Certification is sizzling hot

Published: October 8th, 2007

With information technology changing every time you turn around, it’s difficult for professionals, whether they work within corporations or for VARs, to keep up. Yet keep up they must, if they wish to survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace.One challenge for IT managers is in determining who actually has the necessary skills. Does a potential recruit really understand how to configure VoIP, as he claims? Does that VAR who is pitching a shiny new SAN or the latest version of Microsoft Exchange have the faintest idea how to do the implementation?

Without making dozens of phone calls, one way to determine if the applicant for the job or for the business possesses at least the basics is by checking for appropriate certifications.

These days, one can obtain certification in just about anything. There are vendor-specific certifications for hardware and software, certifications of processes and security certifications. Project management knowledge has several certifications. And companies as well as individuals can obtain certification in several areas (ISO 27001 in security, for example).

Some, obviously, are hotter than others.

Carmi Levy, senior vice-president, strategic consulting, for Thornhill, Ont.-based AR Communications Inc., said, “Hot certifications follow the hottest vendors, the hottest products, the hottest skills and the hottest jobs. The security space is a huge area of focus today, and demand is commensurately high.”

He identified seven security certifications that are particularly valuable:

• CCSP (Cisco Certified Security Professional)
• CISA (Certified Information Systems Auditor)
• CISM (Certified Information Security Manager)
• CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional)
• GCFA (GIAC Certified Forensic Analyst)
• GCWN (GIAC Certified Windows Security Administrator)
• GSE (SANS/GIAC Security Expert)

And beyond security, Levy noted, the following certifications are also in demand:

• CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert)
• CCNP (Cisco Certified Network Professional)
• COBIT certification
• ITIL Foundation certification
• LPIC (Linux Professional Institute Certification)
• MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer)
• Novell CLP (Novell Certified Linux Professional)
• PMP (Project Management Professional)
• Six Sigma certification (Black Belt etc.)

But certifications aren’t the whole story. In fact, said Levy, “In the end, certifications are nice to have, and they lend credence to an otherwise-strong candidate’s resume. But I’d hardly call them essential, and I’d hardly stop using all of the other criteria used to select top-flight IT personnel.”

Proper training, however, is essential. And according to the 2007 TechTalent Pulse Survey from Deloitte and the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), the greying of the workforce and a lack of graduates with the right skills is creating a talent crunch. And almost 80 per cent of respondents said that, to alleviate this crunch, both employers and educational institutions should be working together to prepare new graduates for the technology and telecommunications sectors.

Today, said almost half of respondents, the dearth of talent limits their ability to grow quickly enough to meet customer demand, and limits their productivity and efficiency. And 59 per cent are approaching the issue by implementing training and development programs.

The programs are not limited to large corporations, either. Even small companies see the value in keeping staff up-to-date. For example, Calgary’s IT Matters, which provides computer service and network solutions to small and medium businesses, has just over 25 employees, of whom 17 or 18 are service engineers and, said director of business development Stuart Crawford, everyone is given an annual training allowance. He said, “If I can spend $1,000 and train a salesperson on an application and make them more productive, that makes us better as a company.”

Toronto-based CMS Consulting both consumes and provides training, and, said president Brian Bourne, one major issue that holds companies – both CMS and its customers – back from educating staff is money. Not necessarily the actual price of the course, but the cost of the time away from work. “Time spent in training is time not spent in revenue-generating activities,” he noted. “If (the student) has billable hours, he can tell exactly how much he didn’t make (while on the course).”

“We actually end up having to push guys to do their training,” agreed Crawford. “Their bonus is based on productivity and how much they’re billing, but they need to look at the big picture and get certified to get to the next pay level.”

More drawbacks
Despite the apparent drawbacks, said Tony Hoff, senior manager Dell Training Services – Canada, formal training is necessary. “During a new technology implementation IT staff training is often addressed with informal knowledge transfer sessions, reading manuals and other independent study,” he said. “It’s like learning to fly a plane by reading books and watching someone fly one while they explain the steps to you and tell you what all of the buttons and knobs are for. Knowledge transfer, on the job learning, mentoring and independent study all play an important part in an IT training strategy but the strategy will fail if it doesn’t provide formal learning opportunities where the users learn new skills through structured learning and practice them in a safe environment.”Nexient Learning, a training organization created by the amalgamation of Polar Bear Corporate Education Solutions, Acerra Learning and CDI Education, sees all of these issues, and others. Said Scott Williams, chief learning officer, “The traditional obstacles are still the most prevalent: getting enough time away from the office, working around staff schedules, having multiple participants away at the same time. Flexible work arrangements can actually contribute to the problem, as class schedules tend to be less flexible. Employer ability to support self-directed learning is also still an issue.”

Certification is an important component of training strategies for both Bourne and Crawford. While he acknowledges that, as Levy noted, Microsoft’s MCSE certification once was too easily obtained (Levy characterized the majority of certificate holders of that time as “individuals who were fantastically good at memorizing training books and taking exams”), Bourne said it has regained a certain amount of respect thanks to changes in the testing and is something he looks for in his recruiting. He said, “At CMS, we hire based on what people know. With resumes in a pile, the certifications sort to the top. All of our staff have MCSE at least. Certification doesn’t guarantee that the person knows his stuff, but it’s an indicator.”

Crawford doesn’t require certifications at hiring, but said that employees have to be open to training. “We will train all employees to our baseline,” he said. “All of our employees are certified on Windows Server products. From there, certifications around Exchange are value-adds. All of our certifications are wrapped around small business deliverables.”

“We pursue a lot of SonicWall certifications,” he went on, “and as we see the necessity in the business we review other certifications. We look at the business case associated with the certification. We also look at business training as well as technology training.”

That, said Williams, is one of three things that’s often missing from training strategies. “First,” he said, “troubleshooting and problem solving are often missing. Training strategies often focus too much on the technology, and too little on the application of the technology. Second, the business context for technology: the business problems being solved, the issues being addressed, the benefits to be gained. Technical staff are often required to be involved in cost-benefit analyses, for example, but don’t always have the tools to do so.”

“Third,” he went on, “as technical staff become more senior, they are expected to take on different secondary roles for which they might not be well prepared – for example, the role of project manager or business systems analyst. A well-formed IT training strategy needs to take into account these supplemental or non-core skilling needs.”

And, noted Levy, “the nature in which training and evaluation is delivered – typically via textbook or online CBT, followed by a defined examination structure – does not encourage the development of creative problem-solving or critical thinking skills that today’s IT professionals need.”

New training methods
This is leading to new training methodologies to accommodate the needs of today’s IT professional. Some training organizations are now offering intensely compressed courses known as boot camps, in which the student covers all of the material, then writes all seven exams for the full MCSE certification within a couple of weeks.“I’m a big fan of boot camp-type courses,” Bourne said. “The frustration is the pace of mass consumption training – it’s paced for the lowest common denominator. We don’t want to spend time twiddling our thumbs.”

Another change is in how the content is reinforced. Said Nexient IT learning consultant Andrew Ford, “We believe there is greater perceived value in specialized certs that include a practicum, project, simulation or other hands-on element.”

Added Hoff, “Training organizations need to go beyond providing a student guide, instructor manual and some PowerPoint slides. A more complete solution that goes beyond the book would be very valuable – for example, virtual labs over the Internet available to students for a period of time after they are done the course so they can practice. Provide access to online mentors who can help students after they are done the class and answer some of their ‘how-to’ questions when they are trying to use what they learned in a real life situation.”

“We know that much learning takes place outside of the classroom,” said Williams. “Providing additional support for the many forms of informal learning will become increasingly important. Related to this is the overall issue of succession planning and knowledge retention. As demographic shifts take place over the coming years, many seasoned professionals will be replaced with younger employees who have the technical know-how, but may be missing elements such as business acumen, communications skills or leadership skills. Those skills are often gained over many years through informal means. A fulsome IT training strategy should be taking those issues into account now.”