Why All IT Certifications Aren't Created Equal

By Michael Vizard
IT certification

As enterprise IT has become more complex over the years, vendors have been nudging partners to increase the number of certified IT professionals they have on staff.

The basic thinking is that the more those IT professionals are certified, the better job solution providers will do implementing products as part of a larger IT solution—which, in turn, should result in more satisfied customers. That's critical because satisfied customers are more likely to buy additional products and services.

Given that focus on customer satisfaction, many vendors have ratcheted up the number of certifications that their best partners have to attain to become recognized as top-tier players. For their part, solution providers want their team to become certified because the top-tier partners have a lot more flexibility when it comes to the level of discounting that most vendors provide their best partners. Vendors also tend to steer more of their best leads to partners that participate at the highest levels of their channel programs.

The partners, in turn, wield that discounted pricing to win deals in ways that don't affect their bottom lines as heavily as partners that don't attain gold- or silver-level status in a vendor channel program.

The issue is that vendors can sometimes get carried away with certifications, which can result in solution providers opting not to participate in channel programs because the cost of attaining all the required certifications is too high. Recently, Citrix moved to reduce the number of certifications its top partners had to attain to participate at the highest levels of its channel programs.

Having to attain all those certifications was getting in the way of actually selling products and services, said John Carey, Citrix's senior director of worldwide channel programs. To reduce the complexity of the Citrix channel, Citrix cut the number of certifications partners need to attain to participate in the top tiers of its programs to focus on two core competencies.

"We used to require six for the top partners," Carey said. "But that limited the number of partners that could participate at the top tiers of our channel programs."

Citrix isn't alone in simplifying its channel programs, which by extension, often means reducing the number of certifications that partners need to attain.

IBM, for example, as part of a reorganization of its channel strategy recently simplified the certification requirements for selected software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings, thereby enabling business partners to earn incentives faster.

That's critical for partners because most of them, on average, carry 30 to 40 products. When you add up all the potential certifications that can be involved, the training and certification costs of being a top partner for all the vendors that make those products can be substantial.

Of course, none of this means certifications are going away any time soon.

Red Hat, for example, recently added three new Red Hat Certified Architect (RHCA) concentrations around its data center, cloud, and application platforms. To earn the title of RHCA, an IT professional must attain Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) status and then acquire at least five of the eligible certifications, each of which cover different product and solution areas.  

Certifications around advanced technologies are particularly important, given the complexity of the technologies involved, said Randy Russell, director of certifications for Red Hat. "We're looking to partners that want to step up," Russell said. "We're trying to make a distinction between capacity and capability."

Given the demand for IT professionals with advanced IT skills, it might not come as surprise that technologies such as security and big data are a key focus on a list of the top 10 certifications compiled by Foote Partners LLC.

Of course, capitalizing on all that investment in certification is a major challenge for vendors and their partners. Customers don't tend to put much stock in certifications—no matter how advanced the technology they want to implement. In fact, the personal brands of a small circle of experts in any given category often supersede the brand of the solution provider or, for that matter, the vendor. As such, turning certifications into something resembling a marketing asset continues to be a major challenge for the IT industry.

"If you're a big solution provider, you already have a brand and reputation that goes beyond certifications," said Pete Busam, chief balancer for Equilibrium Consulting, which specializes in channel marketing. "It's only the little guys that no one has heard of looking to carve out some area of differentiation that are using certifications to differentiate themselves at least in terms of perception."

Nevertheless, a considerable complex associated with the administering of certifications continues to exist. The challenge is sorting out the certifications that are merely part of the cost of doing business, versus ones that might result in solution providers achieving a level of specialization in a category that might yield a significant return on that investment.

Michael Vizard has been covering IT issues in the enterprise for 25 years as an editor and columnist for publications such as InfoWorld, eWEEK, Baseline, CRN, ComputerWorld and Digital Review.

This article was originally published on 2015-02-27