How to make sure IT certifications actually matter

Has the certification golden ticket become nothing more than fool's gold? Here's how to get real value as a employee or employer

I'm one of the most certified people on the planet: a Triple-MCSE (NT 4.0/2000/2003) and a Microsoft Certified Trainer with more than 30 Microsoft exams under my belt. I've taken exams after all-night study sessions; I've taken exams with no preparation time; I've even taken exams while eating a chicken parmigian sandwich.

In addition to Microsoft exams, I am A+, Network+, iNet+, CIW Master, CCNA, and CNA certified. Obviously, certification has played a large part in my life in the IT industry, but my very experience with exams (past and present) has led me to ask if these exams have any modern-day relevance.

[ Check out InfoWorld's report "Hot tech certifications in a cool job market" and Bob Lewis's "What to do when an employer insists on an irrelevant certification." | Get solid career advice from InfoWorld's Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

I'm not alone: If you raise the subject of certification with IT admins, you quickly see them take sides. Some claim the paper-MCSE craze in the late 1990s created an overload of unqualified IT workers who flooded the job market too quickly at salaries that were way too high for their experience level. "Experience is the key ... not multiple choice questions" sums up that side's sentiment.

It's hard to argue with sentiment. It's true that the demand for IT personnel was off the charts 10 years back, and one of easiest ways to know if a person had any experience was if he or she had a few exams under their belt or an acronym to attach to his or her résumé (regardless of experience). Many admins went through trial by fire at that time, and they appreciate the fact that those letters after their name got them in the door, though they were also aware that they had to show their worth beyond that point.

Is this situation any different from a college degree, where a person has proof that he or she sat in a classroom and could pass tests and do homework? What proof does such a person have regarding work ethic and/or ability to adapt to any circumstance thrown at them and stay until the wee hours of the morning to fix a server?

Today, the certification craze has passed -- but certifications are still hot. Just this week I went into a New Horizons testing center to take my Exchange 2010 Configuration exam (the 70-662). I assumed the staff would open a door covered with cobwebs to let me into a seldom-visited spot: the testing center. To my surprise, the room was full of people taking tests. As I was leaving (with a results sheet that said "Congratulations! for passing" in hand), more folks were coming in to take their exams.

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