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Is storage certification worth it?

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Pros and cons of certification

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Pros:
  • A vendor-neutral storage area network (SAN) certification provides a solid overview that includes SAN fundamentals, standards and knowledge about how things are supposed to work.
  • A product- or process-oriented certification represents a quick way for an employer to know that someone has knowledge--and sometimes a specific amount of knowledge--of a particular product.
  • Sometimes certifications make employees more valuable to their companies.
  • Once employed, the person holding a certification could find that the designation leads to a promotion or increased compensation.
Cons:
  • A certification on a single product often pigeonholes an individual as having too narrow a skill set or understanding of a company's overall storage needs.
  • Certifications often don't have provisions for recertification and continuing education.
  • Some certifications don't require hands-on, operational instruction and are not an accurate measure of a person's skill.
  • Some certifications are expensive and time-consuming to attain.
A CTO wants to be assured that candidates applying for his company's enterprise systems/storage administrator position have a high level of expertise in Brocade storage area network (SAN) environments. Meanwhile, a self-taught storage expert and senior technical staff member wants to validate and reevaluate what he's been doing for years with SAN technology. A professional skill certification may be a good way to meet these two separate needs.

Or maybe not.

Despite the time, effort and money put into skill certifications, many experts are split over their value. Are they an accurate predictor of performance, and can they even differentiate job candidates in a tight market?

There is one thing that all hiring managers agree on: The best predictor of whether or not a person will be successful in a new job is that person's past experience and accomplishments.

Keeping it specific
Hundreds of IT certifications--dozens of which are storage-related--are available from product vendors, private organizations and industry groups. Each one involves training and testing, and is designed to address a specific technology, equipment or industry standard. Some certifications utilize hands-on training. Others do not.

"Certification, if built properly, and most in IT are, is based on specific skills required for a specific job," says Cushing Anderson, program director for learning services research at IDC in Framingham, MA.

The "job" could be working with vendor products, as could be the case with a vendor-issued designation such as Microsoft's Certified Systems Engineer or McData's Certified Storage Network Implementor. Or it could be more general, such as the vendor-neutral Storage Networking Certification Program from the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), which awards three levels of Fibre Channel (FC) SAN certifications: professional, practitioner and specialist.

Certification tests usually are developed to be reasonable predictors of the future job performance. By hiring someone with the right skills certification, a company can limit the risk it takes when hiring, says Lynne VanArsdale, a SNIA board member and co-chairman of the group's education and end-user advocacy committees.

Whatever the reason for certification, it's a big business--$2.5 billion was spent in 2001 alone for the training and certification of about one million people, says IDC's Anderson. The cost to take an individual test in the storage-related area ranges from about $150 to $400, says Deborah Johnson, president and CEO of Infinity I/O, the Half Moon Bay, CA, company that helped develop and administers SNIA's certification exams.

The total cost of a certification can run much higher--$2,000 to $5,000 more--if a person first needs to prepare through training, coursework or other certifications. And many do. Test preparation can take two to six months, Johnson adds. The tests generally aren't given over the Internet, although coursework is.

"Certification is about a verifiable person taking a test, and now there is not any reliable way to identify a user not in a [testing] center," says Anderson. Are certifications really valuable?

Certifications may be one way individuals can differentiate themselves, says Anderson, but they aren't perfect. The main flaws, he says, include:

  • A lack of continuing education and recertification requirements (though some certifications require retesting and renewal every two years).
  • As opposed to a college degree, the certification can't be easily validated by an employer.
  • The tests often aren't performance-based, and therefore don't reflect practical applications of related skills. Microsoft's certifications, for example, don't require hands-on testing. SNIA's, on the other hand, do.
So, are certifications valuable? It depends on who you ask. Managers tend to see certifications in a different light than employees and job seekers do. Some job seekers think certifications help get them get a foot in the door, especially in a tight job market, and that the designations are becoming a prerequisite in the storage field. But managers don't see certification as an important factor in hiring decisions, says Johnson.

For example, according to a recent search at Dice.com, a tech job board, of 943 posted jobs that called for storage-related skills, only 120 mentioned certifications.

Even companies such as storage management Fujitsu Softek--which approaches the SNIA certification as fundamental to its core business strategies--doesn't require that potential job candidates hold certifications. SNIA certification, however, is required within the first six months of employment for people working as part of the company's field force, which interfaces directly with customers. That group includes systems engineers and account executives, says Chris Wagner, VP of marketing communications for the Sunnyvale, CA, company, which delivers its automated storage management solutions across multiple vendors and platforms.

The reason Fujitsu Softek doesn't look for the certification up front, says Wagner, is that the certifications are relatively new, and making it a job prerequisite would limit the employment pool. SNIA introduced the program just two years ago, and as of June, it had awarded 1,540 certifications.

In the industry in general, the lack of employer demand for certifications in storage-related jobs isn't surprising, says Infinity I/O's Johnson. There still aren't widely accepted industry definitions for different types of storage. "If you look over the literature, there's still a lot out there of, 'What's a SAN?' 'What's NAS?' 'What's the difference?' 'What's Fibre Channel?' 'What's iSCSI?' That's very basic; people are still learning what storage area networking is all about."

This was first published in February 2004

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