Are vendor certifications actually worth the bother or are they a time-wasting bit of window-dressing not actually measuring real ability or performance?

Gary Flood looks at how they have developed over the last years, what the research shows and the anecdotal evidence.

Industry qualifications in one form or another have been with us for decades, but they really took off when Microsoft introduced the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE).

Then there was the backlash, with MCSEs flooding the market, devaluing the qualification by volume alone, but also because too many such holders were descried as 'paper MCSEs'. The accusation was that people were just doing exam crams, even sending ringers to sit their exams. 'Clients ended up setting their own IT tests even for MCSEs,' says Matt Smith, Director of UK Regions for IT recruiter Harvey Nash.

Certification went quiet for a while, but unobtrusively the whole field has been re-building (see box opposite). Many exams now factor in some sort of blind-test practical element, often involving the candidate having to physically configure, de-bug or administer some actual technology.

And new certifications keep appearing. The Information Systems Audit and Control Association outlined details in January of a highly demanding professional qualification for IT, the Certified in the Governance of Enterprise IT. In May business process management player Lombardi announced a programme, the Lombardi University.

Still the evidence is very mixed on what practical, career-enhancing effect getting the magic letters after your name actually brings the IT professional. 'Certification definitely has a place: it shows commitment and that you've gone that extra mile, but it doesn't prove of itself you can do the job better than someone who hasn’t,' says QA's Commercial Director Bill Walker.

Marc Smith, Director of Technical Marketing at Lombardi, adds: 'The problem with too much certification is that it is not based on exposure to practical project engagements, and you do need to have an element of that, not just courses and exams, to prove competence.' Does holding qualification A or certification B make an IT practitioner more valuable in an employer’s eyes?

According to testing specialist Pearson Vue, yes. In March 2008 it polled just under 400 IT, HR and training professionals across Europe (including the UK, Holland and Germany) and found that certification plays a significant role in career progression and was felt to do even more so in the future.

Almost half of companies considered certification to be important or useful, and only 7 per cent of companies responding expressed no interest at all in IT certification.

For recruitment purposes, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco and IBM certificates are the most sought after by employers, the poll found, and IT certification was said to play a ‘significant’ role in career progression generally. It is also a benefit to job applicants, especially at the initial CV screening stage and as a final decider between candidates chasing the same position.

These findings were echoed by another study conducted in 2008 by IT analyst firm IDC among 800 (mainly US) IT leaders, collectively responsible for more than 2,000 teams. The survey’s focus was to uncover the relationship between training, certification and functional performance.

It found that 75 per cent of managers believe certification is important to team performance; also 66 per cent of managers believe that certification improves the overall level of service and support offered to IT end users/customers and overall team performance increases every time a new team member is certified.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's own 2006 survey found that of those contacted, 63 per cent of hiring managers reported certified individuals are 'somewhat or far more' productive than their non-certified counterparts; 55 per cent consider certification a key criterion when recruiting and a further 46 per cent see certification a factor for promotion.

Microsoft European researchers have also found that in France, the average salary for a developer with Microsoft Certified Professional status was about 10 per cent higher than for a non-certified one; in Germany, there was even a 15 per cent difference.

The idea that the right cert equals the fatter pay packet is backed up by US IT pay market commentators Foote Partners. It regularly publishes painstakingly detailed analyses of which certifications are 'up' or down’ in market value - e.g. in the file of IT security for April 2009, the Check Point Certified Master Architect qualification showed a 0.2 per cent increase in pay, the Microsoft Certified Solution Developer was most valuable in terms of pay in applications development, Oracle DBA Administrator Certified Master in database and so on.

Yet a direct correlation between certification and more money is not proven. In the same Foote data, for instance, of 22,850 US and Canadian IT professionals contacted, being certified seemed to equal a 4 per cent drop in salary for the period in question.

Surely the only fair conclusion to be derived from these sorts of salary surveys is that in volatile economic times, even the 'hottest' new certification may not directly translate into career progression?

However, the industry itself is keen and committed. Partly, this is down to the fact that it is undoubtedly a revenue stream for them: many certifications, e.g. the HP range, are only really pursued by HP channel and partner companies, who get better recognition and support from the parent supplier if they show such investment and commitment.

But then vendors take what they do seriously enough to know familiarity with their own products is vital. 'Everyone takes tests at school to show progress; why not in your IT career too?' asks Pearson Vue's European Sales and Marketing VP Suzana Lopes.

No less than four million IT professionals have earned Microsoft certifications to date; Microsoft is now also making all its customer-facing employees get certified, a move that affects around 15,000 of its staff. 'We need to walk our talk and demonstrate that our certification provides incredible value to the productivity of a workforce,' its Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner said.

This is reflected in the IT training market itself. 'We have seen a lot of rising interest from consultancies and suppliers wanting to get fully "skilled up" during the recession - and we’ve seen probably more demand from this quarter than end-user companies for certification versus IT training in general,' notes Tony King, Solution Manager at training firm Global Knowledge.

Getting the right mix

However the reality is that IT practitioners won't pursue certification unless it's made a requirement. In the Person Vue research, for instance, even though employers encouraged staff to complete courses so as to gain full certification, just over half of those who undertake training actually complete it.

Time constraints are the biggest barrier to completion rates, closely followed by whether or not certification is included within training. Motivation is also an issue, as people appear less willing to take certification if their company does not expressly require them to do so.

'Industry qualifications are great at opening the initial doors, but solid career and salary progress then can’t take place without significant experience and proven worth in a role,' says David Marr, Training Manager at Globaltech Solutions.

Research by IT sector skills council e-skills UK (March 2008) indicates that employers actually rate a degree as the best qualification with vendor qualifications slightly ahead in terms of technical content and usefulness to the employing company and staff, and slightly behind in terms of cost and value for money.

'Employers find it easy to see what a vendor qualification offers in terms of content, skills and knowledge,'says the organisation's CEO Karen Price. But crucially, unlike degrees, as Marr points out, IT still has so many disparate technical specialisms and career paths that it’s hard to see how one general industry qualification could ever be seen as equal to a degree.

What, then, is the intelligent way to think about the value of industry qualifications? 'For longevity and commitment to IT as a career, it absolutely does you no harm to get them,' thinks recruiter Smith. 'but in employment terms it's about the total package - if you'll fit in, as much as your experience and training.'

'There are a whole set of factors when it comes to recruitment,' adds Walker. 'Certification is not a panacea. IT firms, like the government, really like the idea; in the real world it seems IT professionals and employers see the things more like only the surface part of the overall education experience.'

Recent evolutions in industry qualifications

A number of key IT vendors have either announced significant revamps or extensions of their proprietary qualifications in the past 18 months.

Probably the most significant is the ongoing evolution of the Microsoft qualification set from the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer to the new qualifications grouped around the Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS), which in turn can be the basis for the new Microsoft industry qualifications, the Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP), Microsoft Certified Professional Developer (MCPD), Microsoft Certified Master (MCM) and Microsoft Certified Architect (MCA).

Cisco has also been overhauling its core Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), though in this instance it is not scrapping it so much as improving it. Candidates are now expected to pass some entry-level exams first, such as the Cisco Certified Entry Network Technician (CCENT), which is based on an introductory concepts exam, accompanied by a more skills-focused test.

Beyond the CCNA are now job-related destinations, qualifications-wise, such as becoming Cisco Certified Network Professionals (CCNPs), and a few may aspire to be Cisco Certified Network Experts (CCNEs).

SAP, two years ago, decided to inaugurate an entirely fresh global certification programme. For the first time, SAP introduced a three-tier qualifications structure, with candidates becoming a SAP Certified Associate, Certified Professional or Certified Master.

Its main software rival Oracle has beefed up its OCX qualifications range from Oracle Certified Associate (OCA) to Oracle Certified Professional (OCP) up to Oracle Professional Master (OCM).

At the same time, companies as diverse as Apple, HP, Adobe, Sage and Novell have all either maintained or most often expanded their certification 'stories'.