Certification of Computer Skills

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2223, 2004-06-04, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 20 and 22) and their website.

The job market in the U.S. has clearly become more difficult during the past few years, regardless of the statistical spin given to the numbers by the government. Corporate restructuring, accelerating outsourcing to foreign countries, and the continuing aftershocks of the e-commerce meltdown — all are contributing to a less-than-rosy environment for American job seekers.

This is equally true for recent and future high school graduates, for whom the financial payoff of expensive undergraduate college degrees is now much less certain. In addition, when college graduates are unable to obtain solid salaries, then the debt burdens of their student loans get worse. For those folks who graduated from high school ages ago, and now have family and mortgage responsibilities, the pressure to secure a steady income gets worse even more rapidly.

As a result, an increasing number of high school graduates and other people are looking at the computer-related certification programs as a way to distinguish themselves from fellow job applicants, regardless of their years of education or employment experience. Many people are enrolling in such certification programs as a way to demonstrate to potential employers their mastery of particular fields or specific technologies. The certificates are granted to individuals who pass examinations that test their knowledge of the basic skills of the given field.

But like the technology itself, the certificates become outdated — perhaps even faster than the underlying technology itself. Certificate holders are then free to bring their skills up to date, and pass the exams for upgrading their certificates. If this sounds like a moneymaking deal for the companies issuing certificates, your suspicions are well founded, as evidenced by the pricey fees to enroll in test-preparation courses, purchase study materials and sample exams, and apply for the certificate exams.

In this article we will look at several of the certification options in the major computer-related fields, including hardware, software, security, network engineering, and management.

Deep in the Computer

Of all the computer-related areas in which one can pursue certification of some kind, perhaps the two most popular are hardware and software — more specifically, hardware engineering and computer programming. These areas seem to have by far the most number of certificate programs, offered by a multitude of sources. This may primarily be a result of the proliferation of computers among American corporations and consumers (on the hardware side), and the large number of programming languages and database systems (on the software side).

In order to tinker with your computer or get a job as an entry-level computer technician, you certainly do not have to have any sort of certification. But if you would like to take your hardware career to the next level, you may want to get certification. If so, there is certainly no lack of options. For many years, the major PC vendors (particularly those sold through resale channels, and not mail-order), have offered certification programs geared towards their specific product lines.

To counter this specialization upon specific manufacturers, some vendor-neutral certificate programs have been developed. For instance, the CompTIA (Computing Technology Industry Association) is reputed to be the de facto certification for computer service technicians working with hardware and Microsoft operating systems. To learn more about their program, check their website at http://www.comptia.org/. Once you have obtained their A+ certificate, you could consider progressing to a vendor-specific program, or several, depending upon the demand in the job market at the time.

It is important not to confuse the hardware certification of an individual, with that of the certification of hardware itself. There are countless hardware vendors who have created hardware certification test suites, to be used by other hardware manufacturers, software companies, and system integrators — in order to certify that their own products work on the certifying companies' products. Naturally, there may well be certificates available for becoming an expert at hardware certification!

In the world of software development, certification programs have developed in much the same way as they have in the hardware world. Language vendors, such as Sun Microsystems and Oracle, offer several types of programming certificates. For example, Sun has five separate but related certificates for J2SE Programmer, J2SE Developer, J2EE Web Component Developer, J2EE Business Component Developer, and J2EE Enterprise Architect. Oracle offers several certificates, in the areas of Oracle database administration, database application development, and Web application server administration.

Not to be outdone by its rivals, Microsoft has come up with nine certificates, ranging from the popular MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) to the little-known Microsoft Office Specialist Master Instructor. The acronym for that last one would be MOSMI — no doubt a better choice than the acronym for the (fictional) Office Specialization Method Of Sleep Instruction Specialist.

Beyond Hardware and Software

Computer systems are much more than the boxes and the applications running on them. For organizations with substantial networks and public websites, there is a strong need for expertise in network security and engineering. These overlapping areas include network design, setup, security, maintenance, and monitoring. Naturally, certificates exist for these areas, with varying degrees of specialization. For instance, longtime networking firm Novell has four certificates, including the venerable CNE (Certified Novell Engineer).

Further up the org chart, there are certificate programs for project management, designed for those who enjoy telling others what work to do, rather than doing the work themselves (just kidding). For example, there is the Project Management Institute (PMI), at http://www.pmi.org/, which bills itself as "the world's leading not-for-profit project management professional association, with over 125,000 members worldwide". They have a journal, seminars, symposia, awards programs, and the Project Management Professional (PMP) Certification examination. A friend of mine completed their program not long ago, and felt that she learned a lot about project management, though the quality of instruction was spotty.

If you would like to learn more about certification options, perhaps start at the website of Certification Magazine, which offers a free subscription. Also check the course catalogs from your local community colleges and university extension programs. Another source of knowledge, and possibly job search contacts, would be project managers (at local companies), who may be willing to do informational interviews with you — during which time you could learn what sorts of certificates they feel are valuable in the current workplace.

Also be sure to get the opinions of your computer-savvy friends, who may have gone through the process of getting certificates themselves, or know others who have. They will be familiar with your situation and computer interests, and will likely be able to offer advice as to programs you are considering. I suspect my colleagues would encourage me to pursue certification, because I frequently overhear them saying that I am "clearly certifiable".

Copyright © 2004 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.