CXO

Charting your certification course

Before you spend time and money chasing certification, find out which one fits best with your career goals. One expert sounds off on what certs have benefited him the most.


Certification demands a great deal of time and money, so you want to be careful about the accreditations you pursue. Before you register for one of those costly immersion courses, let me tell you which certification investments have worked for me.

I first certified in Microsoft Access in 1996. Since then, I’ve obtained the following certifications:
  • Sun Certified Java 2.0 Programmer
  • IBM Certified Professional XML & Related Technologies (XML)
  • Solomon Software Certified Developer
  • Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA)
  • Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer (MCSD)
  • Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE)
  • Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT)
  • Microsoft Solutions Framework (MSF) Instructor
  • Microsoft Certified in SQL Server 7.0 Data Warehousing

Deciding to jump in
Should you get certified? My answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. No matter your industry, certification is never a liability. It is always an asset. Some certs may be worth less than others, but they're still an asset. I’ve long heard the argument that certification is no guarantee of experience. I agree with this argument to a point. However, certification increases your exposure to the technology and forces you to drill down on its particulars, so you do pick up skills and knowledge.

Which certification should you get?
After you decide to make the investment in certification, you have to decide which technology to start with. I suggest that you first get certified in a skill that pertains directly to your core competency.

As a software developer, I pursued the MCSD certification and obtained it in its first iteration back in 1997. I have since renewed my certification under the Visual Basic 6.0 version and plan to do so again with the next iteration, .NET. Admittedly, not a single employer has ever requested that I have this certification. But it has helped me gain credibility and fulfilled the requirements of maintaining my certification as an MCT. The MCT certification has been the most valuable certification I've pursued because it improved both my presentation skills and my technical knowledge. Forget the adage, “Those who can do; those who can’t teach.” I can tell you that anyone who teaches technology must learn the technology inside and out. To teach effectively, you must thoroughly understand—although unfortunately, some trainers don't fulfill the "effectively" portion of that statement.

If you work extensively with Java, consider taking the Java Programmer certification. I managed a team of Java developers, and most, if not all, had passed the Sun certification. After that cert, the next steps in the Java arena are the Certified Developer and Certified Architect. My experience has been that the only people who work toward these certifications are people who are going to write a book on how to earn these certs. I don't think that the Java development community has embraced the Java Developer and Architect certifications as much as the Java Programmer certification.

IBM is a fairly new player in the world of certification, and most of its offerings lack visibility in the software development world. Consequently, an IBM certification may be lower on your cert short list. I did find that the IBM XML Developer cert was fairly straightforward.

Many smaller vendors have their own certification tracks. One example is Solomon Software, which was acquired by Great Plains and subsequently acquired by Microsoft. I obtained Solomon Developer Certification when I was working with the product about six years ago. These certifications make sense if you are going to work with their products extensively. Otherwise, their value is marginal since most companies will never have heard of the vendor.

How much will the test cost me?
Depending on the vendor, each exam can run anywhere from $100 to $450. Some certifications, such as the MCSE, consist of multiple exams. Many employers will cover the cost of the exam, but the most significant investment will likely be in the form of study resources and time. I have opted not to update my MCSE to 2000 because of the study time involved. I would have to learn numerous technologies that I am unlikely to ever use.

Certs to skip
I’m going to stick my neck out and offer my opinion on which certifications are oversaturated. If I were going for my first certification, I would avoid the generic MCSE unless I were considering specializing in a high-end technology such as Systems Management Server (SMS) or Exchange. I would also avoid Cisco unless I planned to take the certification all the way from CCNP to CCDP.

Making the certification leap
Considering putting more initials behind your name? Tell us which ones that you are pursuing or post a comment below.

 

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