Higher education

Certification in the IT industry is commonplace, but those who dedicate both the time and resources necessary can set themselves apart by achieving a truly high level certificate.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  July 27, 2003

I|~||~||~|Each year, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide pass exams demonstrating their knowledge on a huge variety of IT platforms and solutions. Certification in the industry is therefore commonplace, and to really stand out from the crowd it is necessary to pass a truly high level certificate. While doing so requires a huge investment, both in terms of time and money, it can also lead to instant career development, pay rises and much wider opportunities.

Although some may question the need for a piece of paper to show an IT worker’s skill, the impact of a certificate on salary and job expectations is clear cut. “The fact of the matter is that when people get these certificates, it has a direct impact on their pay and their job assignment,” says Maria Schafer, programme director, human capital management, Meta Group.

This is particularly true at the high end, where extensive knowledge and wide-ranging experience is needed to pass the exam. Probably the most demanding IT certificate is the Cisco Certified Internetworking Exam (CCIE), which has only been passed by just over 10,000 people worldwide.

“It’s very hands on in the Cisco environment, and that I think separates it from other types of certification... [but] you want something that does offer that type of rigour to make sure you are really getting the maximum value out of it, and that you can be instantly productive back onsite,” says Schafer.

Osama Rasoul, network support manager, Emirates Computers, passed the Routing & Switching version of the exam in September 2002.

Even though he already had a string of Microsoft and Cisco certificates, he still needed to spend a year studying in his spare time to get to the level needed to pass the exam.
“I would start studying at 8 o’clock at night, and finish at 5 o’clock in the morning — every single day. I had only one day off per week,” he explains.

So much study is necessary because of the demanding nature of the exam. Unlike most IT certificates, the CCIE has a hands-on lab test, as well as the more common multiple-choice examination. Furthermore, the lab exam does not have a set syllabus, so it can cover anything within the field.

“The challenge is that there is no material and no training that can cover it 100%,” says Rasoul. “It’s open material. You can expect any type of question or scenario that you have to apply to any type of technology available, so you have to be fully aware of everything,” he adds.

Passing the certificate therefore requires a lot of hands on experience, as well as training and study. Indeed, only around 20% of candidates pass the exam. However, the rewards on offer can make it worthwhile.

“The CCIE is today the highest paid certificate in the market... A CCIE can achieve his certificate after three years of working a lot with Cisco equipment, and then he can achieve the same [salary] level as somebody who has been in the field for 15-16 years,” says Melad Ghabrial, president & CEO, Synergy Professional Services.

In Rasoul’s case, gaining the certificate was a “very strong factor” in being promoted to a management position within the organisation. “If you want a team leader to be supporting seven or eight network engineers, they need to be very well educated technically and have a lot of experience,” he comments.

||**||II|~||~||~|Resellers need to have these skills inhouse because their partnership level is tied to the number of trained staff they have. Achieving a Cisco gold partnership, for instance, requires having four CCIEs. While local end user organisations may question the need for keeping these skills inhouse, Ghabrial contends that the investment can prove worthwhile for mid-to-large size companies.

“Wide area network (WAN) costs for a medium sized company can run anywhere from US$150-250,000 annually. If a company can cut this in half… then that justifies it [employing a CCIE],” he argues.

However, while hiring certified staff is one thing, actually paying to get staff certified is another. Furthermore, it is something that companies in the region have traditionally not widely done. “What I have noticed in the Middle East is that the end user companies are not pushing their people to do training,” says Ghabrial. “If it is something coming from the person, they will push for it and they will achieve it, but the companies are not pushing their people. They are still thinking ‘once this person achieves the CCIE, they will leave me and then I will have to start again and look for another person’,” he complains.

There is clearly a chance that someone achieving a certificate of any kind will move on to another job. However, this is now less likely than it was two or three years ago, when many migrant workers would get a high end certificate and then emigrate to the United States.

“After the recent events in the US, the trend of people migrating has lessened,” observes Nadeem Younis, country manager, New Horizons. “There was a cycle where a lot of expatriates used to come, get certified and then go over there, so there would be a constant influx of people. Now, a lot of people are staying here, so that [cycle] is not as strong as it was two or three years ago,” he says.

Migrant workers are being deterred from moving to the US because of the tighter security since 9/11, and because of the lack of opportunity. The worldwide economic slowdown has caused severe lay offs in the IT sector, and there is a growing supply of skilled IT workers on the global market. As such, Schafer questions whether companies should pay for IT training.

“As we progress through time and the technology becomes much more endemic, it doesn’t really make much sense for companies to continue doing the certification training, and yet many of them do seem to get stuck there,” she says.

“It becomes not an entitlement but something that they have always done, so they just continue to do it without thinking about it… [Companies] really do need to justify what is being learned, and how valuable it is to the organisation, how many people already have those skills and so on,” she contends.

||**||III|~||~||~|The Middle East, however, is probably not yet at this stage, as the supply of workers with high end certificates is still limited. There are, for instance, only 72 CCIEs in the whole of the Middle East. This number is growing fairly rapidly — there were less than 30 last year — but there is still room for more.

“It’s definitely not enough,” says Josef Miskulnig, managing director, Fast Lane. “Double the number would probably be too many, but 20-30 more could find work in the region,” he adds.

With such opportunities available across the IT sector, many individuals are investing in IT training and certification. Younis, for instance, says that many Microsoft developers in companies that haven’t provided them with .Net training are instead paying to update their skills themselves. “There is a huge number of developers that don’t want to be left behind,” he says.

However, IT training, especially at the high end, does not come cheap. Studying for the CCIE, assuming one already has the lower level Cisco certificates, costs at least US$10-12,000. Yet, those who are ready and able to spend this much can see a quick return on their investment (ROI). Ghabrial says that a CCIE can earn US$80-90,000, US$50,000 more than someone with the Cisco Certified Networking Professional (CCNP) — the certificate before. “There is a big gap and you can justify it, you can get the investment back in a year just from the salary,” he says.

The lack of CCIEs and other high-end skills in the region can be partially attributed to companies’ reluctance to invest in training. However, the lack of a CCIE test centre in the region also hinders the process of getting certified.

While most other IT exams can be done online, CCIE candidates have to take the lab exam in a Cisco test centre. This presently means that they have to go to Belguim, which increases the cost of taking the test.

“People from here also have difficulties in getting visas for Europe, so the travel arrangements are not easy to organise,” adds Miskulnig.

Cisco is said to be talking about opening an exam centre, but there is no definite plans. However, the effect opening a test centre in the region can have on the supply of high-end skills can be dramatic. For example, an exam centre for the Certified Information System Security Professional (CISSP) was opened in Dubai last year, and this has helped boost the number of CISSPs in the local market from just three in 2001 to around 100. “This is a boost for this kind of training awareness, and comforting for the people as they don’t have to travel,” says Rajender Bali, chief operating officer, Executrain Middle East.

The CISSP has also become popular in the region because of the fact that many banks have to invest in training their staff up to that level. “It is becoming almost mandatory in the financial institutes to have a professional who can design at a top level the security set-up, and, right now, that [the CISSP] is the only certification that is available in the world that can demonstrate this knowledge,” explains Bali.

However, until more companies in the region show such an enlightened attitude to training, IT workers are going to have to rely on their own efforts and funds to achieve the highest levels of certification. For those who do make this commitment though, the self-satisfaction will be great and the rewards equally pleasing.||**||

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