Certification of Technical Skills

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2317, 2005-04-29, as the cover article, in both their print edition (on pages 14 and 16) and their website.

There are many reasons why an individual might want to pursue a certificate in a general technical field, or a particular technical skill. For instance, they may have decided to go directly into a trade, rather than attending college. Or they might have concluded that the most efficient way to rapidly progress in their chosen field is by obtaining a recognized certificate. Or an individual may have graduated from college recently, or many years in the past, and seeks to further their education in order to move up within their existing firm, switch to a new field, or rejoin the workforce after having lost their job or retiring earlier.

Certificates are available in every field of employment that is purely technical or is making greater use of technology — typically computers. This is true even for some areas that but a couple of decades ago had no requirements for computer skills. For example, it was not that long ago that members of the nursing profession had no need for any computer knowledge. But with more medical and patient data being stored and accessed online, and prescriptions being routed over networks, nurses as well as doctors are finding it necessary to use computers just to keep up with their increasingly data-driven jobs.

Given the limitations of space, this article will focus on computer-related certification programs, specifically those for hardware engineers and software programmers, with some general advice to help the prospective student better explore their options.

But first we should consider the primary purpose of certification. People unfamiliar with technical certificates may wonder what value could be found in pursuing yet another piece of paper, especially if the recipient has recently been awarded a college degree — whether bachelor's, master's, or doctorate. Shouldn't their collegiate training have been sufficient to prepare them for whatever position of employment they are starting or seeking?

While master's and doctoral programs tend to be much more specialized than bachelor's programs, there are myriad situations in which a certificate would be invaluable, such as demonstrating a specific technical skill that is currently in great demand in the job market, but one not covered in college.

Hardware and Software

If you have chosen to pursue a career in hardware or software engineering, then you will find certification programs available for most if not all of the major skills. In the case of hardware engineering, the particular certificates that would be of value to you depend upon what type of hardware work you intend to do. For instance, if you hope to go into the design, manufacturing, and troubleshooting of computer components, then you would be well served to look at certificate programs covering electrical fundamentals, digital electronics, component diagnostics (e.g., to study fried motherboards), and electrical safety (to avoid fried engineers).

If the field of software development is more to your liking, then you will probably find just as many certificates offered by universities, colleges, and training firms. You will also find a large number of certification exams being offered by software vendors, in addition to the language-specific books that are sold by their technical presses. A sizable portion of these books are geared entirely towards preparing the reader for a certification exam, and include generous helpings of sample questions seen on previous exams, along with pitches for equally pricey workbooks — just in case the student has any money left.

The high cost of certification is a factor that every candidate must consider. The required reading materials are never cheap, and the high costs of many vendors' exams are typically the first reason cited by professionals who have opted not to pursue certification. For example, if you wish to get recognized as a Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD), you need to take and pass five exams, covering such areas as Web and Windows application development. Each one costs $125, for a total of $625. There are six recommended books, with their total list cost exceeding $330, before taxes.

On the other hand, you may wish to secure a high-paying job with an employer that has indicated that it would strongly prefer that the winning candidate have an MCSD certificate. Your possession of the blessed sheepskin could easily make the difference between your resume going to the top of the stack, or to the bottom. If you obtain and accept a job offer, then your first month of increased pay alone will likely compensate for all financial costs incurred in pursuing the certificate.

Resources Available

If you have decided that a certificate in some field of computer hardware or software would be well worth your time and effort, then there are a large number of resources that should be helpful to you. As always, the Internet can provide a wealth of information. Returning to our MCSD example, there is an Internet newsgroup dedicated to that certificate, at http://groups-beta.google.com/group/MCSD. There are also groups devoted to Java, Oracle, and Cisco certification. Google Groups lists 29 newsgroups devoted to technical certifications in various fields.

Once you have determined that a particular certificate would best suit your needs, then you'll need to decide how to best go about studying for the exam. In addition to the considerable number of books devoted to each certificate topic, there are websites that allow you to download study material, ask questions of others, and take mock exams. The best way to find them is to simply use your favorite Internet search engine.

You are encouraged to also check to see what courses are offered at local universities and community colleges. While reading a book or website can be useful, there is nothing quite like the motivation of having homework due for the next class meeting — to help spur you to spend the time studying, which is the only way you will pass the exam.

For each person using the materials they have purchased and well on their way towards getting that certificate, there must be a dozen others who keep meaning to crack open the books, but keep finding excuses to do anything but that. You don't want those expensive and thick technical books ending up doing no more than propping up the TV remote control.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.