Certification can be a bit controversial. I've had people ask me if it's worth the time and money to get certified. They have heard people say that employers don't put much value on certifications because it just proves that someone can "take a test." Unfortunately there may be some truth to this statement. However, I think it's because the I.T. profession has become very confusing when it comes to credentials. Unlike more mature professions that have solidified a body of knowledge and certification standards, I.T. has become a maze of vendor and product driven certifications. Many of these are, indeed, just focused on passing exams about tools that will be outdated with the next release of software. Here's my attempt to make sense of the different types of I.T. credentials and options:
These are the certifications that are most often advertised in publications like Certification Magazine. They are the Microsoft MSCE, Oracle Developer, and other product- specific certifications. They are primarily exam-based and there are lots of companies trying to sell their study materials to help you pass the exams. The advantages of vendor certifications are that they are well known and publicized. If you will be working with these specific products, they are worth getting. They help to keep you up-to-date on the products, and demonstrate to employers that you care about keeping your skills sharp. However, the exams can get expensive, and your skills may be outdated quickly.
Certificates of Completion and Educational Programs
Another type of certificate is one that is granted by an accredited educational institution or a training company. The rigor and value of these certifications can vary depending on the granting institution and the program. For example, a certificate of completion may be given for simply completing a week-long seminar, with no actual assessment of your skills required. These are nice, but the only value to employers is that it proves you took the time to sit in the seminar. For some employers, these aren't much more than a receipt for accounting purposes.
On the other hand, there are many accredited colleges who also grant certifications in a variety of I.T. related programs. These are typically 3 to 9 months or more to complete, and they have an instructional component with a required assessment, often given in the form of a grade or Pass/Fail option. Assessments may be exams, completion of projects, presentations or observation of work. The value to employers is a level of confidence that people who have attained these certifications have been trained and their skills assessed in a variety of different ways that are more relevant to the real-world work a person will be performing on the job. Of course, the quality of programs and assessments can vary, so it's always a good idea to research this.
There is a growing interest in non-vendor specific professional certification in I.T., similar to that required by accounts (CPA) and other professions. PMI's Project Management Professional (PMP) has certainly become well known in recent years, and other professional associations have begun to create similar certifications. This is the niche that the CDMP fills for Data Management professionals, and the ICCP has been granting CCP certification to computing professionals for over 20 years. The difference between this type of certification and the others is that it is focused on providing credentials and recognition to experienced professionals. Although exams are required to demonstrate knowledge in a particular domain, a documentation of work experience and/or education are also required, along with a signed code of ethics. These kinds of certifications also require periodic recertification by documenting proof of ongoing professional development or contribution to the profession. Professional certification also helps to build a community of practice around a particular discipline, as holders take pride in understanding and contributing to the body of knowledge.
All of these types of credentials have their value in different circumstances. Earning a certificate, regardless of its type, can set a job seeker apart from others because it shows commitment to personal development and learning. As our profession becomes more mature, employers and professionals will become more informed about the types of credentials. I believe that we are moving toward a level of maturity where more emphasis will be placed on professional certification, as it provides an umbrella credential that assures an individual understands the fundamental concepts and principles needed to be successful in a constantly changing workplace.