You probably know someone who's certified on almost every product on the planet—someone whose signature reads something like "John Doe, MCSE, MCP, MCT, CCNA, CCDA, CCNP, A+, Network+, I-Net+, CNA, CNE, OCP." Certainly quite a few of these "super-certified" individuals are around, and every day seems to bring a new certification announcement.

Take CompTIA for example. The company's Web site currently lists eight certifications ranging from the popular A+ and Network+ to the more obscure Certified Document Imaging Architech (CDIA). Among those eight are the two new certifications (IT Project+ and e-Biz+) CompTIA just unveiled for IT professionals. I doubt that CompTIA will stop there. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the company launches a few more new certifications by the end of the year.

Can too many certifications be a bad thing? When do employers throw their hands in the air in confusion because of resumes littered with an alphabet soup of acronyms? Or worse, when do employers simply disregard certifications altogether? No one disputes that having some certifications in the computer industry is necessary. But if the day arrives that we have certifications for RAM Installer and ICQ Guru, we have a serious problem.

Too many certifications can be a bad thing for people like John Doe above. Once such people earn more than a handful of certifications, listing all of them on their resumes is more likely to hurt than to help. Few people question the benefit of telling someone that you're an MCSE or a Certified Novell Engineer (CNE). But showing off that Associate Computing Professional (ACP) or Certified Web Developer (CWD) is unlikely to land you your dream job.

The problem is that so many people focus on accumulating certifications rather than accumulating knowledge. Certifications ARE important for showing a certain level of technical proficiency. However, remember that certifications usually don't test everything you need to know to survive in the real world. Only lots of hands-on experience provides that.

For the IT industry, too, many certifications can prove to be a bad thing. The more certifications, the more confusion about their meaning. For example, if Microsoft had just one certification (e.g., the MCSE), you can bet that most employers would understand what it meant. However, Microsoft now has at least 10 certifications, and many employers don't know the difference between the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) and the MCSE or that the latter is much more difficult to obtain.

Indeed, some consolidation in the certification industry would be nice. However, certification is a big business for the companies involved with it. More certifications equate to more revenue, which explains why the total number of certifications available has at least doubled in the past few years. That trend probably won't reverse soon.

Don't Be a Loser
Still, you can make sure that you aren't on the losing end of the trend. First, focus on certifications from major vendors such as Microsoft, Cisco, and CompTIA. Unless your job requires you to get a specific vendor certification (e.g., Compaq), I advise you to stick with the big names.

Second, don't list more than a handful of certifications on your resume. Pick the ones that have the most impact (e.g., MCSE, Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert—CCIE) and the ones most relevant to the job you're pursuing. Leave out the rest. So, why should you even bother to pursue certifications that you won't list on your resume? I'd say that if the certification isn't worth listing on your resume, it's probably not worth going after.

Finally, be prepared to explain your certifications to your employer. If you're a Citrix Certified Administrator (CCA) who lists that on your resume, you better be able to tell someone concisely and articulately what that means. As the number of certifications increases, the number of questions you receive about your certifications is likely to rise. If you don't feel confident telling an interviewer what your certification means, don't list it on your resume.

By following these tips, you can get the maximum value out of the certifications you hold now and the ones you might hold. After all the time and money you've spent getting certified, that is very important.