Although experience is vital, taking IT supplier exams can put you ahead
It is three in the morning and IT professional Daniel Bryk is in the computer labs, trying to configure a network. But he is not at work, he is on a training course trying to crack a Cisco routing problem that has kept him awake all night.
Bryk and thousands of other IT professionals like him give up their time, energy and hard-earned cash to take supplier qualifications. The certificates cover everything from Microsoft, Cisco and Oracle skills to networking and security. For IT professionals they are vital for keeping up with the latest technologies and advancing their careers.
Many employers are prepared to invest in training their IT staff in the latest supplier qualifications to keep their skills up-to-date. Although there is a risk that these staff could be poached, most are likely to want to stay with a company that offers training and development.
But a growing number of IT professionals are prepared to pay for qualifications themselves, particularly when they are looking to change the direction of their career, or pursue skills that go beyond their current work.
"If you are new to the industry, it can allow you to gain some recognition for your knowledge and skills. Supplier certificates mean your skills have been verified by a third party," said Alex Keay, Microsoft's group manager for training and certification.
Courses can vary from one day a week for l8 months to total-immersion courses where the first evening is spent not in the bar but with a heads-down dunking in the manual. A 16-hour day with no time off at weekends is typical.
"There are a lot of real-world simulations in the exams, so they give a true test of abilities. For example, in a Cisco exam it would give you a configuration such as five servers and 25 clients across three physical locations, and then ask you questions about it," said Robert Chapman, managing director of independent training company The Training Camp.
Microsoft said competition among training providers has pushed the price of training down. "It is more affordable than it has ever been. An individual MCSE [Microsoft certified systems engineer] examination costs £80 and the cost of training on a typical five-day course is below £300 a day. With volume discounts, the cost could be even lower," said Keay.
An increasing number of further education colleges are offering training covering the supplier certificates syllabus for a fraction of the cost of private sector trainers, but the coverage is patchy, said Terry Watts, chief operating officer at public/private sector training partnership E-Skills UK.
E-Skills UK aims to review the way IT is taught in the education sector to make it more relevant to the needs of employers. This could mean that in future it will be easier to find publicly funded supplier courses.
Keay said employers are not only looking to supplier certificates as a way of ensuring they have the right skills in their IT departments. They are also using supplier qualifications as a way of assessing whether their outsourcing partners are properly staffed.
"We have noticed a shift over the past 18 months. Supplier qualifications are becoming more important. If you think of the investment companies are making in mission-critical systems, they want to know their staff are qualified," he said.
But although IT training can complement experience, it is not a substitute - something that many new entrants to the industry find hard to accept.
"People think IT certificates are a magic wand to get them out of flipping burgers and into earning £60,000 a year," said Chapman. "But without the necessary experience, a certificate can be just a piece of paper."
CASE STUDIES: HOW SUPPLIER CERTIFICATION HAS HELPED IT PROFESSONALS' CAREERS
Daniel Bryk, IT manager at online trading company Global Coal
Has five supplier certificates and is aiming to get more
"I used to think certification did not mean much. I was a qualified software engineer with a lot of experience and I thought that was more important, but when you have certification as well, it puts you ahead.
"I started on certification when I was made redundant more than two years ago. It took a real effort to invest the time and money - £3,000 - but getting just one certificate got my foot in the door. I have a fair number now: Microsoft database administrator, application developer and systems administrator, as well as Cisco network professional.
"Certification puts the structure on your technical knowledge. To gain the network support knowledge, doing the training was far more of a necessity to differentiate me in the job market.
"I have got five certificates now, and I am retaking two [to update them], so that will be seven. However, I do know of people who have a CV full of qualifications, but their practical knowledge is zero.
"If I was looking to replace a software developer I would look first at their qualifications and then their experience, and anyone with certification would go higher on my list. But if they had experience without certification, that would count more than the other way round."
Nick Whitworth, operations specialist, Detica
Has three certificates and plans to get more
"I started on certification because I had been a network administrator for a dotcom start-up. It was my first job out of university and after three years I had gone as far as I could in a small company. The job market was flat, so to give me an edge I got certification.
"I found the job interview tests easier after I had done the courses. I am now third-line support at an IT company and I am very glad I moved. My first certification was a Cisco certified network associate and then a MCSE.
"I paid for the courses myself by taking out a £4,000 loan. I had to split the courses in two as I could not afford to do both at once. I took time off from work as well as using up my employer's training days allowance. I did intensive nine- and five-day residential courses. "I have not made my money back yet, but I will. Certification is a stepping stone. At the moment I am more of a jack of all trades and I haven't yet got all the certification I need or want.
James O'Farrell, network administrator, Software Medical Informatics
Six certificates in six months
"For me, certification was a way of starting my IT career. I left school at 19 with A-levels, but had seen too many jobless and low-paid graduates to want to go to university. I have always been interested in IT, and at school I helped out as an IT administrator.
"I chose to do an MCSE course as the IT job sites showed the most results for Microsoft skills.
"I did a course, sponsored by my father's company, where I then went to work. I had tried to get IT jobs in London, but even with the certificates, employers either wanted five years' experience, or would pay no more than £16,000 a year.
"Now, after a year of working, I am getting job offers every week, the best paid of which was £36,000. But I wouldn't be employable without the certification. Certificates give your CV a fighting chance."
THE VALUE OF IT CERTIFICATION
- Technology change is happening faster and product and version lifecycles are relentlessly shrinking. As a result, qualifications become out of date faster and need to be refreshed sooner
- IT is getting more diverse and many people want to broaden their range of skills. Security qualifications are particularly popular and a certificate in the latest technology can improve your employment prospects
- New skills such as project leadership, financial control and IT management are essential for career advancement.
Source: Robert Chapman, The Training Camp
This was first published in December 2004