Certifications in information technology can be extremely valuable, or a waste of time and money, depending upon the field you’re in, the job you want, and your background.
“Employers are always looking for some indication of the individual’s knowledge, skills and ability to work in this field,” says Lynn McNulty, CISSP, director of government affairs for (ISC)². “One of the independent metrics they use is professional certification.”
Certifications fall into two categories: vendor specific and vendor-neutral. The vendor-specific certification does the most good for a job seeker looking for a position that involves heavy use of that product. Vendor-neutral certifications, by contrast, demonstrate mastery of management skills or knowledge about a specific niche, such as network security.
In some cases, certification is mandated. “In the DoD [Department of Defense], there’s a mandate that the information assurance workforce obtain a commercial certification,” McNulty says. “There’s also a new federal bill in the works that would mandate certification of the federal IT workforce.”
DoD Directive 8570 sets certification requirements for military service members, contractors and local nationals who handle information assurance functions for DoD information systems.
It covers workers with privileged access to a DoD information system and those who perform IA or security functions, setting certification requirements based on function (managerial or technical) and job title. (Find DoD 8570 Courses – Find CISSP Courses)
Despite that trend, contractors say recent federal requests for proposals (RFPs) mention certifications only for certain positions.
“Certain labor categories often do require certifications, in particular network engineering categories,” says Jeanne Kimmich-Roberts, president of Kimmich Software Systems, Inc., a Columbia, Maryland firm providing systems and software engineering to the intelligence community. “And program managers typically are required to have a PMP® [Project Management Professional] certification.”
However, certifications have typically not been required for the software and systems engineering personnel we focus on hiring, she adds. Instead, the RFP typically calls for specific experience such as Java, Service Oriented Architecture, Web Services, J2EE, XML, or Object-Oriented, she adds.
Your educational background also comes into play when judging the value of a certification. If you lack a bachelor’s degree, a certification will support the experience listed on your resume.
Interestingly, recent federal RFPs seem to be less demanding of degrees. “In the past, most of the RFPs we received required a BS + X years experience for a specific labor category or a MS + Y years’ experience,” Kimmich-Roberts says. “Recently, some of the RFPs have eliminated the degree requirement and only asked for years of experience. More often the wording will state something like ‘BS highly desired and will be considered equivalent to 4 years experience.’”
To assess the value of a certification, look at how long it (and the organization offering the designation) has been around, what it measures and whether it requires continuing education. Also ask those in your professional network how they’d rate it.
In general, the larger and older a certification organization is, the better. Certifications that involve simply passing an open-book test will be less valued than those that require experience and continuing education.
In the end, certification is only one benchmark an employer will consider during the hiring process. “The fact that an individual has chosen to go out and enhance themselves through certification would weigh into any decision,” McNulty says, “but it gets down to the individual and the job. Certification is but one factor in any hiring decision.”