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Certification: Is it worth your time?

Getting certified can raise your salary, thumb increase your responsibility, and make your IT job more satisfying.

Certification means you've completed the steps required to receive a particular designation. One can become "certified" simply by paying a particular membership fee or attending the required seminar, but such certifications are usually a waste of time and money.

Fortunately, more and more certifications now mean something. These designations demonstrate to your employer and clients that you are indeed an expert in a particular area, and that a reputable, recognizable organization will attest to that.

Virtually any IT professional can gain something by pursuing a well-chosen certification, while most will reap many benefits. The payoffs may come in a salary increase, better job, improved confidence or additional skills. Course work often includes hands-on exercises with up-to-the-minute software and equipment. Learning new technology will always benefit you.

Certified individuals also earn more than their noncertified counterparts, according to several studies, including International Data Corp.'s Benefits & Productivity Gains Realized through IT Certification. A 1998 survey by Lotus Development Corp. showed that 64% of Certified Lotus Professionals saw an average 30% salary increase within six months of their certification, boosting their annual salary from $54,000 to $70,000. A recent Microsoft Corp. study, Financial Benefits to Supporters of Microsoft Certification, reported that companies pay 12% more to certified workers. In each of those studies, as well as another by Novell Corp., employers also said certified workers are more productive. This is often attributed to reduced downtime and faster resolution of support incidents.

Numbers tell the story

Companies are increasingly offering certification training as an employee benefit. For example, a full 62% of the respondents to a July MCP Magazine survey (which is not owned or published by Microsoft) stated that their firm had provided some financial support. Half of the respondents said their employers footed the entire bill, while 12% said they had shared the expense. The remainder reported paying for their own training. The survey was MCP's fourth annual salary review of professionals who have obtained or are in the process of obtaining one of the Microsoft Certified Professional designations.

Because of its popularity, employers are smart to offer certification training as an employee benefit. They also find that employee certification boosts the bottom line. Lotus' CLP study, for example, found that the median fee charged by Lotus/IBM Business partners who obtained certification rose from approximately $80 per hour to $100 per hour within six months of certification.

Employers say certified workers are more productive because of reduced downtime and faster resolution of support incidents.
Customers, both in-house and external, benefit as well. Certification gives them additional evidence of one's qualifications and suitability for the task at hand. Nontechnical clients, especially, find that reassuring. Employers can emphasize that they have certified employees on-staff to help earn customer confidence, and independent consultants can do the same.

Certification sponsors want to help you succeed because they also benefit. In addition to revenue from training courses and materials, certification programs generate product and company recognition. For example, every Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) confirms the power and importance of Cisco Systems Inc., and every Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) endorses Microsoft. By establishing the A+ Technician Certification in 1993 and the Network + certification in 1999, the Computer Trade and Industry Association (CompTIA), in Lombard, Ill., has enhanced its own value and reputation.

Vendor participation is one of the major forces driving certification growth. Industry vendors understand that the more people who master their product, the more often people will use it. Vendors from Adobe Systems Inc. to Sybase Inc. have launched certification programs, causing the number of available certifications to nearly double over the last few years to more than 400. GoCertify.com features a complete listing of certifications available.

One of the beauties of certification is its flexibility. If you want to move on to a new and better job, certification can help. If a new specialty has caught your eye, certification can simplify the transition. If you want to become more of an expert at what you do, or increase your value in the marketplace, certification can do that, too. Certifications can be combined and tailored to fit your individual career goals and aspirations.