sequence diagrams and a component diagram. Candidates download the assignment from a secured Web site, complete it at their own pace (there is no time limit) and upload the completed assignment back to the Web site. All other tests are administered electronically by Prometric. The costs are typically $150 for a test and $250 for an assignment. Hence, the cost of a certification varies from $150 for certificates, which involve multiple-choice tests only, to $550 for the three-step Enterprise Architect certificate. Results of the multi-choice tests are available immediately. Essay exams are graded together with the assignments and results are available several weeks after the completion of the last step.

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Sun Exams

Foundation Certification

SCJP: Sun Certified Programmer for the Java 2 Platform, Standard Edition

Java 2 Platform Standard Edition

SCJD: Sun Certified Developer for the Java 2 Platform, Standard Edition

Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition

SCWCD: Sun Certified Web Component Developer for the Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition

SCBCD: Sun Certified Business Component Developer for the Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition

SCDJWS: Sun Certified Developer for Java Web Services

SCEA: Sun Certified Enterprise Architect for the Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition

Java 2 Platform Micro Edition

SCMAD: Sun Certified Mobile Application Developer for the Java 2 Platform, Micro Edition

You can find more details at http://suned.sun.com/US/certification/java/index.html.

How valuable are certifications?

Multiple-choice based tests have their limitations. They test knowledge, not skills. They will not tell you how well a person will perform in a job. A smart individual can, in many cases, guess the right answer, even if he hasn't entirely mastered the material. However, while not fully assessing qualifications of a person taking the test, these exams do test essential knowledge and thus can separate those who have the knowledge from those who do not.

For an experienced Java or Microsoft developer, passing a test is very easy. Hence the certification is not really a significant statement of their accomplishment. However, they are a great tool for people who want to acquire new skills or retrain. Passing the test verifies that they have mastered basic knowledge and thus marks an important milestone.

Assignment-based certifications are more aligned with job duties than tests. Developers will write code, and architects will create an object model in real life. Completing an assignment is very much like completing a task at work and offers more insight into an individual's depth of knowledge and potential job performance.

Recommendations for employers

Certificates are primarily a great training tool. Very large organizations can create their own, fully customized training programs. For everybody else, certification programs offer access to a world-class curriculum and training resources. Corporate training programs can be assembled simply from a collection of vendor-based curricula. Exams test basic proficiency, and passing a test is an excellent way of measuring how well the training resources have been spent.

For any organization building applications using Microsoft technologies, getting developers to pass one exam relevant to the work they are doing will have value. Similarly, for any organization using Java technologies, getting developers to pass Java Programmer and one of the Java Developer exams makes sense. Microsoft exams are focused on the development environment and process. For example, a developer who has passed the Developing Web Application exam knows how to use Visual Studio .Net to create, test and deploy Web applications. This knowledge should be complemented by an in-depth study of either C# or VB.Net, which are not covered in detail by the test. Sun exams test knowledge of the Java language and standards such as Java Server Pages or Enterprise JavaBeans. This should be augmented by the knowledge of a development environment.

Sun Enterprise Java Architect and Microsoft Solution Architecture exams have a different focus from all other tests. The Solution Architecture exam tests knowledge of Microsoft Solution Framework, processes and deliverables associated with gathering of business requirements, developing specifications and creating conceptual, logical and physical designs. For any developer, stepping up from an individual contributor to the team leader role is a significant transition. The exam covers domain knowledge very relevant to anyone in a team leader role. This, coupled with leadership and communication skills training, can be very helpful in the transition.

Enterprise Java certification covers more breadth than any other certificate. It not only covers Enterprise Java technologies but also design patterns and UML notation. Completion of an assignment is more involved than simply passing a multiple-choice test. It requires thinking through the design process, capturing assumptions, evaluating design options, optimizing the solution and expressing it in an industry-standard notation. It would be prudent to demand that everybody architecting Enterprise Java-based solutions can pass this test.

Recommendations for developers and architects

If you have some experience, getting certified in your area of expertise will be very easy. Why not do it? Getting certified creates at least a level playing field against everybody else who is certified in the highly competitive market.

A great majority of people who have chosen a career in IT thrive on learning new things. Certifications offer a structured way of acquiring new skills. They can offer gratification through a clear recognition of new knowledge and, if correlated with a good career plan, can help in career progression.

For those interested in getting certified a wealth of resources is available. For every exam, you will find a number of books devoted to the topic. Numerous in-room and online classes are available. There are mock-up tests and discussion groups. In many cases, people get together to form a study group. There are plenty of options to choose from.

Summary

Certificates offer a great way of testing the basic proficiency in a specific technology domain. Thus, in conjunction with training, they provide a very useful tool for people and organizations interested in acquiring and developing technical knowledge.

Bob Tekiela is a vice president of technology at Sapient Corp. He has over 15 years of experience in IT, including strategic technology planning, building and leading technology organizations, and designing and building technology systems and products. He can be reached at rtekie@sapient.com.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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