What You Should Know About Modern IT Certifications - at Glance

by Dmitry Kirsanov 12. December 2011 22:30

Microsoft Certifications SchemaOne of the most frequent questions I get as a trainer, is about certifications and their real value. Opinions regarding certifications vary from “useless piece of paper” to “paramount” and the reason for so diverse opinion is either experience or lack of it. In this post I will try to explain modern IT certifications from a more practical point of view.

During my career of Information Technology Trainer, while spending most time training system administrators and software developers in various disciplines, I’ve also got a lot of valuable feedback from HR specialists and business owners. I’ve organized seminars on certifications to explain their value or in some cases – lack of it, and realized that certifications are like Terra Incognita for vast majority of HR specialists and even IT managers. But it shouldn’t be that way, so this post is also for HR and those who aren’t certified yet but think about whether it’s necessary or not.

I’ll begin with the sort of definition of certification and why it was introduced on the first place.

IT Certifications were introduced by different institutions in XX century in order to formalize and put a scale on modern IT education. Initially they were of two major types – vendor-supported certification and vendor-independent one.

Vendor-supported certifications are the ones, created and maintained by the owner of product/technology. Like Microsoft has created the most well known and developed “Microsoft Certified” program, but also Cisco, Hewlett Packard, 3COM, Apple, Blackberry, Canon, Dell, Ericsson, Google, Hitachi, Huawei, IBM, Juniper, Sybase and many other vendors have their own certifications for their products.

Second type of certifications is vendor-non specific and usually is about the scope of technologies, like network, security, Linux or even some bizarre ones like “PC drivers license” for those who can find F1 on their keyboard. The latter one reminds me a plastic phone for toddlers which makes children feel like adults. Still, even that could be useful in some scenarios. 
One of the most well known and respected non vendor-specific certification is CompTIA, others include ITIL, ITSM, CISSP, PMP, EXIN, Mile2, Project Management Institute, Institute of Linux Professionals and others.

The reason behind these certifications is obvious – to prove that you are the specialist in what this certificate says it’s about. And what it’s about?

Vendor-specific certifications are usually separated into various categories, such as certifications for end users, IT professionals, developers, managers and sales. The following image illustrates the normal structure of IT training hierarchy in the company, where managers and sales are part of Users level, as additional courses they may go through, such as project management and sales training, are not IT, strictly speaking. The SE in the diagram stands for Systems Engineers, more about it below.

ITStructure

The first one, end users certification, is needed for those who wants to get advantage during the employment process. I haven’t seen any of such as required anywhere, but I believe that if a company will need a secretary, then certification in Microsoft Office will add substantial benefits to candidate. However, the main goal of such certification is a virtual checkmark stating that user has passed training on the subject. Like if we need all of our users to have knowledge of basic security concepts, we can send them to the training by Mile2 program and then pay extra for the exam, so we’ll be able to segregate users and easier define how many more people will need that training.

So when we are speaking of Users certifications, we see it’s not very popular and not required by the industry. Taking into account that Microsoft Office Specialist certification, which covers such subjects as Microsoft Word, Excel, Access and Outlook, consists of 6 exams, each costing US$ 150 (in U.S., prices vary for each country), not every secretary would want to pay US$ 900 for that. Actually, I want to hear the story of anyone who did it at his own will and budget.

My opinion is that end user certification gives advantage during the employment process, as it shows that person is aspired at doing her job with high level of professionalism, and serves as mark of perfectionism.

The second level of the diagram is the Helpdesk level 1. These are people responding to end user queries and are the first trying to solve problems. If they can’t do that – the problem is escalated to level 2 of the helpdesk. If level 2 can’t solve it – they escalate the problem to specialists, like system administrators of particular server which requires knowledge of technology which helpdesk specialists don’t have.

Now think about it for a moment. If your level 1 support can’t solve  the problem, it’s either because they are not allowed or not qualified to solve it. If they are not allowed, for example – there are certain management decisions involved in solution – that’s fine. However, if they simply don’t know what windows registry is – you are wasting your money on them. Not only it takes time of end users who are waiting for their problem to be solved, but also time of level 1 support and after the problem is escalated – the level 2 support.

And if the level 2 support can’t solve the issue – then specialists are wasting their time trying to find a solution. 4 salaries are paid to fix one issue. Although the issue wouldn’t rise if end user would be trained the basic course on his operating system. Or it could be fixed at level 1 if specialist would undergo the basic networking training.

That’s why there are certifications for support personnel – to let you spend less on fixing 90% of all issues.

There are various certifications aimed at helpdesk. The most notorious ones are from CompTIA and Microsoft:

  • CompTIA A+ : you will know pretty much about hardware. You will know, for instance, that you shouldn’t ever try to touch the inners of power adapters or laser printers even if they are switched off, as the charge stays there for a long time. Overall, it’s a must have for at least 10% of your support personnel.
  • CompTIA Network+ : networking, all of it – Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, LAN, WAN – you’ll know what it is, how it works and why your colleague’s solution won’t work before implementing it. A must have for all support personnel, at least the training.
  • CompTIA Security+ : tools and algorithms, best practices and strategies – this entry level certification program is especially needed as more users are starting using BitLocker, NTFS encryption, having SSL and routing problems and even use IPv6 which is encrypted by default. It would be great to have at least 10% of your support staff to undergo this course.
  • CompTIA Linux+ : well, the entry level system administrator course for any Linux specialist. Although it aims to be vendor-unspecific, it’s more about Red Hat Linux / CentOS.
  • Microsoft IT Professional: Enterprise Desktop Support Technician on Windows 7:
    If your specialists are supporting windows users, this certification, and this time it’s not only about training but also about the exam, is a must. It consists of 2 exams and is paramount for level 1 support. Try with a few specialists and see how better they become at solving issues.
  • Microsoft IT Professional: Enterprise Desktop Administrator on Windows 7:
    One exam of this program is included in the previous one, so it’s easier to get this certification when your specialists is promoted to level 2 support. This time it is also about large scale deployment of windows and software – amount of theory is just right to make your people high quality professionals at not letting the problem escalate.

Now, there are another non-certification courses for helpdesk personnel at social skills, because solving issues is often tied to social interaction with end-users. No IT certification covers that. It covers, however, understanding of end user’s problems and focusing on what could be the real source of the problem, filtering out the unneeded details.

The Specialist level requires their own certifications, because what specialists usually do – they specialize on particular product or technology, making sure it is supported. So, you may have SQL Server administrator (DBA), Exchange administrator or SCCM specialist. And each of these products may have it’s own professional certification.

Technologies

Each technology or service you have is empowering your business. It is in your best interests to make sure your personnel is capable of solving issues immediately, but what is even more important – to not cause any issues. The source #1 of the worst issues and ineffectiveness is human incompetence.
Do you remember about rich companies going out of business at the blink of an eye, because of security breach or data theft? All these payment processing centers and certificate authorities with no specialists on board, wishing on the star that nobody else could figure out their systems could be shattered by the slightest wind? Don’t become one of them.

The Specialist level of certifications is the base of all. Overall it looks like that:

MSCerts

Technology Specialist are the first level of certifications. Usually you need to pass one to two exams in order to get one. Some of them are simple ones, like 70-620 (Windows Vista desktop), some are quite difficult, like 70-536 (.NET development fundamentals), but all of them share two characteristics – the limited lifetime and modular design.
The lifetime of MCTS certification is limited by the life of product or technology, supported by that exam. So, your certification on Windows Vista will be listed as old and inactive when Microsoft will drop the mainstream support of Windows Vista. Unless you upgrade it to Windows 7 – that will keep your competence current and although the certification on Vista will be gone for good, you will gain new certification with less exams.
The modular design implies that Technology Specialist certification exams are often parts of MCITP (Microsoft Certified IT Professional) exams and could share some exams with other MCTS / MCITP programs, making it easier to gain certain certifications.

MCTS means that you know a specific version of the product, or specific functionality. You are not supposed to design the architecture or deploy large scale solutions – you know how to operate this version of this product, not necessarily knowing the inners of underlying technologies.

There are 60 MCTS certifications available at the moment.

Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) certification is one level higher than MCTS and basically means you know the product, not just the version of it. So if it’s MCITP on Exchange Server, it implies that you also know SMTP, while MCTS on Exchange server doesn’t.

If your specialist is making decisions, not just following them, he should be MCITP certified. The devil is in details, and it’s very easy to miss these details when you don’t know the product as good as certified professional should. Even though you could test your people by yourself (more on it – below), it’s important to go through training, as at professional level it gives much more knowledge and experience than you could get almost anywhere else.

Now, there is a big difference with now obsolete Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) certification, which was awarded previously for passing any single exam. There is no such certificate anymore.

There are 15 MCITP certifications available at the moment.

Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) is a sort of elite certificate. It’s terribly expensive, with training costing about US$ 18 000 and exam requiring you to travel to pass it. Also, you pass it not to the computer program, as it is done with all previous certifications, but to real people, so there is no slightest chance of cheating. There are 5 Master certifications available now. 
If MCM sent CV to you – it’s your chance you perhaps don’t want to miss, as better than this could be only…

Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA). With 4 programs available, this is the absolute top for IT professional. Not only you must be a top IT professional, but also have a proven track of achievements as such. Again, it’s very expensive and ultra prestigious.

Now, what about software developers?

Although MCTS certifications mentioned above also include ones for software developers, the MCITP program is clearly for system administrators. Developers have their own professional line of certifications called MCPD, or Microsoft Certified Professional Developer. For .NET 1.1 and pre-.NET time it has name of MCSD, or Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer. The difference between two was that MCSD also included the exam on architectures, which included theory like Microsoft Solutions Framework and some pre-Agile best practices. It was the most though exam of all and I still miss it, as now MCPD: Enterprise Application Developer means that you know how to program everything and anything – from enterprise level n-tier applications to Windows Mobile apps, but it doesn’t imply you know how to manage your team.

So for team management you can be sure to hire MCSD who upgraded to MCPD, at least he was forced to learn the team / project management theory. Besides, if your teams are using Scrum or Clear Light or any other relatively new Agile methodology, MCSD doesn’t cover that and is not much useful – you will still have to train your developers the required methodology.

Managing Human Resources

For Human Resource specialist,  it’s a headache to compile the job ad, as mentioning the qualification in ever changing realm of certifications is risky. You could be looking for a SharePoint professional and wondering if you should put a certification name in the ad, and later how would you know that Certified SharePoint Administrator, even though MCITP, can’t perform  required modifications to your instance of SharePoint, because that would require MCTS SharePoint Application Development certification with different skill set.

Certifications are also needed to comply with Microsoft’s Certified Partner competence. Which, in  turn, gives you advantages such as free software and additional business opportunities. Different competences gives different opportunities and require different professionals. You have to understand the current state of Microsoft certification in order to decide who should learn what in order to achieve particular required certification. And what training is required for completing a particular project.

Other certifications

As mentioned above, there are various vendor-specific certifications like the ones from Cisco or Juniper, or non-specific like ITIL. The rule of a thumb here – certification implies knowledge. And knowledge supposed to boost effectiveness, which, in turn, will allow you to earn more money with putting less resources into it. But certification alone, in form of certificate, won’t solve your problem, people will. So it’s up to you to make sure these people are properly trained.

There are also things like online certifications. That’s when you and your friend can sit and answer questions sitting at home at your computer, using web browser. After you inevitably pass the test, you may order the certificate. Should I say anything about the value of such certification?

Testing and after-testing

A word of wisdom for human resource managers and business owners. Create after-tests for new employees. Those who are working less than 6 months in your company, for example. Approximately 3 days after the official exam, perform an online computer-based test to see if that person is able to pass it in certification mode. If results are far from desired – let him pay for training and exams and disregard the last certification. If he is a new employee and was required to pass the exam, but decided to cheat – perhaps it’s a sign of disrespect to his current employer and maybe he should look for another one?

Conclusion

Certification is a checkmark, the real value is in training. But what’s the point in running if there is no finish line? Exam is a form of motivation, a tool to achieve the rank. It is said, that creative people are motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others, and having certification eliminates the necessity to beat anyone to prove your knowledge and leaves more room for creative teamwork. 
And although somewhat expensive, it actually saves money to learn the ways of doing things more effectively. The wisdom is in understanding the consequences and making the right decision.

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