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Navigating the world of professional certification and training options, alongside other dispatches from the new global workplace.

Technology Certifications: Should you go vendor-neutral or vendor-specific?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Note: this post will be most relevant to individuals working in IT, though the same basic dilemmas also surely apply to professionals working in other fields...

I recently came across a piece on About.com's certification section (which, unlike this blog, focuses exclusively on the tech world) about whether individuals should pursue certifications issued by software and hardware manufacturers ("vendor certifications") or focus on earning certifications from professional and industry organizations that offer curricula that cut across platforms.  The About.com piece is generally enthusiastic about vendor-specific certification and implies that, at least until very recently, the benefits of tying one's career to one platform were too significant to be ignored.  Vendor-neutral certification can be pursued as an "extra" to pad one's resume, but one should first focus on mastery of a specific product.  Some flaws associated with vendor-specific certification are acknowledged, such as a tendency for certifyees to be so loyal to the brand in which they are certified that they ignore or miss a product's obvious flaws, but they are minor given the rewards that one can reap with such in-demand skills.

The biggest argument in favor of vendor-neutral in my mind is completely missed by About.com, however.  Vendor-neutral certification offers a sort of insurance policy against technological change that may make the vendor's products obsolete (or at least out of favor with consumers).  Imagine that you are a mobile app developer.  Would you really have wanted your entire career to be tied to the success of BlackBerry?  Sure, for several years you may have been able to command a higher salary because of your exceptional mastery of the BlackBerry platform, but with time you would have found yourself forced to quickly jump ship to another platform.  In my humble opinion, a more balanced career development strategy would be a wiser one, allowing maximum adaptability to an environment characterized by little job security.  In a field characterized by such a rapid rate of change as IT, how can one reasonably predict what will be in demand in five years?  In ten years?  Becoming too specialized seems to me like a serious occupational hazard.

If one wants to go vendor-neutral in IT, probably the most recognized source of certification is CompTIA, which offers several certificates germane to broad IT occupational fields.  These include:

  • A+, a general certification that covers the basics of "how computers work" and seems to be valued in many tech support and helpdesk roles.  I remember some people earning this one in my high school after just one semester of vocational ed, so it's really a "baseline" certificate.
  • Network+, a slightly more specialized certificate for network administrators
  • Green IT, a certificate that demonstrates mastery of how IT systems can be made to be more energy efficient, and basic awareness of some facts about energy consumption - from what I've read in online forums, this one can probably be knocked off with a weekend of intensive study.
In fact, there are 20 CompTIA certificates, far more than I will get around to discussing today.  CompTIA is an industry association with a wide range of roles beyond certification, from standard-setting to political activism, so it's a good place to start if you are trying to break into the field.  

There's also a lot of certifications available within "topical" subfileds of IT.  Information security offers a number of such certificates, including the Certified Information Systems Security Professional and the Certified Information Systems Auditor.  Or, web designers should look at the CIW Web Design Professional and CIW E-Commerce Specialist designations.  There's even IT certificates specifically geared toward individuals working in the healthcare and hospitality industries.  Feel free to post links to your favorites in the comments section!

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