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Certification, the Future, and You

Just looking into a certification? Here’s a primer to get you started.

Let’s start by getting rid of one of the information technology industry’s recurring debates: “Which is more important, certification or experience?” Well, in an ideal world, certification would be simply a way of measuring and proving the expertise gained by experience. This, needless to say, is not a perfect world, but that should be the goal of a good certification program.

The truth is that having experience is good, and that being certified is also good. Having both experience and certifications is even better. If you could add a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics to your resume, that’d be a killer combination.

But for someone trying to change to a better career, getting that real-world work experience is only possible once you get a job in the industry. To a large extent career certifications have become that “foot in the door” that leads to a first job. Adding experience and higher certifications leads to better jobs and better pay. So the two concepts are not mutually exclusive; in fact, experience and certifications should work together to further your career.

The word “certify” comes from the Latin words “certus” (certain) and “facere” (to make) and so literally means “to make certain”. In the case of IT certifications, it is a process of testing in order to measure one’s level of knowledge and ability.

The Novell Corp. started one of the first industry certification programs back when, if you had a corporate network, it was most likely to be a Novell network. This was intended as a way for companies to be certain they would hire qualified individuals to run their Novell networks. You still see classified ads for people with Novell certs, even though the company no longer has the market dominance it once had. In fact, Novell has been trying to keep up with the times, and is now concentrating on providing network services utilizing Linux servers.

A number of years ago, Microsoft looked at Novell’s success and decided that it also wanted a piece the server market to go along with it’s near-monopoly in the desktop arena. Microsoft created the NT (now including 2000 and XP) family to compete against Novell, and they also instituted a full certification program to create people who could administer Microsoft Servers. Microsoft also has certifications for developers and those who support individual MS programs such as Access or Excel.

When first introduced, such certifications as the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) were very highly prized–even required, for some jobs. However, Microsoft was very slow to change and update the largely multiple- choice exams, and as a result numerous Web sites, called “braindumps,” claimed to have the questions available. This resulted, sad to say, in a phenomenon known as “paper certifications,” in which people memorized the test answers but had little real-world experience.

Since then, Microsoft and others in the testing industry have taken great pains to combat cheating. Their solutions include the obvious, like using new questions and expanding the pool of questions used to create the tests. They have also included in the tests some actual simulations, in which the test-taker has to go through all the steps necessary to set up a server, just as if he were working on an actual computer.

Cisco, which makes and sells most of the world’s routers and switches, has maintained a well-deserved reputation of not offering easy tests. Even when they use multiple- choice questions, the tests tend to be very difficult. Instead of stopping with choices A, B, C, and D quite often they’ll add an E, F, G, and H.

Cisco also has the CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert) program, which includes a hands-on, real equipment lab exam. Passing this test is often considered to be the equivalent of earning a doctorate in networking. In the old days, this was the only cert Cisco offered, but currently you can start with the simpler CCNA and work your way up from there.

Some of Cisco’s competitors have started similar certifications, such as Juniper Networks’ JCIE program, considered a rival to the CCIE in difficulty.

The Linux community is an open-source effort. Some of the companies and groups that support Linux has started its own certification programs. Some, like Redhat Linux have a full lab exam just like Cisco, where you have to build a Linux server from scratch to meet their specifications.

There are also vendor-neutral certifications, such as those offered by CompTIA like the very popular A+ and Network+ tests. For those starting out in the IT industry or considering changing careers to IT, these constitute an excellent starting place. They show that one has a base level of knowledge about computers (A+) and networks that may just be that foot in the door that leads to a job.

Security has become more important in the past few years, and the opportunities in computer and network security have never been better. Once again, there are vendor certifications such as those from Cisco and Checkpoint. There are also a number of non-vendor industry certifications, from CompTIA’s Security+ (with 100 questions) up to the new ISO standard CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional), a test that generally runs six hours.

Which certification is best for you depends primarily on what you are interested in. If you enjoy building and repairing computers, the A+ is a very good first choice. If you like solving puzzles and logic problems, then a programmer cert would fit well. There are a number of certs for programmers, including ones from Microsoft and for the very popular Java progamming language.

If you enjoy building Web sites, then there are any number of certifications that relate to that field. My personal interests have been in building and securing large internetworks; this has involved getting Cisco-certified and also getting the Security+ and CISSP certifications, among others.

In the future I hope to see more of the hands-on type of certifications, since these provide the highest level of proof that one can truly get the job done. It may be more expensive and harder for the testing organization, but for the higher levels of certification these practical exams are a good way of guaranteeing that the certs remain valuable to both the certification holder and the companies that hire them.

Getting certified means that you have passed a test, but there are many ways to prepare for a certification exam. The least expensive (but most difficult) is self-study, in which you buy a book and try to memorize everything in it on your own. A more expensive but far easier path is to take a course on the subject. Courses have the advantage of an instructor who can explain the reasons behind the theory and get you started with hands-on practice with real equipment.

Whatever your interests, getting certified is a good step toward a new career or improving and advancing your current position. Remember to study hard and good luck on all your tests!

Bruce Evry is an instructor at the Academy of Computer Education in Greenbelt, Md.

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