Is storage certification worth it?

If you're thinking about advancing your career by becoming certified in a particular storage skill, read this article to help you decide if certification is worth your time and money.

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Pros and cons of certification
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."

SNIA SAN certifications at a glance
Level 1: Professional (test cost: $150)

Tests candidates' understanding of terminology, principles and purposes associated with Fibre Channel storage area networks (FC SANs); targets professionals who have limited technical backgrounds; provides uniform standards for measuring the level of FC SAN proficiency required in job functions that include:
  • Sales/marketing
  • Technical sales and marketing administration and office support
  • Call center functions
  • Corporate and IT management
Level 2: Practitioner (test cost: $295)

Tests understanding of features, functions and underlying technology of FC SANs; targets professionals who have moderate technical backgrounds; provides uniform standards for measuring the level of FC SAN proficiency required in job functions that include:
  • Pre- and post-sales support
  • Field service and installation engineering
  • Tech support
  • Product and application support
  • Training and consultancy
Level 3: Specialist (test cost: $365)

Tests ability to plan, build and configure a complex FC SAN and to understand capabilities and limitations of the architecture and associated devices in FC SANs; targets professionals who have substantial technical backgrounds; provides a uniform standard for measuring the level of FC-SAN proficiency required in job functions that include:
  • System architecture and design
  • Test engineering
  • Product design
  • FC SAN sales/system engineering
  • FC SAN engineering (including installation and support)
  • FC SAN administration
  • FC SAN training and consultancy

Job experience is king
In today's workplace, when it comes to finding the right candidate for a job, it's real experience--not certifications--that counts, says veteran CIO/CTO Norbert J. Kubilus. He's a partner with Tatum CIO Partners in San Diego. Over the years, he's hired scores of people in storage-related positions at all types and sizes of companies. "In general, I support certification, but certification that's coupled with real experience," he says.

Many people today earn lots of certifications in response to the marketing message that it takes a certification to get a job, says Kubilus. The push for certifications comes not only from the vendors themselves, but from the whole cottage industry of people that train others to take the tests.

"If I had two candidates for a job and they were going to manage my storage across the enterprise," Kubilus says, "and I had somebody who had two or three years of storage management experience and a certification, and I had another person who had five or 10 years of experience, and no certification, but could demonstrate success at managing division or enterprise-wide storage, I would probably go with the person with the experience without the certification."

Employers today look for employees with a set of credentials that includes both experience and certifications, says Anderson. Ideally, people should pursue certifications that will enhance their careers. "In reality, however, there is a small segment of the IT population that figures the more certifications, the more valuable they are," Anderson says. "But it's not the letters that matter; it's what the letters represent. They are supposed to represent the knowledge; they are supposed to represent your skills and they are supposed to be a way for an employer to recognize your capability."

Certifications a good personal test
Ray Dickensheets agrees that there's a need for more expertise among storage professionals in general. He's a senior-level technology and research and development staff member at Sprint in Overland Park, KS, and a self-taught SAN expert. He also has earned all three SNIA certifications and is the owner of the first SNIA Level 2 "practitioner" certificate. He also holds a much older and more generalized "Certificate in Data Processing" and is presently working on a Cisco networking certification.

Despite his experience, Dickensheets says he opted to pursue the SNIA certifications as a personal test, to find out whether he really knew the information, and to help sort through all the conflicting information in his field. "The certification maybe gave a little more weight, a little more credence to statements or recommendations that I might make relative to some of our products," he says. "It also clarified some thinking, perhaps in terms of approaches, and made me go back, reevaluate things that I had learned and the things I had done before."

Dickensheets urges others, whether they are in his field or aspiring to get into the field, to seek out instructor-led training. This advice is especially relevant for someone who has limited field experience. Although Dickensheets says he sees value in both types of certification, he prefers the vendor-neutral SNIA certifications. That's because of the open environment in which many organizations such as Sprint operate.

For example, Dickensheets says, he works in a Sprint lab with four or five switch types, which are different sizes and come from different manufacturers. "In my own particular situation, knowing Vendor A's switch backward and forward doesn't do me an awful lot of good," he says. "It's nice to know it, but what I need to know is storage area networking fundamentals, standards and how things are supposed to operate together."

Should certifications be a prerequisite to a job? It's a chicken-and-egg kind of argument, says Dickensheets. "It could be difficult to get certification until you get a little bit of experience, and it could be difficult to get the job experience until you get certification," he says. "So I don't think it should be a prerequisite, but I think perhaps it should be expected of anyone who is going to stay in that field for any period of time."

It's tough to single out the most popular storage-related certification, says Infinity I/O's Johnson, because most are product-focused. In switches, for example, Brocade and McData may have the most popular offerings, while in the field of storage arrays, it's EMC and Hitachi. "I would guess that Brocade may have one of the highest numbers of certifications because their program has been out the longest," she says.

Keep in mind, too, that vendor-specific certifications are becoming less important as vendors share APIs and system interoperability increases, says Doug Chandler, IDC program director for storage and data management services. Two years ago, just about every storage company had a somewhat proprietary way of doing things. "If you had EMC equipment, for example, in your shop, you needed people who knew EMC very well," says Chandler. "Today, that's not necessarily the case. We are moving more toward a fairly standardized way of doing things."

Gartner Inc. analyst Ray Paquet also isn't a big believer in certifications. Having good communications skills, good troubleshooting skills and a technical background is more important than a certification, Paquet says. A technical background shows the ability to learn a technology. Good troubleshooting skills are important because storage professionals need to find and fix problems. And communications skills are essential because IT organizations are in the services industry, and part of services is being a people person.

"Give me those three skills, and I don't care about anything else," says Paquet. "If you need to learn about EMC gears, I can teach you that. If you need to learn about Veritas backup, I can teach you that. Things are going to change. What you learn today may not be needed tomorrow. Having a solid technical background and showing the ability to learn is far more important than any specific skill. Hanging your hat on any one thing in a world that continues to evolve at the rate of [storage] technology is very dangerous."

This was first published in February 2004

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