The Top Certifications

To give yourself the best job edge and pay boost, consider training that will get you these certifications.

Which certification is right for you? The answer really depends on the stage of your career, the certifications you already have and your chosen technology area.

However, at any given time, there are usually some hot-button certifications that - because of supply, demand or the difficulty of achieving them - can substantially improve your salary or career prospects.

For example, just a few years ago, the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification promised large salary jumps for IT professionals who could boast of having one. While it's still the most popular certification and still in demand, so many people have the MCSE certification (almost 400,000 engineers in the U.S.) that it's become more of an entry-level requirement.

We asked IT recruiters and certification experts for their views on what will give you the most bang for your buck in the next year or two. We look at the top two here, with more certifications reviewed on Computerworld's Web site. Most of these are top-end certifications that require a few years of job experience in addition to training.

Because they're more difficult to obtain, these certifications can increase your salary by 20% to 30%, according to Mike Kovatsh, an expert on training and certification at Edina,

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Certification Do's and Dont's

Do's

  • Do target a set of employers or check with your own on whether they value a particular top-level certification before you invest time and money in it, advises Ed Tittel, a vice president at iLearning. Otherwise, you may find yourself relocating to get that big salary jump.
  • Do plan on recertifying. You may have to take recertification tests every two to three years or attend a certain number of classroom hours, trade shows or seminars over a several-year period. "Just because you got your [internetwork certification] five years ago doesn't mean you know the new switches and new routers," Tittel says.
  • Do mix and match certifications. "Where we see a large advance in salary is when you get certified in multiple disciplines, like both Cisco and Microsoft," says Mike Kovatsh, a trainer at Techies.com Inc. "Or you're a certified [database administrator] and a certified project manager."
  • Don'ts

  • Don't choose a certification on its salary potential alone - make sure you like that technology area and can be good at it, says Kovatsh. "If you're not good at it or don't like it, don't do it," he says. "There are so many people with a network engineering certificate, and they're bad. And then they don't understand why they can't get a job."
  • Don't blindly fall for claims of huge salary leaps, says Michael Adams, a network administrator with an MCSE and A+ certification at DuPont Beaumont Federal Credit Union. "Typically, obtaining a certification is beneficial to a person's salary but not nearly as much as some sources would have you believe," he says. "The certification holder must be able to actually perform the duties associated with the certification to be valuable in any way."
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    Minn.-based Techies.com Inc.

    NETWORKING

    •Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE)

    Summary: Introduced in 1993, the CCIE helps identify internetworking experts. There are five areas in which a person can be certified: routing and switching, wide-area network switching, ISP Dial, SNA/IP, and integration and design.

    Requirements: You must take a two-hour computer-based qualification exam and a two-day, hands-on lab exam at a Cisco Systems Inc. facility. The lab exam requires a deep understanding of Cisco equipment and general networking. Training alone is insufficient, but it can help, and there's a suggested list of Cisco courses to take. There are only two test lab sites, in San Jose and in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

    How long it takes to obtain: It could take four or five years just to obtain the necessary experience to pass the CCIE exam. Assuming you're working full time, you might take a year or two to study for and take the written test and then study for, take and pass the lab exam. "It's pretty typical for half the candidates who take the lab exam to fail on their first try," says Ed Tittel, vice president of IT certifications at iLearning Inc., a training and education provider in Baltimore.

    Supply vs. demand: CCIEs are "few and far between," says Ben Sabrin, a senior search consultant at New York-based recruitment firm Pencom Systems Inc. According to Cisco, there are fewer than 3,000 of these certified professionals in North America. They're especially in demand in the optical and networking space, such as at telecommunications firms.

    Average cost: The lab test costs $1,250, and the exam fee is $300. Training ranges from $1,420 if you self-study to $4,100 to $6,300 if you study in a classroom, according to Tittel.

    Career benefit: Having the CCIE designates you as part of an elite corps of internetworking professionals; it's one of the premier IT certifications.

    Salary benefit: CCIEs can expect a 10% to 20% boost in salary, says Sabrin. And according to a survey last fall by TCPmag.com, CCIE certificate holders earn an average base income of $115,400 - a $45,500 jump (an almost 40% increase) over Cisco Certified Network Architects, another certification. They also reported larger bonuses, more stock options, more paid training and higher job satisfaction than holders of other Cisco certifications.

    SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT

    •Senior Java Certification

    Summary: Certification programs include Certified Programmer for the Java Platform, Certified Developer for the Java Platform and Certified Enterprise Architect for Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition Technology.

    Requirements: The programmer track requires one exam; the developer track requires one exam and one assignment, plus previous Programmer certification; and the architect track requires a multiple choice exam, an essay exam and one assignment. Certifications can be obtained from Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., BEA Systems Inc., IBM, Sybase Inc., Netscape Communications Corp., Novell Inc. or Oracle Corp.

    How long it takes to obtain: You should have about two years of experience before taking the exam. If you have a full-time job, it could take six months to a year to obtain the certification.

    Supply vs. demand: According to Tittel, there are six to seven job openings for each Java-certified individual.

    Average cost: Exam and assignment costs from Sun range from $150 for programmers to $400 for developers and $550 for architects. Training ranges from $300 to $1,000 for self-study and as much as $3,500 for classroom-based study, according to Tittel.

    Career benefit: "Getting certified helps prove you were able to take your background in C++ and marry that over to Java," Sabrin says.

    Salary benefit: "You're looking at a six-figure salary, guaranteed," says Tittel. "I've heard of individuals doubling their compensation as a result of obtaining mid- or upper-level Java certifications, as compared to their precertification incomes."

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    SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT

    •Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD)

    Summary: The MCSD track tests the candidate's ability to build Web-based, distributed and commerce solutions using Microsoft Corp.'s application server, SQL Server and Visual Studio. This certification was completely redesigned in 1999, and developers who haven't taken the new exams lost certification status, according to Winston-Salem, N.C.-based GoCertify.com.

    Requirements: Three core exams, which require candidates to prove their competency with solution architecture, desktop development and distributed development, and one elective exam, which requires proof of expertise with Microsoft development tools. Candidates should have substantial knowledge of Microsoft Office and BackOffice.

    How long it takes to obtain: Programmers should have at least two years of experience in software analysis and design before taking the tests. Most experienced programmers pass the exam on the first try, but "even an experienced person shouldn't try to write more than one exam per month, so it could take four months" to obtain certification, says Mike Kovatsh, an expert on certification and training at Techies.com.

    Supply vs. demand: The population of MCSDs is small (almost 15,000 people, according to Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine). However, there's a high demand for IT professionals with this certification, says Kovatsh.

    Average cost: It costs about $1,600 if you self-study and $13,600 if you study in a classroom, according to Ed Tittel, vice president of IT certifications at iLearning.

    Career benefit: The MCSD is the No. 1 certification in Microsoft environments, and with the small population of certificate holders, it will be a standout feature on your resume, says Kovatsh.

    Salary benefit: No specifics were available, but according to Kovatsh, surveys imply that there's generally a 10% salary increase for people with certification over others with similar experience and backgrounds.

    DATABASE

    •Oracle Certified Professional

    Summary: Individuals can become certified Oracle database administrators in either Oracle7 or Oracle8.

    Requirements: The database administrator certification requires five to six exams, depending on which track you choose: core path or mixed release. At least six months of on-the-job experience is necessary to pass the tests.

    How long it takes to obtain: It can take 12 to 18 months for to be certified as an Oracle database administrator, says Tittel.

    Supply vs. demand: Oracle is the most widely implemented database product, but demand is somewhat diminished because not many database administrators are required at each site.

    Average cost: $1,140 for self-study and $7,140 to $13,800 for classroom training, according to Tittel.

    Career benefit: The number of Oracle certified professionals has grown to 60,000, including Oracle Developers and Oracle Java Developers, according to Oracle Corp., so the certification is still rare enough to give you leverage when looking for a job.

    Salary benefit: According to Kovatsh, surveys imply there is generally a 10% salary increase for people with certification over others with similar experience.

    APPLICATIONS -- SAP R/3 certification

    Summary:
    Available certifications include financials, controlling, materials management, production and production scheduling, sales order processing, human resources, plant maintenance and service management, and application development -- ABAP Workbench, Business Workflow and Business Information Warehouse.

    Requirements: Vendor-approved classroom training is encouraged to pass the exams, unless you're very experienced with SAP. The three-hour exams are held at SAP AG training centers throughout the U.S.

    How long it takes to obtain: You would need about two years of experience in enterprise resource planning (ERP) and a working knowledge of SAP to begin the certification process, according to Tittel. Individual classes last 25 days. Assuming you were working while getting certified, it would you take one to two years.

    Supply vs. demand: There are about three job openings for each certified individual.

    Average cost: The test for each module is $500, and training classes cost $8,500 to $18,000.

    Career benefit: It places you in the top tier of people in the ERP field.

    Salary benefit: You're guaranteed a six-figure income, claims Tittel.

    Brandel is a freelance writer in Newton, Mass.

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