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General Certification Program Characteristics

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Aspiring IT professionals frequently seek certifications, but they might not understand the difference between vendor-specific versus vendor-neutral credentials. Here, we examine vendor-specific and vendor-neutral certification program characteristics and how they can benefit IT professionals who pursue them.
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Thousands of certifications are available to IT professionals. Regardless of whether your field of expertise is network administration, internetworking, PC support, or security, you’ll find a multitude of certification programs for your specific niche. Such programs come in varying levels of difficulty from basic (little or no prior experience, skill, or knowledge) to highly-advanced (experienced, skilled, and knowledgeable if not downright grizzled professionals). Those with superior skills who are ready to share their expertise with others can certify at the instructor level. Despite the many different varieties of certification programs, some features and characteristics span all these programs. This article covers features you’re likely to encounter in your certification search, no matter what you might be looking for.

There are two primary types of certification programs: vendor-specific and vendor-neutral. The focus of each type of program is slightly different:

  • Vendor-specific certification programs: These are programs offered by vendors, such as Microsoft, Oracle, and Citrix. These types of certification programs tend to be more platform-specific and focus on the nuances particular to that vendor’s product line, platforms, services, or technologies. The Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) is an example of a vendor-specific certification program. Microsoft developed and maintains this program, which focuses on deploying, maintaining, and supporting IT infrastructures using Microsoft technologies and products from desktops to servers, and for all kinds of platforms such as SQL Server, SharePoint, Exchange, and so forth.
  • Vendor-neutral certification programs: These certification programs are not aligned with a particular product or vendor and tend to focus on the “big” picture. CompTIA Network+ is an example of a vendor-neutral certification that focuses on the overall aspects of networks (installation, configuration, maintenance, operation, troubleshooting, and management) without being specific to one vendor’s product or platforms.

Both vendor-specific and vendor-neutral certification providers possess certain common characteristics that you should understand when selecting a certification you’d like to pursue:

  • Program standards: Every certification program should contain a clear set of program goals, objectives, and standards. What are the skills, concepts, and technologies that the credential seeker must understand and master to obtain the credential? A statement of what a credential seeker is expected to learn as part of the program should be clearly stated. When it comes to understanding the skills to be mastered, there should be no ambiguity in a certification program’s goals and objectives. This is a definite case where intelligibility and transparency aren’t just nice to have; they are absolute must-haves!
  • Existing skills: All certification programs should clearly define what experience, education, and pre-existing skills are necessary to complete the certification program successfully. Prerequisite educational courses and prior certifications should be clearly identified by the certification provider. Before entering any certification program, ensure that you understand what skills are required. For example, if you have less than six months of experience working with databases and possess no database certifications, you probably won’t be successful if you attempt to obtain the Oracle Database Administrator Certified Master (OCM) credential. The OCM credential is an advanced credential that requires several years’ experience. It also requires that certification seekers first obtain the Oracle Database Certified Professional credential before attempting to obtain the OCM. In other words, know what’s required before you leap into the certification pool.
  • Assessment criteria: Good credential programs always include a clear statement of how content mastery and skills are assessed. This is important to understand in terms of the cost and time commitment to prepare for the exam, number of exams to be passed, time to complete those exams, and so forth. Are skills assessed by a written test only, or is a lab examination also required? How many exams are needed to earn the credential? You’ll find that every certification program is different. IT professionals seeking the CompTIA Project+ certification are only required to pass a single written exam while those seeking the Citrix Certified Integration Architect (CCIA) for Citrix XenApp credential find themselves facing a battery of five exams before earning that credential. Good certification programs clearly communicate their assessment expectations and completion requirements up front so that candidates don’t suffer unexpected (or unpleasant) surprises.
  • Ongoing benefits and support: Most certification programs offer credential holders ongoing benefits and support not available to others. Many certification providers maintain online databases of credential holders enabling potential employers to quickly and easily verify your certification status. Job pools, job banks, and online presence (resume posting or web page) may be available to credential holders. Frequently, certification providers contact their credential holders with special offers, discounts, surveys, and let them evaluate new technologies not yet available to the general public. Many providers also offer information on industry market trends, news, social media, access to internal resources for Q&A and troubleshooting, and much more. For example, Check Point Software Technologies provides its credential holders with regular newsletters and access to a “certified professionals only” website where members can obtain information on resources, discounts, special offers, and other benefits. Good certification programs pay off not only in terms of the initial certification but with ongoing support, discounts, and special offers and access as well.

Whether vendor-specific or vendor-neutral, look for programs with clearly-defined expectations regarding the concepts, skills, and technology expertise required from credential holders. Examine the program requirements to make sure you have the necessary skills, experience, and prerequisite education to successfully complete the program. Once you’ve earned your credential, don’t overlook the ongoing benefits available from your certification provider for those who hold that credential. Good certification programs not only help you gain the skills and knowledge you’re seeking but continue to provide long-term benefits as well. Use them!

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