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Certification: Is it worth the pain?

Professionals are no closer to answering the perennial question of whether certification is worth the money and time.

The age-old question about which is more valuable, experience or certification, continues to spark debate in the high-tech industry.

IT professionals have a wide array of choices on the certification buffet table. Just about any major software company serves up a platter of certifications for professionals working with their programs.

Asking professionals out in the field whether it is worth the time and money to get certified brings a mixed response. Some say certifications are definitely helpful for landing a job working with Lotus, Microsoft and networking applications. Yet others, especially those working with programs from German software giant SAP AG, said certifications take a backseat to experience.

What they do agree on is that certification makes the difference in some sectors and the debate over whether certification is worth it will continue for some time to come.

Ed Tittel, a principal at LANWrights Inc., a network and security-oriented training and consulting firm in Austin, Texas, said certification can make a big difference for certain people. Tittel has 19 years of experience in the computer industry and is the author of certification-oriented books for IT professionals.

Senior-level Java certifications, high-end Cisco certifications and Nortel certifications such as CCIE and Cisco Certified Internetwork Professional (CCIP) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) certifications net the most cash for recipients, Tittel said. These are high-level certifications that require a great deal of study.

Generally, the more common the certification the less impact it will have on salary increases and promotions. "The bigger the niche, the less the certification means," Tittel said.

Tittel said money should not be the prime motivator for certifications. "People should try to align their interests and technology passions with the certifications they pursue," he said.

Going after a certification takes a great deal of time and effort. Employers will rarely allow for time off, and if the motivation fades, pursuing the certification becomes even more difficult, he said.

Other factors for success

But it is not always clear whether it is the certification or just plain good work that leads to advancement. Kees Broer, a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), received a 16% salary increase back in 1996. "Of course, there are also other qualifications that increased my salary, such as being a project leader and being able to talk to customers," Broer said.

Some professionals find that being certified helps them get their foot in the door. Rhodri Edwards, a Certified Lotus Specialist (CLS) on her way to becoming a CLP, was job-hunting last year and was asked by many potential employers for a CLP, before they would even review her credentials. Fortunately, her present employer was more interested in practical experience.

Yet some, such as SAP professionals, find certifications almost useless. Many say they value experience over a piece of paper because most certification seminars lack the information needed to thoroughly work with SAP.

"You must have been attending great certification seminars to be qualified to do the job after passing the test," said Wolfgang G. Propfe, an SAP professional. "Six or more years of experience, however, will prepare you for whatever may come, including newer versions and unfamiliar modules."

Experience will beat a certification every time in the ERP field, Tittel said. When a candidate has experience with the ERP software, the certification becomes less important, but for someone trying to get a foot in the door, certification can be valuable.

In the end, though, a certification may improve the odds of getting an IT job, but is not a guarantee of a higher income, Tittel said. Employers do prefer experience over certifications, but when the backgrounds of the applicants are the same, the certification does lend an edge, he said.


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