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Ranking Certifications, Part 1: One Method for Rating Certifications (2011 Edition)

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

Editor's Note: This is the 2011 version of this article. For a more recent look at certifications and their rankings, please go to the 2012 Edition of this article, posted on February 10, 2012.

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Many prospective IT employers actively seek out job candidates who possess college degrees and certain specific certifications. Perhaps even your current employer looks to those with IT certifications 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 the “best” or “right” for them. Deciding which certification to pursue is no easy task. Not only are there hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of certifications to choose from, they come in varying shapes and sizes in terms of price (some can be quite costly), time to complete, ongoing continuing education requirements, and membership or renewal fees. 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 and finding the right balance between time and money spent, then assessing their ultimate financial and career benefits. To help in the decision-making process, many experts and IT professionals rate IT certifications according to specific, well-defined criteria. While everyone may have different criteria, here we introduce and explain some of those we consider to be most important; namely 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.

As each criterion is introduced, it’s also defined and explained. 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 one month to two 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).

At the end of our ranking exercise, we simply add ranking values for all criteria to calculate a total score for each certification as a whole. This lets you compare these scores to decide how certifications compare to one another and which ones might be right for you. In Ranking Certifications, Part 2: The Ratings we provide a table that provides rankings for over 100 popular IT certifications. Though it's not an exhaustive survey, this article is intended to provide sufficient information to help you apply this approach to other certifications not mentioned.

There is room for adjustment or interpretation here, however. 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. 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. And if you decide you don't like our approach, you can customize your own!

Choosing Certification Ranking Criteria

For this ranking exercise, we chose criteria that, in our opinions, are important when evaluating IT certifications and their benefits. If you wish to consider other factors you consider important, you can easily add them to create your own ranking system. We use these criteria to rank numerous certifications in our companion article Ranking Certifications, Part 2: The Ratings. Here are those criteria with values and weights:

  • Career Level: Assigns one of four values to a certification, based on how it's positioned for candidates:
    • Entry-level, basic, or beginner: value of 2
    • Intermediate or novice: value of 4
    • Advanced or senior-level: value of 6
    • Expert, instructor, or specialist-level: value of 8.

    Thus, A+ certification would be worth 2 on this scale, and the various Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certifications would be worth 8. This approach increases the scores for more senior certifications, which is as we think it should be.

  • Average Time to Completion: Lists the average of the fastest known time to completion and the longest reasonable time to completion for a certification, unless the certification itself includes a time requirement. For example, the fastest Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) completion that I've come across was one month; a long but not unreasonable completion time is 18 months. Thus, I set the average at 9 months. This squares up nicely against an analysis of average completion times in the “real world.”
  • Number of Exams: Number of exams candidates must pass to obtain certification. (It does not take into account the average number of tries to pass an exam.)
  • Cost of Exams: Cost for all exams that candidates must pass to obtain certification. As with the preceding criterion, it does not take into account the average number of tries to pass any exam.
  • Experience Requirement: 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. Here, I rank such requirements as low (2 points), medium (4 points), high (6 points) or extremely high (8 points). For example, I rate the Certified Wireless Networking Expert (CWNE) as high and the CCIE as extremely high.
  • Income Potential: Some certifications are pretty common or don't add much additional income potential to their holders. I rank a certification's income potential as low (2 points), medium (4 points), high (6 points) or extremely high (8 points). For this criterion, for example, I rate the VMware Certified Advanced Professional (VCAP) as medium and the Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) as extremely high. Some values are higher than 8 for “special cases,” such as the CCIE (14 points).

Although there are undoubtedly more criteria that we could use to rank certifications, these six criteria produce values that are useful enough to make our comparisons interesting. 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.

In Ranking Certifications, Part 2: The Ratings, Table 1 ranks more than 100 IT certifications according to the six criteria discussed above. To save space, we've shortened longer certification monikers (hopefully, they should still be pretty clear).

This is what the column headings mean:

  • Name: Provides a moniker for a certification.
  • Level: Defines a job ranking as entry-level (2), intermediate (4), advanced (6) or expert (8).
  • Time: Defines the average time to completion in months.
  • # Exams: The total number of exams required.
  • Cost: Totals the cost for the exams that must be taken. I divide this number by 100 to scale it to other ranking values.
  • Experience: Defines how much hands-on experience is required to attain this cert. Valid values are low (2), medium (4), high (6) and extremely high (8).
  • $$$: Defines the income potential for cert holders. Valid values are low (2), medium (4), high (6) and extremely high (8). Some values are higher than that, like the CCIE. (It's a 14 to reflect significant six-figure pay of $150K/yr or higher.)
  • Rank: Sums the total of all ranking values for the certification.

To facilitate easy lookup, all certification monikers are listed in alphabetical order.

Summary

Hopefully, you'll find this approach useful as you compare and contrast the certifications specifically mentioned in Table 1 of Ranking Certifications, Part 2: The Ratings. 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 you not only find some value in the rankings that do appear, but also that you 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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