Thanks to a regular correspondent and professional associate of mine, I’ve been involved recently in an interesting discussion about college degrees versus IT certifications. I wrote another blog here last Friday in which I opined the following: “for at least some certifications (most notably, the CCIE, in his case), they are almost analogous to a college degree.” Equivocations aside, my colleague cried foul (using pithier language, often abbreviated as “BS”) on this remark, so of course I immediately leaped to my own defense.
First and foremost, I did equivocate in this remark by using “at least some” and “almost analogous” so I don’t think I can be accused of saying they’re exactly the same. But as I think about it further, and compare the time, cost and effort involved in earning a typical IT certification (NOT the CCIE or other premier credentials), I have to concede that my colleague is right. Even an Associate’s degree usually requires 60 credit hours of classes, each of which costs no less than $60 at local community colleges, plus books, fees, and other costs that probably add up to no less than $5,000, and may easily top $10,000. Then, too, 60 credit hours usually means 720 hours in the classroom and probably as many more in getting back and forth to school, with another 700-1,400 hours for labs and studying. A bachelor’s involves at least double this effort, and private schools usually charge $200 and up per credit hour rather than the bargain basement $60 you might pay at a community college. A master’s degree may involve only 30 hours of classes, but you must pay more for those hours, and usually write a thesis (or take more classes in lieu of same). As for a PhD: three years of classes, plus one to three more years to research, write, and defend a dissertation, for at least three times the nut associated with an Associate’s degree, and very often much more than that.
So yeah, now that I re-think my position and really look at the numbers for the time, money, and activity involved in earning an IT certification versus a college degree, I have to concede my colleague was right. It would have been much more accurate for me to say “For a very few IT certifications, such as the CCIE, the time and effort required to earn the credential might get close to the work required to earn a two-year degree, but otherwise, degrees trump certifications for time, effort, and cost.”
Does this mean that degrees are more important than IT certifications? This is an interesting question, to which the answer must be “It depends on what field the degree is in, the granting institution, and how old the degree is, versus the currency and perceived value of the corresponding IT certification (or more probably, certifications plural) under consideration.” Degrees never expire, they indicate a sustained effort to learn a curriculum and meet specific graduation requirements, and tell employers that candidates could complete such an effort. Certs, on the other hand, do expire, are more narrowly focused, take less time, effort, and money to complete, and are more like the merit badges to which Tom Hollingsworth compared them in his recent blog that provoked my less-than-accurate comparison of these two things last Friday.
And while this doesn’t mean that certs are worthless, it actually helps to explain why employers usually prefer job candidates to have both degrees and current IT certifications: the degree to indicate an ability to raise the money and do the work to complete a sustained and demanding set of activities, and the certifications to indicate some degree of interest and ability in IT-related topics germane to a particular job or job role that the employer wants to fill.
‘Nuff said, I hope!
It’s not every day that I sit down at my desk to read my email, and wind up thanking my lucky stars to have such great friends and colleagues to work and interact with. For me, this was one of those days as I read through a short missive from my friend and colleague Jeff Carrell (the recently-appointed lead author for the fourth edition of my Guide to TCP/IP college textbook, now nearing manuscript completion, and the lead partner in our IPv6 Hands-on Labs) that linked to a couple of IT certification blog posts with this recommendation: “If you haven’t seen these, I really liked them.” I liked them, too, all right–so much, in fact, that I’d like to share them with you! I also liked it very, very much that Jeff took the time to point these excellent blogs out to me.
The first is from a group of network engineers that run a Website called Packet Pushers; you can get a good sense of where these guys live from their site’s tagline: “Where Too Much Networking Would NEVER Be Enough.” In a post entitled “Certification — Earn It, Don’t Just Pass It!“, regular contributor Kurt Bales (a network engineer based out of Sydney, Australia, where he works as the CTO of eintellego Pty Ltd) makes some very valid points about the real meaning and value of IT certification, as he stresses the importance of real learning and skills development rather than rote memorization just to pass a certification exam. As I’ve often said myself here in this very blog: It’s not just what you know that counts, it’s what you can DO with your skills and knowledge that matters most. I also really liked reading about somebody lucky enough to work for a company where they valued their people, and were willing to invest in their professional development.
[To run the gamut of Packet Pushers blogs, check out their home page where you’ll find links to their latest postings at the top center column of that page, as wel as blogs on Data Center, Switching, IPv6, Security, Routing, and Work Life. Please check them out! ]
The next site is even more hard-core: it’s called The Networking Nerd and its tagline reads “Come for the Networking Stay For the Snark.” The logo features the word “nerd” right below the Cisco bridge logo. Hilarious! This site is the brainchild of network engineer Tom Hollingsworth, a “major certification holder” based in Oklahoma who already has over 20 certs from vendors and organizations that include Cisco, CompTIA, HP, ISC-squared, Microsoft, Novell, and VMware (I listed them in alphabetical order). He also confesses that while it took him SEVEN TRIES to pass the CCIE lab exam, he’s got one of those, too (CCIE #29213).
His blog is entitled “Certification Merit Badges” and it’s based on Tom’s recent Twitter exchange with Fernando Montenegro in response to another Twitter post that reads “…my boss told me today that certifications aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.” This is a widely held opinion that corresponds to reality in varying degrees, often depending on how well people follow the admonition stated in the preceding Packet Pushers blog post. Nevertheless, Tom does an excellent job of observing how, for at least some certifications (most notably, the CCIE, in his case), they are almost analogous to a college degree. They both take a serious investment of time, effort, and money, and both are universally recognized as representing something meaningful and worthwhile by their holders, and by those who know about them.
His “merit badge” observation (and blog title) recognizes something else I’ve observed in IT since I first started working in and around certification in the mid-1990s — namely, that for a certain segment of the IT workforce, collecting certifications becomes something between a hobby and an obsession. Hollingsworth further observes that these credentials announce to the world that their possessor claims basic competence with various specific areas of knowledge, so that employers and colleagues can assume they are aware of various tools and technologies, simply because of the certs they hold. Next, he does a good job of explaining why some employers might opine the way that “the boss” mentioned in the tweet that provoked his posting (they don’t always see the value of official marks of technical competence, though they do want their workers to know their stuff). He even does justice to the sometimes very valid fears that employers have about losing highly skilled and trained employees to poachers (and competitors) after they’ve invested huge amounts in training them up, and gives credence to the common practice of making employees agree to repay training costs if they leave an organization within some time period (usually, one to three years) after employer-funded training has been received. Good stuff, and worth reading.
[Hollingsworth’s Networking Nerd site is a WordPress creation, so all you have to do to access all of his blogs, which cover a broad and interesting range of topics, is to visit the home page and start poking around. Or, you can access his blogs through the “Recent Posts” and “Archives” links in the right-hand column there. ]
I just exchanged some Google+ interaction with an old friend and colleague who’s busily engaged in retooling himself from the role of SharePoint to Exchange guru. He’s let me know that the new question item types that Microsoft has added to its exams are becoming pretty prevalent (I blogged about this last December 19 in a post entitled “Interesting Changes Coming to MS Cert Exams“) and that the type described as “matching questions” can be both persnickety and confusing. A “matching question” is like a multiple choice, but instead of offering 4 or 5 answer options, it may offer as many as 15 or 16 choices.
Here’s how my buddy describes what he’s seen recently on the 70-662 Configuring Exchange 2010 exam: There are “screen shots of a configuration screen with 16 tabs where you are asked under which tab a particular setting is located.” He also reports that even though he “can work with the product just fine” he’s having difficulty figuring out how to find and master the information necessary to pass this particular exam. This puts a pretty heavy onus on exam candidates to really dig into and learn the user interface and the operational details necessary to install, configure, and maintain the products and platforms on which they’re being tested. It also raises the very interesting question of when questions step over the line from “testing useful knowledge” to “testing meaningless administrivia.”
That’s a case where the beauty (or value) of the question lies in the eye of the test developers. MS is keen to point out its profound attention to psychometrics and to finding questions that separate people who really know their stuff from those who just memorize a bunch of technical details long enough to pass an exam. But gosh, I find it troubling that somebody I know well, with a deep and broad technical background, considerable smarts, and day-to-day working experience with the platform on which he’s being tested, is struggling to figure out where to find the information to learn the answers to questions on that platform, so he can get past the exam!
I’ve recommended my usual fallback strategy to him in the case where you can’t use self-study to get over a particular exam hump: it may be time to take the Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) version of the training recommended for this exam to see exactly what it covers. And of course, that will give him an opportunity to beat up his instructor to make sure he’s fully primed for the exam the next time he sits for it. In fact, this is the kind of case where it’s worth checking the schedule for the training center on the Microsoft campus in Redmond where he’ll not only get access to a premier instructor who works for the company, but can also communicate his difficulties and issues as directly to their possible cause as possible.
In the past three or four months, I’ve gotten at least half-a-dozen e-mails from IT professionals (some entry-level, some unemployed, and some already beavering away at IT jobs) asking for my advice on laying out serious cash for training and exam support for various certifications. Let me provide a couple of cases in point to illustrate what I’m talking about here — $1,695 for a CompTIA A+ prep class that didn’t include exam vouchers (which cost about $500 for both exams these days, except for those who work for a CompTIA member organization), and $2,995 for a pair of Microsoft Windows 7 exams that did include vouchers (which cost $300 for the both of them at list price, though occasional discounts for the general public pop up all the time, and students can almost always get them for $120-125).
The bottom line is this: If you’re paying for this kind of thing out of your own pocket, I urge candidates to first go the self-study route and see how they do. In most cases, you can cover the preparation costs for under $500 per exam, including a study guide, an Exam Cram, and a couple of practice tests, after which you need only pick up the cost of the exam to get over your particular hump (or humps, as A+ requires two exams, and the Windows 7 example covered two exams as well). For many Microsoft topics, in fact — including both of the Windows 7 exams involved here (70-680 and 70-681) — non-exam costs seldom exceed $250 or so. Then, if you look around for online study groups or active online forums that cover exam topics, you can reach out to the community to get help, insight, and other perspectives on problems or points of confusion as you need them.
Particularly for those still in school, or those who aren’t working right now, stretching dollars is very important. That’s why I have to repeat my exhortation to try self-study first and foremost if you’re trying to break into IT, be it as a fresh-out-of-school newbie or somebody with some experience who’s changing fields, or as an experienced IT professional who wants to change subject areas from one IT specialization to another. Even if you decide you need to take a class later on down the road because you can’t hack the do-it-yourself route, you still won’t be out that much money. And if you succeed on this path — and my research teaches me that at least half of all certification holders take the self-study approach — you will save a LOT of green on your way to certification.
On the other hand, if you are lucky enough to work for an employer who provides education support that includes training costs, by all means look into the level of support that’s offered and how it works in your case. Some employers pay a percentage based on exam scores (and don’t pay if you don’t pass the exam or earn the related cert), while others simply offer annual dollars that you can use to boost your career in whatever way you choose. Either way, it’s still worth weighing the self-study vs. classroom/online training paths you can take to certification, but cost doesn’t have to be the sole deciding factor any more. Count yourself blessed for being able to make such choices, too!
The latest first-time unemployment filings continue their downward trend, while employment numbers are up (and unemployment dropped by 0.1% to 8.5% for December, 2011). Actually, first time filings are up by 8,000 from the week of December 17, but the four-week moving average (generally less up-and-down than the weekly average) has now declined for five straight weeks, to a value of 373,250 (see this CNNMoney story “Jobless claims improve” dated 1/5/2012, for more details). This is the lowest value since June 2008, which means we’re still approaching the return for what passed for normal before the 2008 market downturn that launched our latest recession.
At the same time, it’s the first Friday of the month, so the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has published its latest “Employment Situation Summary” (dated 1/6/2012). It, too, has some good numbers to share: employment rose by 200,000 in December, and also continues the downward trend for the number of unemployed persons (13.1 million) and the overall unemployment rate (8.5%). But alas, Table A-14 (“Unemployed persons by industry and class of worker, not seasonally adjusted”) shows only modest gains for the information sector, and for professional and business services, where most IT professionals are classified. Information gained a paltry 9,000 jobs for 2011, while professional and business services did better with a gain of 74,000 jobs (respective unemployment rates were 8.1%-2010 vs. 7.7%-2011 for information, and 10.2%-2010 vs. 9.3% for business and professional services).
It seems we’re still slowly but surely inching away from the brink of the precipice of depression, and fears of a double-dip recession. Why then, do we appear to have such a fascination with looking over that edge, and the huge drop below?
Last month, CompTIA announced it is teaming up with viaForensics (a digital forensics and security firm) to create a new “Secure Mobile App Developer” credential this year. Citing IDC research that estimates that annual mobile app download numbers will jump from 10.7 billion in 2010 to almost 183 billion in 2015 (that’s an annual growth rate of just over 37 percent, as shown in this handy-dandy constant annual growth rate (CAGR) calculation (from IGetIt.net):
The net-net is that’s a HUGE amount of growth, and with app security already an occasional and sometimes vexing or dangerous issue, these problems are only going to get worse. Thus, the goal of the new credential for programmers, and testing services for the apps that they build, is designed to tackle security problems head-on and avert the large numbers of potential disasters that might otherwise occur in their absence. This effort appears to be primarily in the kick-off and research phases, so there’s not much else to report right now, except to say that the credential and app testing will cover both iOS and Android environments, presumably with tracks to match. It’s also not unreasonable to assume that viaForensics appSecure service known as appwatchdog, and its mobile security intelligence gathering and reporting services, will play a major role in the testing side of this interesting equation.
For once I find myself hearily applauding a CompTIA initiative, and hungry for more dates, news, and information. Count on me to dig some up, then blog about them here!
In the past couple of months HP’s certification programs, collectively known as ExpertONE, have undergone some restructuring and had a trio of cloud-related credentials added to its already substantial portfolio (thanks to GoCertify’s guest contributor, Janet Foley, for bringing this back to my attention). HP offers two separate cert tracks in its programs: one for IT professionals outside the HP umbrella known as “career certifications,” and another for HP employees and channel partners called “affiliate certifications.” Here, I’ll concentrate on the career certifications on the assumption that HP employees and channel partners already know how to learn more about those offerings that apply exclusively to them (they can, and often do, also pursue career certifications as well).
There are four levels of credentials that fall under the HP career certifications, and their rebranding involves a fairly common change of terminology from engineering to solutions (I’ll explain later):
- Master: These credentials fall under the general designation of HP Master Accredited Solutions Expert aka HP Master ASE. The acronym is the same as the earlier incarnation, except that ASE stood for “Accredited Systems Engineer.”
- Expert: These credentials fall under the general designation of HP Accredited Solutions Expert aka HP ASE. Ditto above for the change to the ASE acronym.
- Professional: These credentials fall under the general designation of HP Accredited Technical Professional aka HP ATP. This single credential replaces several previous HP designations, including HP Accredited Integration Specialist (HP AIS), HP Certified Systems Administrator (HP CSA), and HP Certified Systems Engineer (HP CSE).
- Associate: The HP Accedited Technical Associate, aka HP ATA, is a new credential that HP just launched in November of 2011, and it falls under the Certiport umbrella that I blogged about on 12/12/2011. According to Foley, as new versions of the HP AIS, HP CSE, and HP CSA are updated, they will also fold into this sub-program starting this year (2012).
Overall this program embraces some 61 credentials at present, with 3 scheduled to retire by March of this year, and numerous others likely to fall by the wayside in the next 12-18 months. As that happens, however, I’m sure that HP will add new items to keep their portofolio up with topics, tools, and technologies of greatest interest to their customer base. Check out a complete list of certs (by job role, or by technology) to see what I mean.
Why Do Modern Certs Avoid the “Engineer” Word?
As it happens lots of places (roughly half the states in the US, the EU, and many other countries around the world) are very picky about who gets to call themselves an engineer in a job title. For example, my home state of Texas does not permit anyone to call themselves an engineer, or use that word in their job title, unless they have taken and passed the requirements for the Professional Engineer (PE) license, which includes a demanding technical exam, an ethics exam, four years of documented on-the-job experience, and a suitable educational background (which usually means a bachelor’s of science in math, physics, or some kind of engineering). In keeping with such stringent and demanding practices, certification programs have generally steered away from incorporating “engineer” in modern credential designations (except for those that include the PE or its equivalent among their requirements). And likewise, those that once included the word “engineer” in their titles have switched to something else to avoid mis-use of the term in areas where it is subject to legal and licensing strictures (The Novell CNE still stands for Certified Novell Engineer to my amazement, even though it has been around since the late 1980s!).
This will be my last blog post for this year (I’m off until January 2 after tonight), so I’d like to wish everyone a terrific holiday season, and a joyous and successful New Year. We’ve been celebrating quite nicely around here at Chez Tittel with plenty of good-quality cheer for children of all ages. Gregory and I have been learning how to build and program a project for his Lego Mindstorms today. We started with the Explorer robot project, as documented in Chapters 2-4 of Laurens Valk’s excellent The Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 Discovery Book. This is the first time I’ve built a moderately sized Lego project (around 300 parts, give or take) by picking my own parts from the general inventory that comes with this “many possible robots” kit that includes the NXT 2.0 controller, 3 electric motors, various sensors, and a boatload of Lego blocks and parts. Here’s a snapshot:
There are all kinds of more ambitious projects ahead of us, but it’s already cool to see what this thing can do with either USB-cable or Bluetooth guided remote control from a PC, or “load-and-go” execution of a pretty decent robot instruction language. Should be some fun along the way to learning how this environment and the component tools and projects really work!
And once again from my family — especially my happy and excited 7-year-old son — to yours: Happy Holidays! And may we all have a brilliant 2012 ahead of us.
For the past couple of Fridays (12/9 and 12/16) I’ve described how first-time unemployment claims have dropped from the preceding week (and stayed below the 400,000 mark that economists feel is the threshold between reducing unemployment below, and increasing unemployment above that boundary). Well, this week it’s become a “hat trick” of sorts, as a third week of downward movement has been registered by the US Department of Labor. This time, however, the down-tick is pretty slight — only 4,000 to 364,000 total claims filed — but the four week-average of such claims has fallen by 8,000 to just over 380,000, and is the lowest number registered since June of 2008. And this week’s current initial claims number is the lowest since April of 2008, so we are indeed groping our way back to where we were before the crisis kicked into gear in December of 2007.
The underlying story here, we think, is that businesses were braced in the fall for a weakening in demand — implied by plunging consumer confidence — which did not then happen. Robust sales growth has therefore left many firms in a better position than they expected, so layoffs are falling. Other things equal, the drop in claims in recent weeks, if sustained, is consistent with private payrolls growth ramping up to about [200,000] per month.
This is still not robust enough growth to whittle away at current unemployment levels quickly, but it is enough growth to bring them down over something less than the decade of agonizingly slow improvements that economists were seeing in the numbers as recently as one month ago. And while improvements still remain sluggish, they are continuing unabated and are finally producing some signs of optimism and improving overall prospects. Hard to imagine a better present for battered consumer and commercial confidence or a better harbinger for 2012. Let’s hope this trend continues to pan out!
Since September, I’ve been beavering away for the latest spin off in the Tom’s Hardware family of Websites–namely Tom’s IT Pro (www.tomsitpro.com) as their resident “certification guy.” In addition to a raft of other bits of general IT certification information and advice, I’m also engaged in a “Top 5″ series of stories that identifies leading certifications in a number of different (and hopefully also, valid and interesting) technology areas or niches within IT. So far, this series includes the following elements:
- The Top 5 System Administrator Certifications
- The Top 5 Storage Certifications
- The Top 5 Networking Certifications
- The Top 5 Information Security Certifications
There’s also a multi-part item called “Evergreen IT Certifications” that addresses what you might consider as the creme de la creme of IT certification across all niches.
But wait! There’s more: I’ve also developed additional stories that haven’t yet posted to the site, and have others in the wings for early next year. Here they are (upcoming items for next year as yet unwritten end in an asterisk ‘*’):
- The Top 5 Computer Forensics Certifications
- The Top 5 Developer Certifications
- The Top 5 Training Certifications
- The Top 5 DBMS Certifications
- The Top 5 Virtualization Certifications*
- The Top 5 Cloud Certifications*
- The Top 5 Project Management Certifications*
So there’s still plenty more to come. Be sure to check the already-published items out at your convenience, and to keep your eyes peeled for new ones as they appear (I’ll update this posting as well, to turn currently inactive links live as that happens).
Happy Holidays, everybody!