Certification at the Entry Level2 |
I should have studied history.
If I’d studied history, I wouldn’t have to learn new material every two to three years. History is constant; I could’ve learned it once and known it forever. Instead, every couple of years I have to learn an entirely new technology, then drag myself to the local Prometric or Vue testing center and
vie for a certification to prove my IT worth.
By waving the MCSE and CCNP around, I not only overtly profess my technological genius and skill, but I’m also portraying a degree of experience.
Early on in the certification business — and in many cases, this is still the case now — that’s exactly how the certification was viewed: as a measurement of skill with an expectation of a certain amount of time on the job. Traditionally, certification tests were specifically designed to rate an individual’s progression along a career path.
For example, a hiring manager could use a CCNA or CCNP entry on a resume as an indicator of time, experience and knowledge. The CCNA candidate most likely had three to five years in the business, whereas the CCNP was a more senior person. A casual glance through CompTIA’s Web site shows what it expects of candidates before they even attempt an exam — 18-24 months of experience before attempting Security +, for example.
But the new reality is that certifications are sometimes used as a shortcut to a career. While a person working in academia, for example, must follow a specified, inescapable series of steps to progress to title and glory, an IT worker need only take the appropriate certification exam and a credential declaring knowledge and skill is awarded. This, of course, has had an entirely predictable outcome: Businesses and hiring managers have begun looking past the credential toward the experience and educational background.
Jon McAfee, senior IT security engineer and national security systems manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, put it this way: “It’s not that I don’t look at the certification at all; it’s just that it doesn’t mean as much to me as actual, real experience working on an enterprise network or a college degree. Certifications are great, but by themselves, they don’t mean a whole lot.”
Certainly this is cyclical. We’ve all witnessed the ups and downs of perceived value with certifications from year to year. However, at least early in 2008, it appears the certification world may be rebounding in a big way by targeting an area previously not in its crosshairs.
Certification vendors have begun targeting the entry-level crowd, offering certs aimed at proving your starting point rather than your final destination. The traditional, powerhouse, industry-standard type certifications aren’t going away, but they are getting augmented with a throwback to the apprentice levels and a future eye toward the specialization sector. Why this move toward the entry-level market?
There may be a little more to this than meets the eye. Take Cisco’s newest certification, the Cisco Certified Entry
Network Technician (CCENT), for example. By splitting the CCNA into two halves, focusing on theory and basic, small-network routing and switching in CCENT, it may appear Cisco simply is moving money from one pocket to another. After all, it’s still a part of an existing certification and doesn’t appear, at first, to reach out to a new audience.
However, Lora O’Haver, program manager for CCENT at Cisco, believes marketplace needs have reached critical mass for entry-level certification. “Studies show training and education are key to successful deployments and optimum operation of networking gear,” she said. “Theory and configuration of simple networks has always been a part of CCNA certification, but not certifiable by itself. Now CCENT provides a means to demonstrate relevant skills for technical support, help-desk [and] even retail and service organizations.” When asked why the certification came out now, she replied, “Certifying a more limited set of skills has more value than it used to.”
The argument for simplicity rings true for another reason as well. CCNA and other well-known certifications present quite a challenge for newcomers to the certification world and scare off some other talented, experienced networkers. Taking a certification test is a daunting process, and many of the more traditional certs covered such a wide range of topics many newcomers don’t even know where to begin.
Many knowledgeable, skilled IT folks simply didn’t attempt it. Entry-level certs bridge that gap by easing the inevitable fear and apprehension that both new and seasoned IT workers face when attempting their first certifications.
Don’t discount the government’s role in all this. The recent drive in the Department of Defense for IT and IA certification at both the technical and management levels is pushing the entire certification market forward, and lessons learned during the actual implementation have bolstered the arguments for entry-level certs.
Despite the fact that you won’t necessarily find all entry-level certs listed in DOD 8570.1 — the manual directing all DOD employees in an IA function to become certified — savvy government and contractor leaders are recognizing the need for progression through the certification ranks. The approach initially taken — that of throwing as many people as possible into CISSP courses and watching them fail out — has proven the benefit in taking a structured approach, more closely matching personnel position and skills to available certifications.
Paul Clark, director of IA training at Dynetics Inc., thinks the entry-level certification market is primed for explosion for this very reason. “The days of a newcomer in the field taking a single test and vaulting to the top of the heap are over,” Clark said. “DOD 8570 has it right: Certifications should map directly to real experience, knowledge and time on the job. Whether you’re in management or a frontline technician, a progression through the ranks is not only desired but should be mandatory. You wouldn’t want a first-year medical student working on you. Can you imagine getting to the operating table and being told, ‘I have only six months experience and I’ve never actually operated, but I did pass a tough exam last week’?”
Although presiding over mostly IA-related certifications, Clark personally has seen the benefit of the structured approach to certification. He said students attempting CISSP without any prior certification do not do nearly as well as those who have taken Network+, Security+ or SSCP in preparation. “Success breeds success, and those who have already taken a certification — one that more closely matches their current skill, knowledge and experience levels — and passed are more relaxed and confident when facing the more difficult tests down the road,” Clark said.
Admittedly, the certification market’s move toward the entry level may simply be mercenary in nature — an attempt to jump-start a market on the decline. In 2006, Brainbench’s “Global Skills Report” verified the declining trend in certification, and this movement continues today.
David Foote, co-founder and CEO of Foote Partners, said his research shows that the value, both perceived and real, from attaining a certification is on the decline. Entry-level certs, though, are the exception to the rule. “The trend is definitely shifting towards the entry-level certification,” Foote said.
What does all this mean to the IT world? If you’re already a traditional certification holder, the answer is, “Not much.” However, new members to the industry have a much wider range of choices available, and the entry-level certifications may be the most valuable of the group. History lessons aside, it now seems the starting line, at least in the IT and IA certification world, may be just as important as the finish line.1 | 2 |