By Jason W. Eckert
In the 1980s, business-class computers and computer networks were difficult to configure and maintain. If you hired someone to set up a computer network or administer network servers, that person probably had a degree in computer science, science, math or engineering since those were typically the only university programs that exposed students to the computing concepts required to figure out how to implement technology in business.
When it came to computing in the 1980s, there was little standardization or organization. You either knew about computing or you didn’t.
As technology advanced throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the difficulty associated with setting up computers and computer networks disappeared. By the early 1990s, most companies had already entered the computer revolution and the companies that hadn’t were scrambling to join it. The number of hardware and software vendors skyrocketed and computer networks were popping up everywhere. The term Information Technology (IT) was created to describe the wide range of computing applications in industry. Cory Doctorow accurately describes this period as “the steam tunnels of the information age” in the introduction to his short story When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth.
Suddenly, there was an enormous need to hire people to configure and manage computer networks. However, companies wanted to find people who had the right skill set for the technology that they chose to implement. Someone who had experience in UNIX may not necessarily know how to fix a Novell or Windows network without some research or training. As a result, software vendors started offering certification programs that made it easier for companies to connect with people who knew their software. SCO and Novell were first on the scene. If you needed someone who knew SCO UNIX, you could contact SCO and get a list of SCO certified IT professionals.
Soon afterwards, other vendors such as Microsoft jumped on the certification bandwagon. Certification quickly became a benchmark for IT hiring decisions. If you were certified in a technology that was a key part of a prospective job, you were much more likely to get hired over others who were not certified.
Of course, there is always a downside. Early certification exams were very easy. Furthermore, they consisted of about 40 multiple-choice questions, which was not sufficient for testing most IT skills. I knew people (I won’t name them), who got their Microsoft MCSE certification in Windows NT 4 without ever installing the operating system. They simply memorized “brain dumps”, which were copies of the real certification exam questions written by people with good memories who wrote the certification exams. In fact, this practice was so common, it led to the term “Paper MCSE” (someone who was an MCSE on paper but practically useless in a job environment). This term is still common on the Internet today.
Shortly after 2000, nearly all vendors made their certification exams tougher and longer. In addition, many vendors started adding simulation and practicum questions where students would need to configure a piece of software in order to pass the exam.
This trend continues today. Certification exams are tougher today than they have ever been. As a result, most companies use IT certification as a benchmark for hiring decisions, bonuses and promotion.
It is less risky to hire someone who is certified. Someone who is certified in SQL 2005 will need little training work in a SQL 2005 environment. In addition, this person is more likely to know the skills needed to manage a SQL 2005 environment on the first day of the job. Similarly, a certified individual takes their IT education seriously and is more likely to continually upgrade their skill set as a result.
I teach programming and computer networking for triOS College in Southwestern Ontario. In any class, 30-50% of the students will have extensive IT job experience, and could easily work as a programmer or Linux/SQL/Exchange/Windows/AD/Network administrator in today’s industry. So why do they come back to school? The answer is almost always the same: No certification, no job interviews.
In addition to teaching, I also write college textbooks for Wiley and Course Technology (Thomson/Delmar). Of the 17 books I have written on UNIX, Linux, Windows Server 2003, and Windows Vista, all but one is geared to prepare you for a particular certification exam. North American colleges and universities purchase most of the books I write because certification is necessary in today’s IT job market.
If you have an IT job that guarantees long-term future employment and personal development, then certification is not for you.
For the rest of us, IT certification is a good idea. However, there are many different types of IT certifications today for different skills, technologies and experience levels. You should be careful to choose the certifications that will give you the most future benefit in your current career.
Next blog: Which IT Certifications Should I Write?