Certification: Is ANY Certification Worth Pursuing?

    May 20, 2003

In the midst of a series of articles on Sun certification, it has become imperative to take a short break and address the question I am most commonly asked – Is it worth getting certified?

The reason it is imperative to address this issue now, as opposed to three or four months down the road, is because the current economic market in the IT field is the weakest it has been in a while. That has led many people to consider their options, and certification is one of the first things they consider.

Given the scope of this column, I am going to narrow the focus of the general question down just a bit into something more specific – Is any Unix/Linux certification worth obtaining?

The answer is the same one that would answer any question on an economics final – Uncertain with reason. In this article, I will examine “the reason” part of the answer and try to eliminate as much of the uncertainty as possible.

The Cost of Obtaining Certification

When considering the value of a certification, the first step is to examine the cost involved in obtaining it.On the surface, this amounts to nothing more than the cost of a multiple-choice exam(s). When you go below the surface, you must factor in the time spent preparing for the exam (most often in terms of the opportunities you are foregoing while studying), the cost of the time spent taking the exam, any travel time and expenses, and so on.

Suppose that I have been a Linux administrator for five years and know everything that there is to know about Linux. I decide that becoming LPI Level I certified makes the most sense for me, and it just so happens that there is a testing center where I work.

To become LPI certified, I will need to pass two multiple-choice exams at $100 each.Because I know the topic so well, I spend no time studying. Because the testing center is where I work, there is no time or expense associated with travel, and the only cost of becoming LPI Level I certified is $200 and actual time spent. If I make $25 an hour, we’ll round the exam time to 3 hours and add $75 in lost opportunity to the cost of obtaining the exam.The total cost of becoming certified is now $275.A very cheap investment.

On the other hand, contrast this with someone who has only three months experience as a junior Linux administrator and lives in a town 30 miles from a testing center.They will still have the same $275 cost the experienced administrator has, but now they have other costs as well.If we assume that they need to spend 100 hours preparing for each exam (a very good estimate for this knowledge level) by reading a study guide and working through lab exercises, then there is another $5,000 in opportunity cost added to the total. Each of those 200 hours is worth $25 or more in other things they could be doing, working, spending time with their family, part-timing at another job, etc.If you add in an hour each way for travel to and from the testing center for each exam, plus mileage at thirty-five cents a mile, there is another $142 in costs, taking the total to becoming LPI Level I certified to $5417.

These two scenarios represent opposite ends of the spectrum, and most readers will fall somewhere between the two extremes. You can see, however, by even such simplistic examples, that the question of whether it is worthwhile to pursue certification is not always a quick yes or no.

The Value of Certification

The value of anything is equal to what someone will pay for it. No more and no less.

We’ve all been in situations where we’ve wanted something very badly, until we found out how much it cost. After learning the price, you can often convince yourself that you don’t want it as much as you originally thought.In a simplistic way, this is also how employers look at employee skills.If I’m an employer, when a position comes open, I want someone who has 30 years of experience specific to the position. I want someone who not only has a college degree, but a doctorate as well. I want the candidate to have so many qualifications that she puts everyone else to shame. When I discover how much that person is worth on the open market, however, I’ll likely change my qualifications and accept a recent college graduate with little or no experience who will work for less. The cost of my training this person will, in my calculation, be much cheaper than hiring the person with all the qualifications.

Now, let’s equate that to certifications.

Some companies will demand that administrators they hire have relevant certifications. They look at this as an insurance policy that some vendor (LPI, CompTIA, Red Hat, etc.) has stated that the candidate knows what he is doing, rather than just taking the candidate’s word for it.Other companies, however, will hire cheap and train on the job, presumably understanding that they are trading experience for cost.

Using logic, it can be assumed that companies requiring certifications will pay more for administrators than companies that do not.This can be thought of in terms of two salaries: $X and $Y. The salary represented by $X is equal to that paid by employers who require certified administrators, and the salary represented by $Y is equal to that paid by employers who do not require certifications before hiring administrators.

Stating it in such a way makes it easy to see what the first real question should be. What is the difference between $X and $Y? That amount will vary not only by employer, but also by geographic region, industry, organization type, organization size, and a plethora of other variables. Readers must compute that value for their own situations, and it can be computed by looking at want ads in the newspaper, postings on job sites, and so on.

The key calculation at this point is whether $Y-$X is greater than the amount you must spend to become certified.If, for example, $Y-$X is equal to an annual salary of $1000, then it makes sense for the administrator who must only invest $275 to get certified to do so, while it does not make sense for the one who must invest $5417 to obtain the same benefit.

While this example applies to someone changing jobs, it can also be applied to someone keeping their current job. The question becomes one of how much more your current employer will pay you if you become certified versus what they are paying you now.

The Life Expectancy of Certification

When looking at the last example, you can argue that if certification is worth an extra $1000/year to the market, and it costs you $5000 to obtain it, it should still be considered because after six years you’re making more money than you would if you had not gotten certified.

Nothing in technology is good after six years. Some certifications realize this and have an expiration date associated with them. For example, when Cisco issues a CCNA certificate, it is stamped right on it that it expires a couple of years in the future, as they know that you must stay current or your skills are meaningless. Other certifications, such as those from CompTIA, are good “for life.”

As an employer requiring certification, I would certainly require current certification and would put candidates with outdated certification into the same category as those with none. IT certifications, as opposed to college degrees, are good for a limited time only. That must be factored into any computation.

Complements and Substitutes

Certifications aren’t all that an employer looks for. As a sampling of the market, I typed “Linux certification” into Monster.comon an average day. Ninety-two entries came back, and none of the job openings required certification only.According to my search, the #1 item employers are looking for is experience. Other employers want other certifications besides Unix/Linux, such as CCNE, Microsoft, A+, and Network+. Some require mastery of shell scripting (which the majority of certifications cover very lightly, if at all), Oracle/SQL expertise, and college degrees.

Before pursuing any certification, you should have a position in mind that it will lead you to, and know the other elements that factor into it from the employer’s perspective. The more you know, the better decision you can make.

So, Which Are Worth the Most?

In the Unix/Linux certification field, there are a number of certifications to choose from. Last month, this column introduced Sun certification, and that topic will continue in coming months. Previously, we’ve talked about LPI, SAIR, Linux+ (CompTIA), and RHCE (Red Hat).

As a general rule, the more difficult the certification is to obtain, the more it is worth.That is a general rule only, and exceptions can be found without looking too hard. Staying on the surface, though, to become Linux+ certified, you simply pass one multiple-choice certification exam. To become LPI certified, you pass two exams (per each level) with multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.To become RHCE certified, you must pass a hands-on lab. As an employer, which would you consider the most valuable?

You must also factor in differences for your geographic region, employer, and so on, then consider whether the cost of obtaining RHCE will generate a salary exponentially greater for you than the cost of getting Linux+ certified. There is no easy “yes” or “no”, and research must be done to find the answer for each individual.

A final element to consider is that the market always seeks equilibrium. If everyone can now earn $1000/year more by being Linux+ certified, it won’t take long before 100,000 Linux administrators get this certification. When they do, employers will no longer need to pay the extra $1000/year for those who have it. There will always be some new certification that seems to be valuable at the moment.

What Does This Mean?

Many people think that in a tight job market, you should get busy and get certified. However, some certifications aren’t worth the cost of acquiring them, in terms of the benefits they provide. The decision to get certified should be made after you’ve done your homework and understand the job market, know the expected life of the certification, and appreciate the costs vs. the benefits.

Article originally published at UnixReview.com
Reprinted with permission from UnixReview.com. Copyright CMP Media LLC. All rights reserved.

Emmett Dulaney is the author of several books on Linux, Unix, and certification. He is a partner in Mercury Technical Solutions, and can be reached at edulaney@iquest.net.