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How I Evaluate Cert Program to See if They're "For Real"

I've been working in and around IT certification since the late 1980s, during which time I was the proud and interested initial author for Excelan's (later Novell's) "Networking 101" class. For the past 6 years, I've blogged anywhere from 3 to 7 times a week on IT certification topics for sites that have included this one, as well as TechTarget, GoCertify.com, Tom's IT Pro, and others. During the period from 1997 to today (that date coincides with the launch of the Exam Cram series, now a Pearson imprint) I've turned up, investigated, and reported on hundreds of different IT certification programs. This blog post explains briefly how I separate the wheat from the chaff, when it comes to recommending for or against specific IT certs and programs, with pointers to other resources on this topic.

I use the following criteria to check into certifications, along with the programs to which they so often belong, and the organizations that sponsor them. If this list works for me, it will probably also work for you (WARNING! There can sometimes be substantial time and effort involved in running such info down, so if you get stuck shoot me an e-mail, and I'll help you out as my schedule permits).

  1. Program size and certified population: How many people have earned the cert? If such info is not available, or the numbers are lower than 4-5,000, this tells me a program is still nascent or not thriving. Is that the kind of cert you want?
  2. Program history and longevity: How long has the cert or program been around? I usually look for a minimum of 5 years of progressive growth and increasing success, credibility and name recognition (see below) before I start recommending all but the hottest of new credentials or programs (for example, current exceptions to this rule include: cloud and "Big Data" certs, neither of which have been around that long yet).
  3. How training and certification relate: Baldly stated, some certs exist solely to fill seats in training classes. Not all certs that require training classes are suspect (examples: Oracle and VMware), but many that insist that cert candidates buy training from the same organization that sponsors the cert  en route to certification have a strong conflict of interest at work. (Oracle and VMware support wide networks of training partners, in addition to substantial in-house training organizations.)
  4. Demand: If you can't find employers asking for a target cert by name or acronym, what good is it? I find that both Indeed.com and SimplyHired.com are particularly good at making cert requirements information available for a wide range of posted IT jobs, so I use them as a key ingredient in compiling my annual Cert Rankings but they work well to check if a specific cert is on anybody's radar equally well.
  5. Credibility and name recognition: Who's talking or writing about your target cert online (or in print)? The more mentions the better, but you'll want to filter out press releases and self-promotion from sponsoring organizations to get a sense of how much buzz and discussion any particular cert is accruing.
  6. Costs vs. benefits: An expensive cert that generates few job or promotion opportunities is not a good investment (ditto for one that generates little or no pay raise potential). An expensive cert that generates good pay, plus job and promotion opportunities could be a great investment (examples: CCIE, IT architect certs, SAP certifications). Cheaper certs with good pay, job, and promotion prospects qualify as "best buy" investments, while similar credentials that lack these attributes might be easier to swallow yet still not be great investments, either. Be sure to calculate ROI and payback on a cert before plunking your hard-earned cash down to obtain one, or investing your precious time in earning same.
  7. Peer recognition: Do your colleagues and co-workers find your target cert appealing? Have they even heard of it? The more currency and interest a cert attracts, the more likely it is to be worth pursuing (but don't forget the other items on this list in making up your "short list" of certs to chase).
  8. Making the commitment: Earning a cert takes time, involves effort, and costs money. Can you supply those ingredients in the necessary amounts to make your cert workable? Be sure to consult your family and friends for advice on this, and make sure you're willing to stick it out if you decide to walk down any particular cert path. Even if your target is a genuine, gold-plated ticket to professional success, it only has value if you can stay the course, and earn the credential. Be prepared to suffer, sacrifice leisure time, and distance yourself somewhat from friends and family to reach your goals.

When you find something that qualifies on items 1-7 above, and are ready to buy into number 8, go for it! You'll be bound to learn something interesting and very probably useful in promoting your personal and professional development.