In the professional world, the perception of an individual's value is traditionally influenced by several factors, including his formal education, certifications, and peer respect. As the Internet becomes the primary tool people use to seek information, it is playing an increasingly important role in forming these perceptions. In this changing environment, certification programs are gaining popularity as a means to bridge the gap between formal education and the demonstrated mastery of a professional skill set.
Thirty years ago, an aspiring IT professional had to obtain a computer science degree - usually a specialty area within an electrical engineering academic program - to establish a knowledge base and begin a career. In the 1980s, a new dimension of software developers and programmers appeared, opening the door for individuals with training outside of the electrical engineering discipline. Then in the 1990s, IT certification programs from Cisco, CompTIA, and others began to emerge, bringing standardization to an emerging field that academia was not addressing. This provided a path that enabled individuals to enter the workforce while continuing to build their knowledge.
Throughout this evolution, peer respect also added to an individual's perceived value within an organization, based on the quality and quantity of peers he influenced. To gain peer respect, a person would search out peers and take the opportunity to demonstrate expertise. Now with the emergence of social networks and online tools, individuals can establish their expertise with a broader audience. Anyone who is looking for information within their domain can find it by using tools such as Google, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I'll call this "online authority."
The increased weight of online authority and an individual's ability to demonstrate his skills to colleagues have become prominent indicators of expertise in the industry, making formal education a secondary consideration. As the industry continues to shift in this direction, more and more individuals are seeking certifications to specialize and differentiate their skill sets while building their authority online.
Formal education versus peer authority
Formal education, such as a college degree, is bestowed upon an individual for completing the appropriate course work, but it does not validate her job skills. Pursuing a formal education is both costly and time intensive, and it requires the individual to make a long-term commitment. However, in many disciplines, it is still required, or at least recommended. A formal degree confirms a broad knowledge base and creates a foundation upon which to build.
Peer authority is granted by demonstrating to peers expertise in a subject area - it builds personal credibility. With the evolution of online authority, peer respect as a mechanism for increasing perceived value is growing rapidly. The emergence of message forums, blogs, Twitter, and LinkedIn provides methods for an individual to demonstrate his expertise via the Internet, thus increasing his reach beyond immediate colleagues.
Some feel that in the future online authority will be the only source to verify an individual's value, yet others think it will disappear over time. In his report "Authority Rules," Brian Clark claims that an individual who is well known online as an authority on a subject matter will be perceived as having more value than an individual who is formally educated in the subject but not known online. In actuality, online authority will most likely settle in as a part of the bigger expertise picture, adding additional value to one's portfolio.
Where does certification fit in?
Certification credentials are granted to an individual after she demonstrates expertise in a specific area by validating skills related to job duties. Certifications are a combination of both institutionally granted knowledge and individually demonstrated skill. They bridge the gap between the two by providing an accredited credential and validating application of a particular skill set.
Certifications seem to be a constant in a changing industry, because they always provide relevant value. New IT certifications hit the market quite frequently, allowing people to customize their skill sets with regard to their desired career paths. For example, IT security professionals have the security track for CCNA, network managers have the SolarWinds Certified Professional (SCP), and software testers have the Certified Software Test Professional from IIST. By using certifications to bridge formal education and peer respect, one can develop a complete value picture to assist with career development.
My colleague, Josh Stephens, "head geek" and vice president of technology at SolarWinds, recently shared his thoughts on value. Josh attended Arkansas State University, obtained certifications from Cisco, HP, Microsoft, and the U.S. Air Force, and also has an online persona (The Head Geek) with a large group of followers on Twitter, blogs, message forums, and so forth.
When asked to consider these points of value and determine which is most valuable to his career, Josh said the online persona holds the most value. If he were unemployed and could only choose one credential to showcase his talents, Josh would choose his Head Geek persona. He even stated that he is considering sending his son to training for CCIE instead of to college for a bachelor's degree.
From a recruiter's perspective, the online authority and certification portfolios of potential candidates are beginning to play a bigger role. David Perque, a senior recruiter for a Fortune 50 worldwide technology corporation, said he always researches potential candidates online with tools such as LinkedIn, Google, Twitter, blogs, and Facebook. He checks certifications, experience, and other content that relate to the position he's looking to fill.
These tools provide him with an in-depth look into a candidate's capabilities before making contact. When reviewing similar candidates applying for the same position, David considers their online presence and authority when making a decision. This not only confirms for him that the individual has the skill set his resume describes, but also suggests he will be a good fit for the company's culture.
Understanding certification programs
When increasing value by adding certifications to one's resume, it's important to understand the differences between certificate and certification programs and the value each can add.
Certificate programs are usually associated with training provided by a vendor on its specific product, with a certificate awarded as recognition for completing the course. Certificates achieved in these programs do not typically have an expiration date, because they validate the individual's participation in the program. If an exam is given, it is usually administered at the vendor's location and delivered by the instructor.
Organizational value gained from a certificate program can include communicating what is expected from workers and injecting new knowledge into the workforce. It can also be used to ensure compliance with required courses (for example, legal, corporate, or government). An organization can use a certificate program to perform due diligence by informing employees of expectations. An example of this would be a sexual harassment course.
Certification programs, in comparison, are designed to validate an individual's knowledge level in a specific skill set. The difference is in the credibility of the program and the exam. True certification programs undergo an accreditation process during development to ensure the final product is not biased and has legal defensibility.
During this accreditation process, a third party will perform a psychometric analysis of beta exam data to ensure all questions included in the exam support the knowledge requirements of the exam's objectives. Because certification validates a skill set, it typically requires that the participant recertify within a period of time to keep the credential current. This means the certification will have an expiration date by when the participant must recertify.
Individuals gain great professional value from a certification program. Obtaining an industry standard certification can boost one's earning potential while also making her a more desirable job candidate. Because certifications require renewal, an individual with a history of certification shows ambition and the ability to maintain the skill set amid changing technologies. Many certification topics are vendor-agnostic at the core and deal with a technology. Obtaining one of these certifications ensures the credential is portable, even if the individual decides to change companies.
Some organizations even require certification to perform certain functions, and if an employee is not certified, his work must be checked by someone who is. Then there are bragging rights that come with a difficult-to-obtain certification. Having the letters in a signature line or on a business card provide a way to communicate one's achievement to others.
Organizational value gained from a certification program can include increased team efficiency team due to standardizing the skill set of its members. This creates consistency in workers, even in a global setting, because certification programs validate an individual's skill against the exam objectives by using a third party proctored testing environment. Hiring certified individuals enables the organization to decrease onboard training time, which reduces initial training cost. Some organizations use the certification levels of staff for marketing purposes and can secure clients as a result.
Selecting a certification program
When choosing the right certification, it's important for an individual to consider her career goals and devise a plan, while setting intermediate goals to get there. Certifications should be chosen based on the next step in one's career path. Look for accredited certifications offered by respected companies to ensure the value-add is worth the time spent studying.
If one is new to certifications, he should start with core topics and plan toward more advanced, specific certifications for ongoing career growth. For example, a networking professional certification path may look something like this:
- Comp TIA A+ HW
- Comp TIA Network+
- Cisco CCNA
- SolarWinds SCP
- Cisco CCNP
- Cisco CCIE
An individual should also consider the tools and resources available to assist in the path toward certification. Many vendors provide certification assistance either directly or through a wide support network. This particular point is especially helpful, as some of these resources can also be used to increase one's online authority level. A community like the Cisco Learning Network, designed to bring individuals with certification goals together, can be used to prepare for an exam, and also to showcase current knowledge level and build credibility.
At SolarWinds, we recognize the importance of this three-pronged approach (formal education, online authority, and certifications) and have made changes to assist our customers in increasing their personal value. Thwack, our online community, was designed specifically for network engineers as a place to seek and share knowledge.
The SolarWinds Certification Program also provides network engineers with an avenue to gain and showcase network management-specific skills. To provide more integration between the two, a certificated individual on thwack is given a specific logo, which displays whenever he participates in the forums. This allows other members to see that he is certified, which communicates his expertise and increases his online credibility.
Demonstrating professional value
Increasing individual value and the ability to communicate it are critical in today's market climate. The competition is stronger than ever, with unemployment at record levels, which means professionals need to find ways to separate themselves from the crowd.
Certifications are a great means to increase value beyond a college degree, while online authority is an immediate way to communicate and demonstrate that value to others. As the industry continues to evolve, these elements will play important roles in perceived professional value. T+D