Paper Chase

In 1997, when Anne Martinez set out to write her book, Get Certified and Get Ahead (MacGraw-Hill, 1998), she didn't expect much fanfare. She figured she'd turn an obscure writing assignment into a fast buck or two. "I was just looking for something to write a book about," recalls the soft-spoken Martinez. "The further I went in my research, the more I said to myself: 'Wow!'."

Unknowingly, Martinez had stumbled on the next big technology craze. Over the next three years, the market for high-tech certifications would swell with more than 400 offerings covering every imaginable job skill tying people with computers. Today certifications roam wild like a sundry herd, ungoverned, ever-populating and kicking up a heap of polemical dust.

Certifications, like university diplomas, presumably prove that the holder has acquired certain knowledge and levels of competency. Technology certifications are provided by software and hardware vendors, trade schools, non-profit organisations and even major academic institutions. While some certification bodies offer training and testing, others offer only testing. Certifications cover product expertise such as Windows 2000, IS skills such as networking and broad-based skills such as project management.

But while certifications thunder over the IT range, some CIOs argue that they do little more than drive up payroll budgets already reeling from an IT labour shortage. It's a vicious cycle: employees demand formal training, receive it, gain expertise that boosts their earning power and then obtain a certification from a third-party organisation. Wielding certificates affirming that they've acquired these new skills, employees then bolt to companies for higher salaries, more training and another certificate. "Technology is flying ahead - and so are certifications," says Martinez, as she prepares the third edition of her book, planned for release this spring. "Employers better find ways to use certifications to their advantage."

Certification proponents such as Ed Glotzbach, executive vice president and CIO at SBC Communications, a telecommunications service provider based in San Antonio, Texas insist that certifications provide a path to ensure technology excellence. In other words, those who seek certifications are characteristically more inclined to be flexible or perform better on the job. "In order to build a competent workforce, it's mandatory to have defined technical career paths that require certifications," Glotzbach says.

On the other hand, critics derail certifications by contending that they're ultimately just pieces of paper and aren't indicative of real-world job capabilities. Steven Brigham, vice president and CIO at Adaptive Broadband, a manufacturer of wireless data networking equipment in Sunnyvale, California, claims noncertified people are just as knowledgeable as certified people. "Certification is overhyped," he says. "I've never paid more money to anybody just because they were certified."

Brigham isn't alone in his criticism. Many CIOs refuse to hire "paper MCSEs" - Microsoft-certified systems engineers who lack real-world experience. Microsoft has responded by toughening up its Windows 2000 MCSE track. "We expect candidates to have at least one year of experience implementing and administering a network operating system to successfully pass Windows 2000 MCSE exams," says a Microsoft spokesperson.

At either rate, certification testing and training doesn't come cheap. Today a North American company shells out more than $US5000 for a single employee to become Novell-certified - a sum that includes costs for training, testing, travel and lost employee time on the job.

More Training, Bigger Payrolls

For employees, the benefits of certification are often readily apparent. After receiving a technology certificate, an employee's salary leaps as high as 25 per cent in the first year, say certification proponents. Moreover, MCP Magazine, a Microsoft-independent publication for workers skilled in Microsoft products, reports MCSEs earned an average $US76,800 last year, up from $US67,600 in 1997. [Locally, MCSEs can expect to earn about 10 per cent more than their non-certified counterparts with salaries ranging from $65,000-$80,000.] Yet faced with these rising costs, employers can still come out ahead. IDC (US) found that IS staff holding Microsoft's baseline Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) certification demonstrated greater productivity at the help desk; companies with MCPs on staff experienced shorter and less frequent server downtime than companies without MCPs, translating into cost savings of over $US2500 per year per server. For a company with an average of 13 servers, it takes about four months to recoup the costs associated with obtaining MCP certification.

A study conducted by IDC showed that Novell-certified staff increases the productivity and efficiency of the entire company. Companies with certified staff had a decrease in unscheduled server downtime and an increase in the efficiency and productivity of IS functions resulting in lower help desk costs. As a result, companies with certified staff enjoyed higher perceived qualitative benefits and better staff retention rates. IDC concluded that a Novell-certified employee will bring increased efficiencies to a company year-on-year. That is, of course, if the employee decides to stick around.

Humble Origins

High-tech certification got started in January 1989 when Novell launched its Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) program, thus igniting the then-fledgling computer industry's fixation on credentials. Initially, the CNE program targeted salespeople - not computing professionals. As the certification evolved, along with Novell's growing revenues, the emphasis shifted from sales to technical support.

By creating an army of Novell-savvy engineers throughout the reseller channel and end-user community, the networking company reaped incredible market gains. Novell's success inspired a hoard of stalwart technology companies such as IBM, Cisco Systems and Sun Microsystems to follow suit. The CNE program - which utilises a network of independent training centres - became the archetype for educating people on both hardware and software products.

Although the vast majority of certification programs are sponsored by vendors and centred on products, another type of certificate is gaining momentum - the vendor-independent certification. Organisations such as the Massachusetts-based International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium (www.isc2.org) which offers the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) designation, tests an employee's knowledge in computing areas - not product expertise. CISSP addresses 10 areas of security technology, including access control systems, cryptography and security management practices, and the law.

Also, companies well known in the educational field have begun serving up certification programs. Last year, The Chauncey Group International (www.chauncey.com) in Princeton, New Jersey, a subsidiary of Educational Testing Service, a scholastics-based testing organisation, unveiled an entry-level IT certificate. The certification tests basic knowledge in up to eight career clusters: networking, enterprise systems analysis, the Web, technical writing, digital media, programming, database and technical support. "We're looking at people with zero to two years' IT experience," says Lauren Hebert, managing principal at The Chauncey Group International. "Someone with a four-year bachelor's degree in computer science should be able to master this without any additional work."

Training with a Catch

Many CIOs though, remain wary. In the past, they've championed certification training and they've been burned - employees spruced up their r?sum?s and left for more money. The situation has become so critical that some employers offer training only to workers who sign contracts binding them to the company for three months or longer. "It's been going on at a small scale," says Martinez. "I think it's a good idea because it protects the employer's investment."

Even companies that don't back certifications feel that employees should offer certain guarantees in return for other kinds of training. Adaptive Broadband rewards exceptional employees and seeks out others who need further education to hone their skills, with formal training, including the opportunity to pursue an MBA. The decision to pay for training hinges on whether there's a real business benefit for the company. There's also a caveat: employees must agree to stay with the company for a short predetermined time period or else pay back the cost of the education, says Brigham.

Retaining employees with a ball and chain doesn't make good policy, counters Dror Liwer, chief technology officer at Context Integration, a Massachusetts-based integrator. "I thought slavery was abolished a long time ago," he quips. Liwer believes mutual respect between employer and employee is the only defence against worker turnover.

Since Context Integration's core competency is delivering fixed-time, fixed-price IT projects to its customers, any mistakes in project planning or cost estimation can result in lost revenue. Consequently, the most lofty certification for Context Integration addresses project management skills.

Context Integration's project managers undergo rigorous training, which includes becoming certified at the Project Management Institute (PMI), a non-profit professional membership organisation based in Pennsylvania (see, "Project Management Groups in Australia", page 104). PMI offers a certification credential called Project Management Professional (PMP); more than 16,000 people hold the PMP certification worldwide. PMI's main contribution is providing PMPs with a common set of terms and definitions - a de facto project management lexicon. All of Context Integration's project managers have taken or plan to take the PMI certification test.

For Context Integration, supporting certification programs such as PMP has paid off. According to Liwer, the company has enjoyed a reduction in inaccurate projections by its project managers. Actual implementations also run smoother, says Leslie Wacker, a senior consultant at Context Integration. Wacker says Fortune 500 companies recognise the PMP designation, thus making it easier for him to work jointly with other project managers at client companies.

Real-World Skills

Project managers with a technology background have become hot commodities in the emerging digital economy as practically every corporation has embarked on a major IT project implementation in the last year. (see "Are Your Project Managers Certifiable?", below). Gartner Institute, an independent company in Minnesota., started by high-tech market researcher GartnerGroup, recently introduced a project management certificate-based training and testing program aimed at technicians aspiring to become managers. One of the first people to go through the program was Dana Cordasco, a Novell-certified technical analyst at Cahners Travel Group, a New Jersey-based magazine publisher. Cordasco, is pursuing both Microsoft's MCSE and Gartner Institute's project management certificates. She believes certificates are her ticket to move into upper management.

In 1997, Cahners Travel Group experienced the pangs of a badly managed project and, as a result, decided to send Cordasco through Gartner Institute's certification program.

Cahners Travel Group needed to convert software and upgrade hardware for 650 employees. Its 10-person IS team planned to transition 16 users per day. During rollout, however, the team realised that it had underestimated the time it would take to train people and back up data, yet the team was already committed to its timetables. "We pretty much killed ourselves with the schedule," recalls Cordas "At one point, we slept two hours a night for five days in a row."

Afterward, Cahners Travel Group sought to improve its project management competence through certification training. Since Cordasco was the most senior team member - she'd been with the company for three years - Cahners Travel Group sent her through Gartner Institute's project management program. "I was ecstatic about being chosen," she says. "I'm always asking for more training."

In preparation for a written test, Cordasco completed a five-day course in which two instructors led 10 participants in a team-oriented environment. The course material centred on real-world case studies: students identified favourable project management trends and conducted post-mortem analysis on projects that went badly. The course costs an average of $US3000 per attendee. After the course, Cordasco concedes that she should have spent more time planning Cahners Travel Group's aforementioned project; she would have recommended transitioning eight users per day instead of 16 users per day.

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