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Ranking Certifications (2014 Edition)

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Employers look for and seek out certified IT professionals, but generally prefer candidates who possess both college degrees and specific certification credentials. Aspiring or active IT professionals can benefit from an informed evaluation of certifications in terms of the time commitment, cost, and other factors involved in earning such a credential vis-a-vis the ultimate financial or career advancement that such an investment can return. In this article, Ed Tittel looks at one method for rating and ranking IT certifications.

Editor's Note: This article previously covered information on certifications for 2013. It has been updated to account for changes to certification programs in 2014.

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Many prospective IT employers actively seek out job candidates who possess college degrees and various specific certifications. Perhaps even your current employer looks at IT certification as an important or deciding factor when it comes to promotions, bonuses, or raises. With so much attention focused on certification, many IT professionals enter the certification maze trying to determine which one is "right" or the "best" for them.

Deciding which certification to pursue is no easy task. There are hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of worthwhile certifications from which to choose. They come in varying shapes and sizes in terms of price (some can be costly), time to complete, ongoing continuing education requirements, and membership or renewal fees. But let's face it—although IT certifications provide IT professionals with specialized information and improved skills and knowledge, certifications must also be worth the investment. At a minimum, they should give you an edge on the competition in a job search or help you move up within the ranks in your current organization.

It can be daunting to sort through the many and various IT certifications to strike the right balance between time and money spent, and then assessing their actual financial and career benefits.

To help in this selection- and decision-making process, many experts and IT professionals rate IT certifications according to specific, well-defined criteria. Although everyone uses different criteria, here we introduce and explain those we consider to be most important: career level, time commitment for completion, number of exams and costs, along with prior experience required, and (of course) the potential for future income such credentials can confer.

Certifications Mentioned

We use the ranking system described in this article and apply it to nearly 100 leading IT credentials from 34 vendors. Click below to see a table showing certifications in alphabetical order by vendor/sponsor name.

Click below to see a table showing certifications in order by ranking.

The Rankings

Each criterion is assigned a range of values, which we then put together and map into an overall ranking value. For example, given that certifications can take from 2 months to 2 years to complete, we could use the number of months as a ranking value, or we could divide the number of months by 2.4 (to map 24 months into a 10-point scale). There is room for adjustment or interpretation.

Mapping all ranges into the same scale for each criterion weights all criteria equally. Mapping some ranges into bigger scales gives them greater weight because we add values to calculate a certification's overall ranking. The CCIE is an example—with an Experience rating of 10—because of its extremely demanding curricula, technical acumen, and experience. That's why we explain the weighting that our formula gives to various criteria so that you'll understand how to change the ranking characteristics if you like.

At the end of our ranking exercise, we simply add ranking values for all criteria to calculate a total score for each certification. You can then compare these scores to decide how certifications compare to one another and which ones might be right for you.

The ranking and those criteria with their respective values and weights are organized as follows:

  • Name: Provides a moniker for each certification.
  • Level: Pertains to career level; assigns a value to a certification, based on how it is positioned for candidates:
    • 1: Basic or beginner
    • 2: Entry-level
    • 4: Intermediate
    • 6: Advanced or senior-level
    • 8: Expert, instructor, specialist-level, or other extremely demanding, high-value IT cert

      Thus, A+ certification would be worth 2 on this scale, and the CWNP Certified Wireless Design Professional (CWDP) would be worth 6.
  • Time: Defines the average time to completion, in months. It lists the average of the fastest known time to completion and the longest reasonable time to completion for a certification, unless the certification includes a time requirement.

    For example, the fastest Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA) completion that I've come across was 3 months; a long but not unreasonable completion time is 9 months. Thus, I set the average at 6 months, which squares up nicely against an analysis of average completion times in the real world.
  • #Exams: The total number of exams the candidate must pass to obtain certification. (It does not take into account the average number of tries to pass an exam or prerequisites.) For certifications that don't require exams, a reasonable amount of time is included to cover the application process, which can be quite rigorous for some certifications.
  • Cost: Totals the cost for the exams that must be taken to obtain certification. We divide this number by 100 to scale it to match other ranking values, so the value represents thousands of dollars. As with the preceding criterion, it does not take into account the average number of tries to pass any exam or the cost of prerequisite exams.
  • Experience: Defines how much hands-on experience is required to attain this cert. Some certifications are entirely amenable to book or classroom learning, whereas others are unapproachable without real-world, hands-on experience with the tools and technologies that such certifications cover. Valid values are low (2), medium (4), high (6), and extremely high (8).

    For example, we rate the Certified Wireless Networking Expert (CWNE) as high. A few certifications, such as the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification, are worth more than 8. This approach increases the scores for more senior and rigorous certifications, which is as we think it should be.
  • $$$: Defines the income potential for cert holders. Values come from averaging reported pay at Indeed.com, SimplyHired.com, GoCertify, and/or for job postings that mention the certification by name. Some certifications are pretty common or don't add much additional income potential to their holders. The certification's income potential is divided by 10,000 to adjust pay into a range between 2 and 16, but the weighting algorithm doubles this value to make sure it assumes its proper significance.
  • Rank: Sums the total of all ranking values for the certification.

Although there are undoubtedly more criteria that we could use to rank certifications, these criteria produce values that are useful enough to make our comparisons interesting and informative. For example, we could easily define another cost metric that uses the average cost for web-based training because many certification programs offer such education today. As it turns out, though, that particular ranking adds little value to the existing data because it stays in line with the values for self-study and classroom costs.

Hopefully, you'll find this approach useful as you compare and contrast the certifications specifically mentioned in the ranking table. Even better, we hope it gives you some insight into how to weigh and rank other certifications not mentioned there.

By providing a collection of criteria and documenting our value assignments and weighting mechanisms, we hope that you not only find some value in the rankings that do appear but that you also use similar evaluations and ratings to rank other certifications that may interest you but that don't appear in that table.

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