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Some storage certifications hold value despite economy

Ashley Dean, Contributor

The importance of IT certifications has been debated by computer professionals since mainframes were spitting out paper tapes. But as data centers continue to tighten their budgets in 2009, the average value of an IT certification is dropping along with most stocks.

A recent survey by Vero Beach, Fla.-based Foote Partners LLC revealed that, on average, certification pay for 185 IT skills the firm tracks were at their lowest level in 10 years. The average salary increase for a single certification is now at 7.5% of base pay vs. a peak of 8.6% in 2001. However, several

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storage certifications are moving against the trend, according to industry experts.

As companies place more importance on money-saving technologies, IT certifications in architecture and design, and skills in virtualization and deduplication are bringing storage professionals higher salaries.

For example, in 2009, the merit of an EMC Technology Architect (EMCTA) in the EMC Proven Professional Certification program beat the odds and rose in value. "You need to know that what you're purchasing is scalable, flexible, agile," said David Foote, CEO and chief research officer at Foote Partners. "That's certainly one of the things architects do. They save money. Period."

A group of vendor-neutral storage certifications from the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) have also been increasing in value. "None of them increased in the first three months of the year, but if you track it back to October [2008], you're seeing a 9.1% increase in the highest level -- expert," Foote said.

Jeanne Douglass, SNIA's education program manager, said the economy is impacting IT certifications in more ways than one. "We did a survey at the end of 2007 that concluded that most of the SNIA certifications that people had earned were paid for by their companies," she said. "In 2009, companies are cutting back on training budgets, so I think that more people will be paying [for it] themselves."

Virtualization skills in high demand

For the same reason that storage architect certifications are holding their own, virtualization skills are also in high demand, Foote said. In 2009, companies plan to spend 16% more on virtualization than they did last year. "If we look across approximately 70 line-item budgets, virtualization is No. 1 on that list," he said. "Companies are spending on virtualization for obvious reasons -- it's a recessionary spend."

Foote Partners doesn't track virtualization certifications, but VMware Inc. has reported growth in the popularity of its VMware Certified Professional (VCP) on VMware Infrastructure 3 within large enterprises.

Furthermore, Microsoft Corp. has added a new line of virtualization certifications to accompany Hyper-V server virtualization technology. One of them, the Windows Server Virtualization Exam, is already available.

Brian Gabrielson, regional vice president at Robert Half Technology, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based IT consulting and staffing services company, is also seeing an increase in the value of virtualization skills. "[It's] one of the most referenced demands that we get from our clients right now," he said.

He's also seen an increase in the importance of deduplication skills. Just like virtualization, dedupe is "one of those projects that's getting approved," Gabrielson said.

But he added that IT certifications are still valuable in a job search. "I would encourage folks to get certifications as a way to differentiate themselves from the marketplace," Gabrielson said. "Any way that you, as a candidate, can differentiate yourself from another candidate in a positive manner is encouraged."

But Gabrielson said certification training doesn't automatically mean a pay increase. "It's more of a decision-making tool than a compensation tool," he said.

Chad Smykay, a storage architect at San Antonio, Texas-based Rackspace Managed Hosting, said that when he interviews potential hires, he uses their certifications to check what they know. "You're not going to be able to go to a trade school or college and get this knowledge in this specialized market," he said.

Smykay has several certifications, but is looking into new ones appropriate to the changing economic climate, including fabric design, storage-area network (SAN) management and VMware. Foote's research shows that the Brocade Certified Fabric Designer (BCFD) certification is up 25% over the last 15 months.

Jason Streck, senior storage systems engineer at Longmont, Colo.-based DigitalGlobe Inc., said he hasn't seen any value in getting an IT certification. During his five years in storage, he has received a single certification, as a Hitachi Data Systems Certified Professional. And that's because he was sent to training when his company purchased a new Hitachi storage system.

"My degree has been more important to me than my certifications," Streck said.

Some IT pros, like Paul McLean, senior systems administrator at Pasadena, Calif.-based Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., forgo certifications altogether. "I've been working for 20-plus years and there really was no advantage for me to get certified. It wouldn't have increased my salary any or solidified my position," he said. "Rather than take a lot of time away from it to go get certified, I focus on my job."


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