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Does certification really matter in IT?

According to our recent survey, over half of IT respondents reported having no certifications. This begs the question; do industry-recognized certifications still matter in IT?

Yes, it's true, I admit it; I'm a habitual learner. It's a real character flaw, and it drives my wife nuts. As an individual afflicted with this interesting little mental defect, I suppose it's understandable that technology should excite me so much. After all, there's always a new product or standard coming down the line, and this offers endless opportunities to learn new things. Most of the IT pros that I talk with every day feel the same way.

I've also been a huge believer in technical academics. The way I look at it, a technical degree or certification demonstrates an established measure of learning -- an accomplishment worthy of merit -- a way of standing out from colleagues, and differentiating yourself amongst managers and even potential customers.

But over the last few years, it seems like technical education and corresponding credentials have begun falling by the wayside. Sure, IT administrators, technicians and other staff still need to master their respective domains. There's certainly little margin for error when you're configuring, provisioning and managing computing resources in multi-million dollar corporate data centers. So why don't industry-recognized certifications seem to matter anymore?

This worry isn't just conjecture or my own personal opinion. In late 2009, TechTarget sponsored its annual Data Center Decisions survey. The survey was designed to gather information on the technological preferences and initiatives across a cross-section of IT professionals, and it also included a few career-related questions. The career results were stunning.

Over 55% of 375 IT respondents reported that they had no certifications at all. The next most significant response was just over 17% for MCSE. After that, a little more than 4% reported CCISP, while only about 3% noted Linux+ certification. The remaining responses were split amongst a wide variety of Microsoft, Cisco, CompTIA, and other vendors' certifications. I don't know about you, but the idea that more than half of IT professionals have no professional IT credentials is beyond disturbing.

This bleak picture is even more alarming when you consider that certification was a factor in hiring or promoting only 17% of 453 respondents. Almost 83% of IT professionals were hired or promoted without any regard for their certified knowledge. Even worse, certification was a factor in compensation (salary increases or bonuses) for just 12% of 447 respondents. This means 88% of IT professionals are compensated without any regard for their certified knowledge. Numbers like these tell me that corporate management is not encouraging the professional development of their IT staff.

I simply don't understand how that could possibly be. IT pros are remarkably bright and dedicated people; they're certainly not sitting around eating paste or spearing pencil tips into the dropped ceiling tiles. So what's really going on here?

I suppose that the difficult economic conditions of recent years can bear some of the blame. Every company is slashing spending, so footing the bill to certify IT staff may be seen as easy savings -- and they wind up doing the same work whether they're certified or not. Companies are also slashing head count, so just the fact that you're still employed can be viewed as a solid endorsement of your technical savvy.

I think there's also a consideration of maturity in the industry. The role of IT is shifting away from the white collar formality of years past and emerging as more of a blue collar profession. Corporate management now sees IT as just another cost of doing business -- one that some companies may eventually "outsource" to utility computing providers as the cloud gains momentum. It could be that today's IT has simply become so matter-of-fact that formal certification just doesn't hold much weight anymore.

And this overall sense of malaise isn't helped by the countless variety of certifications. There are literally hundreds of IT-related certifications today, and most are supported by vendors rather than impartial standards bodies. It's impossible to get them all, and it's exceedingly difficult to determine the ones that are most beneficial to you and your employer.

Ultimately, I hope that this is simply a cyclical phenomenon that will turn around in the years ahead. New technologies are still emerging and today's technologies are quickly maturing. Companies that forget the importance of their IT department and fail to foster continued staff development may find themselves ill-prepared to meet the future demands of business such as business continuance, disaster recovery, regulatory compliance, e-discovery and even business agility. Expertise demands expert training, and credentials are an objective means of building and retaining the best staff to meet corporate computing needs.

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