The age-old question about which is more valuable, experience or certification, continues to spark debate in the high-tech industry.
Professionals have a wide array of choices on the certification buffet table. Just about any major software company serves up a platter of certifications for professionals working with their programs.
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Asking professionals out in the field whether it is worth the time and money to get certified brings a mixed response. Some say certifications are definitely helpful for landing a job working with Lotus, Microsoft and networking applications. Yet others, especially those working with programs from German software giant SAP AG, said certifications to take a backseat to experience.
What they do agree on is that certification makes the difference in some sectors and the debate over whether certification is worth it will continue for some time to come.
Ed Tittel, principal, LANWrights Inc., a network and security-oriented training and consulting firm in Austin, Texas, said certification can make a big difference for certain people. Tittel has 19 years of experience in the computer industry and is the author of certification-oriented books for IT professionals.
MCSEs see little salary gains
He said someone with five years of networking experience who obtains a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification may not get much of a bump in salary, but the same person getting a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) could receive a large raise. That is because CCIE certification is rare, and only 4,800 people in the world hold that certification.
"Normally, people who get CCIE certification have three to four years experience," Tittel said. "They're no slouches."
Senior level Java, high-end Cisco and Nortel such as CCIE and Cisco Certified Internetwork Professional (CCIP), and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) certifications net the most cash for recipients, Tittel said. These are very high-level certifications that require a great deal of study.
Generally, the more common the certification the less impact it will have on salary increases and promotions.
"The bigger the niche, the less the certification means," Tittel said.
MCSE and lower-end Novell certifications are not worth as much because so many people have them. According to Mcpmag.com, 421,357 people were certified as MCSE worldwide as in April.
Some vote yes on certification
Some are positive that having a certification is the key to a higher salary and a better job.
Carlos Casas, a Principal Certified Lotus Professional (PCLP) in both R4 and R5 for Application Development, a Certified Lotus Professional (CLP) for R5 SysAdmin and a PCLP for R4 SysAdmin, has seen his salary increase by more than 68% since he completed his certifications.
He plans to continue his education in Lotus and seek Java certification, with hopes for more pay increases. But pay alone does not motivate him, he said.
"You have to have enthusiasm for what you are learning, and that enthusiasm will reflect in the quality of your work and your ability to get certified," Casas said.
Tittel money should not be the prime motivator for certifications.
"People should try to align their interests and technology passions with the certifications they pursue," he said.
Going after a certification takes a great deal of time and effort. Employers will rarely allow for time off, and if the motivation fades, pursuing the certification becomes even more difficult, he said.
But it is not always clear whether it is the certification or just plain good work that leads to advancement. Kees Broer, a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), received a 16% salary increase back in 1996.
"Of course, there are also other qualifications that increased my salary, such as being a project leader and being able to talk to customers," Broer said.
Allows foot in the door
Some professionals find that being certified helps them get their foot in the door. Rhodri Edwards, a Certified Lotus Specialist (CLS) on her way to becoming a CLP, was job-hunting last year and was asked by many potential employers for a CLP, before they would even review her credentials. Fortunately, her present employer was more interested in practical experience.
"If I have CLP, this will make it easier for me to find work in the future, if I decide to change jobs again," Edwards said.
Daniel Smith, a PCLP, has noticed an intangible benefit of certification -- the way his peers treat him.
"As a certified professional, I am now seen as 'the font of all knowledge' -- whether for better or worse," Smith said. "When questions are raised and I give my technical answer, it's accepted, whereas previously, they may have sought third party confirmation."
Others vote not
Yet some don't think that certification amounts to much more than parsley on the salad bar. In a recent poll of TechTarget's searchDomino members, 41%, or 209 voters, said they think that Lotus certification is "good resume fodder," but are not sure what else the certification is good for -- other than paper airplanes. Another 10%, or 53 voters, said there was little pay back for all the time and money they spent getting certified. Only 27%, or 141 voters, said they realized real gains from certification while 22%, or 111 voters, said they were not certified.
Programmer Tammy Mohning has taken the Lotus Domino certified education classes to learn how to use the software -- but not to get certified. Her company does not use Lotus primarily, but even if they did, she would not get certified because she doesn't think it will have any impact on her salary.
"Years of experience programming with a specific piece of software is probably of more value in hiring a new employee, and if other programmers are like me, we can learn to program anything, given the opportunity," Mohning said.
Meanwhile, SAP professionals find certifications almost useless. They said they value experience over a piece of paper, as most certification seminars lack the information needed to thoroughly work with SAP.
You must have been attending great certification seminars to be qualified to do the job after passing the test," said Wolfgang G. Propfe, a SAP professional. "Six or more years of experience, however, will prepare you for whatever may come, including newer versions and unfamiliar modules."
Experience the key
Experience will beat a certification every time in the enterprise resource planning (ERP) field, Tittel said. When a candidate has experience with the ERP software, the certification becomes less important, but for someone trying to get a foot in the door, certification can be valuable.
In the end, though, a certification may improve the odds of getting an IT job, but is not a guarantee of a higher income, Tittel said. Employers do prefer experience over certifications, but when the backgrounds of the applicants are the same, the certification does lend an edge, he said.
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