Certification certainty

Be it the boom time of the late 90s or the downturn after the dot-com burst, IT certification has been an area of growth. IT professionals are in constant pursuit of industry certifications, despite them being expensive and difficult.

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By  Angela Prasad Published  December 1, 2004

|~||~||~|The extraordinary rate of innovation and change in the IT industry is driving an equally unusual rate of growth in the demand for certification. There are almost one million IT professionals certified for Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle and Novell products and services, and there are no signs of a slowdown.

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) predicts an annual IT job growth rate of 175,000 to 250,000 workers. Most of them will seek multi-vendor certification in order to advance their professional career, ITAA predicts.

Similarly, according to a survey conducted by the CertMag certification magazine, more than 79% of the IT professionals who already have IT certifications plan to pursue additional qualifications in the coming year.

The requirement for skills has gone up, and to stay ahead of the game in such a competitive environment, an increasing number of IT professionals are making an effort to secure industry certification.

CIOs need teams that can carry the enterprise through the rough spots, whether it’s migrating to a new server or surviving under tight budgets. However, building a team with the necessary skills and flexibility to maintain high service levels through adversity is not easy.

Along with a vibrant mind, flexible nature, and enthusiasm to solve issues, CIOs still need team members with specific technical expertise. The most important benefit of an industry certification is that it increases an IT professional’s skills and knowledge. However, it is better expressed in two words: job security.

In the boom times, IT professionals review the rate of growth in salary as a key personal success measurement, but during the downturn, job security becomes paramount. While the return on investment (ROI) an IT professional receives from a technical certification in terms of salary increases is always important, the role of certification in keeping his or her job becomes the key issue during the downturn.

The CertMag survey reveals that 65% of the certification holders feel that acquiring a technical certification has made them more confident in their jobs.

“Industry certifications play a crucial role in securing the right job because employers do look at the qualifications on the CV. There is an enormous pressure from vendors and employers on IT consultants and engineers to have qualifications that are popular. Cisco and Microsoft certifications are high in demand because they provide that extra comfort level for IT professionals,” says Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) holder Juri Andraschko.

“Furthermore, as IT implementations become more complex, most professionals who are certified in one area will seek multiple certifications from various vendors. The market will soon demand more combination [accreditations],”he adds.

IT certification serves as a benchmark for employers to know what expertise levels are available in the market place. The biggest challenge faced by enterprises in the region is finding the best team of qualified professionals to manage their IT projects and infrastructures.

“Large [enterprises] and service providers are always looking for employees who are highly qualified. They want to make sure their employees know the technology well prior to starting work on an IT project. To put it simply, industry certifications like Microsoft Certified Software Engineer (MCSE) prove an IT professionals’ knowledge of a particular vendor’s technology,” says Narendra Talreja, business manager, high availability IT solution at Seven Seas.

“IT implementations in the Middle East and around the world are becoming quite sophisticated, so it is quite important to understand the technology and the implementation of it,” he adds.
||**|||~||~||~|Talreja, who is a MCSE holder, says IT has become a dynamic and glamorous industry where job opportunities and earning potential are enormous, however one has to earn it.

Certification is a personal thing and depends on the goals of an individual. If he or she is targeting tier-one vendors, oil&gas or service providers, then top level industry certifications become an absolute necessity.

“Certifications are all about one’s career. Let’s look at CCIE for example; it is a most sort after industry qualification, yet there are not enough CCIEs in the Middle East or around the world because it involves a long cycle of exams and studies. Such qualifications are about prestige and respect, however I believe that only 10% of these professionals go for such things, most of them are driven by money. Financial remunerations are huge when it comes to top level industry qualifications,” he notes.

CCIE holder Ahmed Galal, who is an IT manager at UCMC, which is part of Gulf Business Machines (GBM), shares Talreja’s sentiments. Certifications such as CCIE and MCSE are differentiators not only for an IT professional and his employer, but for the vendor as well, according to Galal.

“Furthermore, certifications are important for one’s job security, as well as getting the dream job. It also helps them in their promotion. CCIE is not an easy exam, but the ROI
is huge. For me personally, it has provided financial rewards and given me prestige besides a job that I enjoy. The constant studying has also kept me up to date with latest technologies. It is important to keep up because technologies have a habit of becoming obsolete rather quickly. It has also helped my employer place itself strategically in the market place,” he says.

Magdy Moemen, the region’s first CCIE holder, who is currently a senior networking consultant at Saudi-based Getronics Middle East, says there is job for everybody in the market place, however certifications play a crucial role in securing the most rewarding job.

High-level certifications, according to Moemen are for those IT professionals who are seeking a technical challenge, prestige and money.

For Moemen, the inspiration was a mixture of several things. “I was the first CCIE holder in the Middle East. I started about eight years ago, so it was quite a different experience. Back then, there were not that many highly qualified people in the IT industry. I was also looking for a technical challenge. I wanted that extra level of experience, knowledge and ability to do my job properly,” says Moemen.

“My certification has given me prestige and recognition not only within my organisation, but also in the industry. In addition, the financial remunerations have been huge. All the hard work and the costs involved are worth it. One can easily earn over a US$100,000.”

Furthermore, industry certifications prove an IT professional’s technical capabilities. They provide the trust that CIOs are look for in their staff. They also provide customer confidence, which is crucial because organisations do not want to experience any downtime with their networks.

“CIOs need that extra level of reassurance that whoever is looking after their IT infrastructure or rolling out an IT project, knows exactly what he is doing. Certifications provide that extra level of confidence,” he says.

Microsoft says certification verifies an IT professional’s expertise in working with a certain IT solution. It also helps businesses identify experts who know how to use certain tools and solutions to the best of their abilities.

“In today’s competitive work environment an IT credential serves as a validation of knowledge and skills gained through experience. Take Microsoft certification for instance, it shows that the certification holder is a technical leader with the ability to successfully implement Microsoft solutions,” says Jean Gebrayal, partner account manager at Microsoft Eastern Mediterranean.

“Also, certifications not only help engineers keep their job, but more importantly help them advance their professional careers,” he adds.

Global authorised testing centre Thomson Prometric says industry certifications will always give an edge to an IT professional because the demand for Cisco, Microsoft and security certifications are on the increase around the world.
Industry certifications are twice as important for IT contractors, according to Thomson Prometric.

“When I was hiring contractors for a multi-million dollar project, I had to make a quick decision if a person had the skills to come in and do the job. I depended heavily on the certifications on the consultant’s resume. I used them as an indicator that the person had the products skills to implement a complex new network correctly,” says Dave West, president of course technology at Thomson Prometric.

“In addition, downsizing has resulted in job losses of many individuals with years of service. Anyone who fails to keep his skills up to date is at risk, should a firm use certification as a determinate of qualifications.”

High earning power is another factor that is driving the certification craze. CertMag survey reveals that IT certification can help professionals earn anywhere between US$1,200 and US$8,300 more every year.

Most certifications holders get a salary raise within the first year of receiving their primary certification. “Take Cisco Systems for instance, the vendor has three levels of certification. These are associate, professional and the expert or the CCIE levels and there is a 100% pay disparity between the associate and expert levels of certifications. An associate level engineer’s monthly earning potential is between US$2,995 to US$3,265, where as for a CCIE holder it is well above US$6,807,”says Josef Miskulnig, managing director of Fast Lane Middle East and Europe.

“The disparity in the earning power is simply because there are not enough CCIE holders in the Middle East,” he says.
Networking Giant Cisco Systems says the average worldwide salary for a CCIE holder is between $US90, 000 to US$100,000 plus, and GCC nations rank at the top when it comes to paying highly qualified IT professionals.

“The earning power of a CCIE holder is quite high and there has been a huge demand for CCIEs in the Middle East. Currently, we have about 135 CCIEs in the region and this is due to the market demand,” says Bassem Al Kharrat, commercial line engineering manager at Cisco Middle East & Africa.

The deregulation of the Middle East’s telecommunications sector has created a huge opportunity for highly qualified voice and data engineers and consultants.

An increasing number of voice over internet protocol (VoIP) projects are currently underway in the Middle East, and CIOs are seeking highly skilled professionals for these implementations.

“We are seeing a huge demand for our service provider certification. This certification not only helps engineers understand the VoIP equipment, but also the infrastructure the technology is built on, which is important for service providers,” adds Al Kharrat.

Another economic factor that certification holders consider is ROI, which is tightly interwoven with the cost of the certification. The average certification cost is about US$1420 and generates approximately US$4000 increase in salary, which means the average certification ratio is 4.0 to 1.0 ROI.

For every dollar invested in a certification, the IT professional realises a US$4 return on his or her salary. “These courses are not cheap, however investment in knowledge cannot be rated as expensive because at the end of day it is an investment for life. These qualifications offer a significant ROI for IT professionals because nobody can take away the knowledge one has gained. It is for life,” Miskulnig comments.

For Cisco and Microsoft partners, employing certified professionals can lead to Silver and Gold status. These partners say they get their money’s worth out of the US$100,000 plus salaries CCIE holders command because of the expertise they bring to the organisation.

“Vendors like Cisco and Microsoft have done a great job in creating a whole learning infrastructure around their products. GBM currently has nine CCIEs and the reason it needs such expertise on board is because of pre and post sales support,” says Alan Hey, integrated technology services manager at UCMC.

The integrator says it is committed to delivering quality services and solutions to its customers and that can not be possible without the expertise of highly qualified IT professionals.

Internet and network security threats are also fuelling the demand for security certifications in the region. Organisations are linking their systems across enterprise-wide networks and virtual private networks (VPNs); hence are increasing their exposure to customers, competitors, browsers and hackers on the internet.

Each connection magnifies the possibility of being attacked. Security certifications provide the fundamental knowledge an IT professional needs to analyse risks to an organisation’s networks and systems.

Certification provides the knowledge businesses require in selecting and deploying the appropriate countermeasures in order to reduce exposure to network threats.

Scanit Middle East says there has been a 300% growth in demand for certified security experts in the region. In order to address this demand, Scanit has teamed up with RP International.

Under the contract, Scanit will be able to recruit qualified IT professionals from around the world. “The demand for certified security professionals emanating from the Middle East region has grown rapidly because local enterprises are starting to realise that combating network securities requires high level qualified staff,” says Hani Nabeel, director of RP International.

The availability of vendor-neutral certification is also influencing the minds of those seeking industry accreditations. Vendor–neutral certification bodies such as Computing Industry Association (CompTIA) and the International Information Systems Security certification Consortium are providing a cost effective option for security certification.

These training are useful for certifying baseline capabilities. Government initiatives such as Prince 2 are growing rapidly in popularity and acceptance worldwide. Prince 2 is a project management methodology owned by the Office of Government Commerce in the UK, but recognised globally.

Prince 2 certified IT manager Edward Stacey says project management certification is becoming a popular screening tool for companies looking for project management candidates. Stacey believes project management certification is as important as a college degree.

“By this I mean that it won’t be a requirement for every project management position, but it would be more common for a company to require the project management professional than to not require it,” he adds.

Stacey believes that certifications prove that an IT professional has some degree of seriousness in the profession, and that he was motivated enough to invest the time and resources for the exams.

The Prince 2 certification does not provide any guarantee that a solution is suitable for the purpose intended, however it does provide a vendor independent methodology framework for deploying an IT solution to a recognised standard.

“The certification has been a great asset for me. Being a network architect I prefer working on projects with Cisco Systems and Extreme Networks, however when the contracting market becomes a little tight I can easily fall back into a technology independent project management roles using my Prince 2 skills,” enthuses Stacey.

As economies of the Middle East continue to evolve, enterprises are realising that in order to maintain a competitive edge they need to put in place a system of continuous learning.

New technologies are creating a global demand for industry qualifications, the recognition by IT professionals that certification is the ticket for credentials to secure a dream job and the acknowledgement by corporates that a skilled workforce means better customer services.


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