Document your skills with additional certifications

As the flow of MCSEs from Microsoft's certification pipeline continues to increase, IT professionals feel mounting pressure to differentiate themselves from the MCSE masses. One approach is to continue down the certification path that got these professionals their jobs to start with. In many cases, this path leads to additional certifications by companies other than Microsoft or Novell.

The successes Microsoft and Novell have enjoyed in marketing their education products have not gone unnoticed by most of the large software and hardware vendors. Companies such as Intel, Cisco, 3Com, Computer Associates (CA), and HP are gearing up proprietary certification programs. This trend might give you the opportunity to complement your technical experience and knowledge of some of these network-related products with official recognition.

When I researched the subject of non-Microsoft/Novell certifications for "MSCE for Windows NT 4.0" (July 1997), I found 49 network-related certification programs. My research for this article uncovered 96 certification programs. Revisiting the Web sites for the original 49 certification programs, I found that 21 certification programs were no longer in existence. The related Web sites (if they still exist) give no hint of what happened. Other programs, such as Bay Networks' certifications for Certified Specialists and Certified Experts, have been absorbed into successful merger partners' programs (Nortel Networks acquired Bay Networks).

Selecting the Certifications You Need
As you contemplate obtaining an additional certification, make sure you address five key questions. These questions are how does the certification enhance your abilities and professional growth, what collateral benefits will you realize from the certification, what is the cost of the certification you want to obtain, what is the recertification time frame, and how difficult will obtaining the certification be?

Professional growth. Your goal with certification isn't simply to add an entry to your résumé. Vendors design certifications to test knowledge of product use and functionality. One of your principal criteria for deciding to get certified on a product should be that you presently use the product or will likely use it in the future as your job duties expand.

Collateral benefits. Because some certifications support specialized products only marginally related to NT, such certifications might provide little return on your investment dollar. To avoid these marginal certifications, concentrate on product recognition. Will other IT professionals recognize your certification as something of value? Put your research skills to the test: Conduct an Internet study. Through Usenet news groups and other Internet resources, determine what other professionals think about the certifications you are considering.

Cost of certification. The MCSE certification's popularity has spawned a booming industry providing third-party MCSE certification services. These services include training centers, test preparation services, software publishers of computer-based training materials, and online training providers. As an MCSE candidate, you have numerous choices for training, and costs vary substantially depending on the method you choose. With companion certifications, your choices are more limited. Some certification programs require you to attend vendor-produced instructor-led courses before you can obtain certification. The cost of these courses might be prohibitive unless your employer is covering part of the cost.

Recertification time frame. Retesting fees and the costs associated with retraining to pass exams can be a major expense. Microsoft has adopted a reasonable approach to address this recertification problem. For example, systems engineers certified in NT 3.51 don't have to take new certification exams until Microsoft retires the NT 3.51 exams. Microsoft has announced that the retirement date of these exams will be 1 year after the release of the exams for Windows 2000 (Win 2K). Some complementary certifications have a much shorter life cycle; for example, Compaq's ASE program requires annual recertification.

Level of difficulty. How difficult obtaining the certification will be depends on several factors, including courseware and product availability, your experience with the product, the product's complexity, the number of exams the vendor requires for certification, and the difficulty of the exams. Certification requirements such as those Cisco imposes for its CCIE certification (i.e., practical testing in a laboratory) have proved to be a substantial barrier for professionals seeking certification. A high level of difficulty is not all bad, however. A difficult course might have a direct effect on how the industry views your certification.

So Many Choices
With so many training options available, you might have difficulty choosing the most beneficial educational track. The time and money you invest in a new certification will be considerable, so don't take your decision lightly. Let's look at four categories of certification: hardware-related certifications, OS certifications, advanced enterprise networking certifications, and other related certifications.

Hardware-Related Certifications
The hardware-related certification category includes certifications that relate more to system hardware than to software. However, even these certifications entail a software component because computer hardware components depend on software to function properly.

A+ and Network+. The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), a consortium of large hardware and software manufacturers, developed the well-known A+ certification for PC technicians. A+ requires you to pass two certification exams. One exam covers system hardware components, and the other exam relates to the DOS, Windows 3.1, and Windows 95 OSs. (For more information about A+ certification, see Kurt Hudson, "A+ Certification," page 73.) CompTIA made Network+ available in April 1999 as a vendor-neutral networking certification. Network+ requires you to pass one exam.

Intel certifications. Intel provides several certifications related to its product line. Most people think of the company as just a CPU manufacturer, but Intel has a host of network-related products, including hubs, routers, switches, NICs, and enterprise network management software. The Intel Certified Integration Specialist (ICIS) certification has two paths: desktop-server and networking. The desktop-server certification requires five exams; the networking certification requires six. Intel also has a more advanced certification known as the Certified Solutions Consultant (ICSC). This certification concentrates on network and desktop-server design and business solutions. Successful applicants must pass three certification exams.

Compaq certifications. The Compaq ASE program provides three levels of certification. The first level, Associate ASE certification, allows six different specialties: Intel/NetWare Specialist, Intel/ Windows NT Specialist, Intel StorageWorks Specialist, Critical Problem Resolution Specialist, Workstation Specialist, and Communications-LAN Specialist. Depending on the specialty, Compaq requires two to four successful exams to achieve Associate ASE status.

The second level of certification is the Compaq ASE certification. In addition to achieving Associate ASE status, candidates must provide proof of their expertise on a networking OS (CNE or MCSE status fulfills this requirement).

The third level, Compaq's Master ASE certification, generally requires completion of ASE status along with one to three additional certification exams. Certification specialties include Enterprise Management, Enterprise Storage, High Availability and Clustering, Internet/Intranet, Messaging and Collaboration, and database specialties relating to Baan, SAP, Oracle, and SQL Server.

3Com certifications. This hardware vendor has adopted a different approach to training, providing graduates with a Master of Network Science (MNS) designation. 3Com permits six different tracks for its MNS designation: LAN Solutions, LAN Solutions Plus, WAN Solutions, Remote Access Solutions, Network Management, and Network Architecture. Each track has specific requirements, including a Web-based preassessment exam you must pass before you can take the requisite courses. After you complete the courses, 3Com gives you an opportunity to take the hands-on MNS exam. You must take the instructor-led courses if you want to obtain the MNS credential.

OS Certifications
The OS certification category covers certifications that are similar to the MCSE. Network professionals with skills and knowledge appropriate to different OSs are in short supply, and the industry views professionals with these certifications as valuable commodities.

Novell certifications. Popular opinion regards this OS certification as the standard bearer for computer-related certifications. Novell developed its certification program to train systems engineers and network administrators in the skills necessary to configure and administer its NetWare OS. Novell provides a variety of certification levels that relate to different versions of its NetWare OS. These levels include Certified Novell Administrator (CNA), Certified Novell Engineer (CNE), and Master CNE (MCNE). The exams for each of these certifications are NetWare version-specific.

The CNA is the initial certification, requiring you to complete one examination. CNE status requires passing five or six additional exams, depending on the OS version. MCNE status requires you to obtain a CNE and pass a minimum of five additional certification exams. Novell also offers a Certified Internet Professional (CIP) designation, which pro- vides five tracks, and each track requires you to pass two to five certification exams. Novell's Certified Internet Architect (CIA) designation also requires an applicant to obtain a CNE, MCNE, or other specified certification before receiving this CIP designation.

IBM certifications. IBM provides several certifications related to its UNIX-based AIX OS. The company designed AIX to run on IBM S/390 or larger server hardware platforms. AIX/6000 is a workstation-based OS that IBM designed to run on its RISC System/ 6000. The certification program for this OS provides five different Certified Specialist tracks and one Advanced Technical Expert track. The number of exams IBM requires you to pass to achieve these certifications varies, although most specialist certifications require only one exam. The Advanced Technical Expert certification requires passing four exams.

Sun certifications. Sun Solaris is a proprietary UNIX-based OS for Sun's powerful workstations and servers. The company offers two levels of certification for the OS. Sun Certified Solaris Administrator (CSA) status requires you to pass two exams. Sun Certified Network Administrators (SCNA) must pass an additional certification exam. Certifications are version-specific.

SCO certifications. SCO offers two levels of certification, the Certified UNIX System Administrator (CUSA) and the Advanced System Engineer (ACE). CUSA is an entry-level certification. You must pass only one administration exam to complete the certification in either the SCO OpenServer Release 5 or UnixWare 7 program track. ACE is SCO's highest level of certification, and you must complete three exams in either the OpenServer Release 5 or UnixWare 7 program track.

HP certifications. HP is in the process of rolling out new certifications covering its UNIX-based OS. The company is developing a two-tiered program for certification of HP-UX System Administrators. The first tier deals with job-relevant skills that are fundamental to a UNIX system. The second tier requires higher-level skills that a candidate must demonstrate by mastering complex tasks and completing projects in special areas of expertise (e.g., high availability, operations, capacity planning, performance). HP's goal is to provide certification testing that reflects success in challenging, real-life scenarios, not simply success on a multiple-choice test.

Advanced Enterprise Networking Certifications
Certifications in the advanced enterprise networking category highlight internetworking products and vendor certifications for third-party management of large enterprise networks. Certifications in this category are narrowly focused and require a high level of competency in the related product.

Cisco certifications. Cisco Systems, known primarily for its high-end routers, has developed a very popular certification program. Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) status is a goal many professionals seek but few achieve. Passing the requisite 2-day, hands-on lab tests has proved to be a formidable task. Multiple attempts are common, and at a per-test cost of approximately $1000 (not including travel expenses), a failing grade brings the realization that this certification can be as costly as it is valuable.

Cisco suggests that you obtain its lower-level certifications before attempting the CCIE. These certifications include the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification (one exam) and the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) certification (CCNA plus four exams). Cisco also provides a certification track relating to network design. Cisco Certified Design Associates (CCDA) must complete one certification exam. Cisco Certified Design Professionals (CCDP), besides obtaining CCDA status, must pass four additional exams. For more information about Cisco Certification, see Todd Lammle, "Beyond MCSE," page 67.

Nortel Networks certifications. With the acquisition of Bay Networks, Nortel appears to have adopted Bay Networks' certification program format. The program has three designations: Nortel Networks Certified Support Specialist (NNCSS), one exam; Nortel Networks Certified Support Expert (NNCSE), three exams; and Nortel Networks Certified Network Architect (NNCNA), no exams. The target audience for the Specialist designation consists of mid-level technical support, Help desk and field support personnel. The Expert designation is designed for mid- to senior-level managers in the technical support, Help desk, field support, and network management areas of expertise. The Network Architect certification is designed for senior networking consultants, architects, and design engineers and requires submission of a portfolio documenting network architecture experience.

HP certifications. HP offers certification for its UNIX OS and is also following Tivoli's lead by developing an enterprise network management application certification, OpenView Professional. HP plans to offer two levels of certification (IT Professional and Advanced IT Professional) for each of its three certification tracks: OpenView NT Server and Applications Management, OpenView Network Management certification for UNIX or Windows NT systems, and OpenView UNIX Server and Applications Management.

Tivoli certifications. Tivoli provides a suite of network management products appropriate for an enterprise networking environment. Its certification program provides three levels of certification. The Tivoli Certified Consultant certification requires successful completion of two exams. One exam covers Tivoli Framework implementation. The other exam's content varies depending on which of eight specializations the candidate selects. The Tivoli Certified Enterprise Consultant certification requires you to pass five certification exams. The Tivoli Certified Solutions Expert certification requires you to pass only the Tivoli IT Director exam.

Computer Associates certification. CA is in the process of redefining its certification program for Unicenter, the CA network management product. The company offers two certification exams for its Certified Unicenter Administrator (CUA) program and nine certification exams for its Certified Unicenter Engineer (CUE) program. CA is currently reevaluating the requirements associated with CUE certification.

Other Related Certifications
Certifications that complement your MCSE are not limited to network hardware, OSs, and network management software. The following certifications can also help you.

Project Management Institute certification. PMI provides an industry-recognized certification program for pro- ject managers. Qualifications for taking the Project Management Professional (PMP) exam include providing documented experience as a project manager. PMI requires a minimum of 4500 hours of experience for applicants holding a bachelor's degree and 7500 hours for all other applicants.

Oracle DBA certification. Oracle Corporation provides several certifications for its database applications, including Oracle 8.0 DBA certification. This certification track requires successful completion of four certification exams relating to database administration, performance tuning, backup and recovery, and network administration.

Lotus Notes certification. Lotus provides three levels of certification, Certified Lotus Specialist (CLS), Certified Lotus Professional (CLP), and Principal Certified Lotus Professional (PCLP). Specialists must pass one performance-based exam. CLP candidates must have obtained CLS status and pass a series of exams. These exams vary in nature and number with the type of CLP designation the candidate pursues. The designations include CLP Notes System Administrator, CLP Domino Messaging Administrator, and CLP cc:Mail System Administrator. The PCLP certification requires the candidate to possess CLP certification and pass an additional elective exam. PCLP is designed as the highest level of Lotus certification.

A Path to Follow
The choices listed in this article represent a small number of your certification options. Table 1, page 58, contains a more detailed list, providing URLs for Web-based information about certifications. Certification selection is a matter of personal choice. Look seriously at the time and money you must invest in the certification process. Determine which certifications best complement your career goals, and concentrate on certifications for products that will probably have a long life in the market.