Should you be certifiable?

A column I wrote a few weeks ago generated more e-mail than any other so far this year. It usually takes an egregious error or an attack on some sacred cow to draw this kind of response. The surprise this time is that well over 95 percent of the respondents simply wrote to say they agreed with my conclusions -- that certifications such as the MCSE, CNE and their ilk prove nothing about someone's ability to manage a network.

Most of the letter-writers went on to indicate that there was a place for the certifications, but only in conjunction with actual hands-on experience. A number of them pointed to Cisco Systems CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert) program that -- in addition to requiring a written test -- requires a two-day hands-on laboratory exam in various specialties. Not only do you need to know the theory, you must also be able to apply it. It's not easy to pass. Heck, it's not even easy to take -- one of the lab tests is currently only offered at a facility in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A second facility in San Jose, California, is due to open in July. It's no wonder that there are only about 3,500 CCIEs worldwide. It's also no wonder that it's the most respected certification available.

There were a number of people who suggested that an apprenticeship program could be useful when used in conjunction with certification testing. While that wouldn't be easy to set up, the certification issuers (Microsoft, Novell, et al.) could require some hands-on experience (supervised experience, I might add). This could be acquired in a business or academic setting. Businesses could set up internship programs in IT that would allow promising candidates to gain needed experience while involved in a formal training program. Community colleges that are already teaching certification courses could add networking laboratories. By working with local businesses, the colleges could offset the cost of the labs by allowing IT departments to use the facilities as test beds for evaluation of new hardware and software.

Companies that rely heavily (or exclusively) on certifications in the hiring process were roundly denounced, even by those who got their current jobs solely by dint of being certified.

It was suggested more than once that businesses that need to hire IT personnel, but do not have the in-house expertise to choose among the applicants, could use the services of an independent consultant. Of course, this leads to the question of how to evaluate the consultant. There are a number of methods you could use: Ask for recommendations from local users groups, speak to the consultant's other clients or get recommendations from the network operating system vendors. Just don't go into the hiring process blind. Don't rely only on one of the many criteria you can use to judge an applicant.

Certification does have a place in the industry, but only in conjunction with -- not as a substitute for -- experience.

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