IBMs AS/400 Certification Program is supposed to provide companies with qualified personnel while offering IT professionals a way to advance their careers. Does certification make the grade?
As IBM continues to roll out new languages, hardware technology, operating system software, communications, and Internet capabilities, IT professionals need to learn how this new technology works and how to integrate it with existing technology. But providing IT education and training to your employees can be a catch-22. On the one hand, you need to train the staff you have. On the other, theres the fear that as soon as you train them in a new technology, another company will hire them away from you. But if you dont train them in new technology, you risk losing them to a company that will. And dont forget that lack of training also causes delays in implementing new projects and can create faulty implementations that make a project ineffective.
IBMs new AS/400 Professional Certification Program may be a path that leads you out of this quagmire of contradictions. The program provides a framework of educational goals that can focus the dollars your company spends on training. It sets realistic standards by which you can measure the progress of your employees against their peers, and it provides a measurement for employees, allowing them to see the value of your companys training investment. But is it an expense that is worth the time and effort, or is it an investment that can offer long-lasting dividends? Lets explore the merits and realities from both the management and employee perspective.
A Management Perspective
Is the IBM AS/400 Certification Program a route your company should take? As an IT manager, it is your responsibility to take a closer look at the program because it may significantly affect the productivity of your staff.
How do you evaluate the value of certification? For starters, take this issue to your MIS steering committee and have the committee investigate the IBM AS/400 certification process.
Next, you can schedule IBM certification testing of a few interested employees. After testing, ask the participants for their impressions and feedback, which you can report to the IT steering committee.
After the certification participants receive their results, the MIS steering committee should meet again to review their feedback. Regardless of whether they pass or fail the test, find out if they feel it was a fair appraisal of their skills. Your most technical project leaders or managers should review the scores and give their opinions as to whether the test results accurately portray the skills of the test takers.
Be cautious of accepting or dismissing the program if the results are not what you expected. In order to give the program a fair shake, try again with another pair of test takers. This should be a learning process for everyone. For those who dont pass the certification test, it will point out areas they may need to work on. Correcting those mistakes can help that person become an advocate for doing things the right way. For those who pass, their skills will be affirmed.
Keep in mind that some highly qualified, competent employees may do poorly on a programming test. For instance, somebody with 20 years of programming experience might recognize a problem when being tested but not remember the exact solution. On the job, that programmer could simply ask a coworker for a solution to the problem or consult a manual.
Ive seen some companies that test job applicants with programming problems that no one has seen in 10 or more years because the company never upgraded its own code. Someone who has worked only with RPG/400 or ILE RPG would have a different answer than the company using RPG III. My experience has been that most programmers cringe when they hear the words programming test as part of their interviews. Some of the most experienced and highly regarded programmer/analysts have refused interviews when a test is involved.
Certification as a Recruitment Tool
Education and training opportunities can be factors for job candidates in deciding whether to work for a new company or for employees continuing to work for your organization. Although the IBM certification process is quite new, you can use certification to your advantage by offering the training tools and support to help your staff achieve certification. What better way is there to show how much you value professionalism and opportunity at your company? In the IT field, education and training are usually more important than money. They go hand in hand with challenge and opportunity. As a manager, you can show your commitment to education by endorsing participation in technical seminars, COMMON, local user groups, and the purchase of educational media and technical journals, with the goal of helping your staff achieve various appropriate certification designations.
Realities of Certification
But how precise of a measuring stick is the IBM Certification Program? Is the program a reflection of real-world problems and solutions or ivory-tower expectations of those who wrote the book? From what I have read and heard about the IBM certification process, it seems to be a valid real-world appraisal. See AS/400 Certification and You, an IBM white paper by Thomas M. Stockwell, MC, February 1999, (also at www. midrangecomputing.com/mc/99/05) for details on how the test was developed and evaluated.
Of course, as goes time by and more people take the certification test, we will get a better idea of the programs value. I think its still too early to either jump on the bandwagon or disregard it. Is the program a ploy to imitate Microsoft and Novell, or has IBM realized that, in order for companies to implement its hardware and software solutions, it needs to foster formalized education about AS/400 solutions?
What about the cost of the program? Its not so much the testing fees that mightconcern companies; its the cost of sending staff for additional training whether it be off-
site, in-house, college classes, books, or videos. Whatever the cost of supporting this education, look at it as an investment in the successful implementation and support of projects as well as increased productivity.
As shown in studies referenced in Thomas Stockwells white paper, IT organizations that were supported by certified individuals had less downtime than shops without certified individuals.
Certify, Then Good-bye?
Are you wondering whether endorsing certification in your company will prevent turnover? My opinion is that it wont. Other companies may be attracted to recruiting your staff because they are certified or have training on specific software and utilities. But, consider education and training costs of doing business. It is too early to calculate what the demand will be for certified individuals over the next few years. As of today, certification is not a criterion Ive heard of in search requirements for AS/400 personnel. In fact, few companies or AS/400 staff have even heard of the certification process. Companies are more likely to seek staff with J. D. Edwards or MAPICS, Inc. experience in the programming and application development areas.
On the LAN side, it is a slightly different story. Novell and Microsoft certification is sometimes a requirement. When Novell LANs began appearing in AS/400 shops, companies preferred to hire somebody who was a Certified Novell Engineer (CNE). As time went on and the staff CNE began cross-training other LAN administrators, companies began relaxing the CNE requirement. Part of the issue was the fact that companies did not want to pay CNE-level salaries for more than one network person. Companies became more comfortable with LAN administrators who were still taking CNE classes or Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) classes for Windows NT LANs.
In the AS/400 and earlier IBM midrange arena, programming and operations support personnel learned their trades through computer schools, colleges, and on-the-job experience. Yes, some companies sent their people to classes at IBM centers, but this was usually after they had already had some job experience. Many of the early LAN people who have either CNE or MCSE credentials received their certification first and then went on to find their first job in the computer field. In the IBM midrange arena, most of the candidates that Ive interviewed over the past 25 years were never trained on IBM midrange systems prior to gaining their work experience. Most learned on IBM mainframes and studied COBOL programming in either a college or computer trade school. I see this fact as a 180- degree difference from the PC LAN world to the IBM midrange world. Does this mean certification wont be the driving force on the AS/400 as it was on the PC LAN arena? Its still too early to tell.
Certification as a Hiring Criterion
As a hiring manager in todays market, making certification one of your firm requirements isnt really feasible. If a candidate is AS/400-certified, thats definitely a plus. Currently, the number of people who have taken or passed the certification test is negligible compared to the body of IBM AS/400 professionals in the field, but over the next few years, that may change. According to Thomas Stockwells white paper, in 1997, 4,000 IBM AS/400 professionals were certified. By 1998, there were 10,000. IBM expects that number to double in 1999 and every year thereafter. Still, the program is too new to make it a hiring criterion. Keep in mind that IBM requires all Business Partners to carry at least two current certifications in order to retain Business Partner status, so the Business Partner segment is the first area to be penetrated by the IBM Certification Program, not the corporate environment.
In todays market, finding experienced personnel of any caliber is difficult. Whether this changes depends on how well IBM markets the idea of certification to both companies and individuals and how readily they accept the program. If companies see a noticeable increase in productivity as a result of certification, they will continue to endorse
the program by spending more on certification for their staff. As more companies realize the value of this IBM Certification Program, it will become an expected qualification.
The IT Professional Perspective
Are you really a professional? What have you done for yourself lately in terms of education and training in your field of expertise? What comes to your mind when you hear certified public accountant as compared to accountant? How about board-certified plastic surgeon or certified financial planner?
If I may paraphrase Websters New World Dictionary, profession: an occupation requiring advanced academic training, such as medicine, law, etc.; certify: to declare something true, accurate, etc. Definitions aside, professionals are those who study their industry above and beyond the 8-to-5 routine and participate in seminars, conferences, and professional groups to learn more about their profession to better serve their customers. In addition, they invest in themselves, paying their own way when their company wont.
As a recruiter, I read eight technical trade magazines and two search industry publications, serve on the board of an AS/400 users group, and buy about six PC software books per year. I also attend at least three to four technical conferences or trade shows per year. Now, I dont read every article in every magazine, but I look for the articles that interest me and tell me where our industry is headed.
If you are an IT professional, you need to take a look at how certification might help you in your career both today as well as in the future. Is IBM certification the route you need to go, or should you be looking at taking classes in object-oriented technology, Visual Basic, or Java? If youre in operations support, should you get networking credentials, such as Novells CNE or other product certification?
With so much going on in different areas of technology, deciding which classes to take and which seminars to attend is difficult. Regardless of the area of technology youre in, you will be coming into contact with a variety of products and technology. Although you cannot be an expert in every area or with every product, todays IT professionals need to know more than one area. Those who think they can survive into the next millennium by taking one straight and narrow road may find themselves passed over for a promotion or a new job. However you do it, you need to increase your knowledge about our industry.
Will You Do It for Yourself?
Are you the kind of person who is going to wait until your company decides to start you on the certification process, or are you the type to become the first among your peers to become certified? You owe it to yourself to study and evaluate the certification process as it applies to your personal goals. You also need to evaluate the value certification brings to your marketability whether you are a staff employee or contract programmer or consultant. Are you better off taking individual classes in the areas you want to pursue? Or should you take a blend of specific classes, such as Java or Visual Basic and then certification in programming? The answers will be different for everyone, but you need to analyze your interests and where the marketplace is headed.
While I am still curious to hear feedback from both people who have taken the certification test and companies that have sent staff through the certification process, I believe that certification will benefit you. Although certification will probably not be a requirement for hiring in the near future, it would definitely be a plus to you and to your employer. Listing any specialized training or certification on your resume tells potential employers that you are a professional and that you are taking the extra steps to learn more about your field of expertise. Certification also demonstrates you are someone who is continually learning as opposed to someone who uses the same old techniques you learned 10 or 15 years ago.
In the past, companies valued employees who provided long-term stability and had few job changes. Some of those people were great, loyal employees who knew their companies and jobs very well. The problem was that they were not always adaptable to a new environment. Unless you are constantly learning new technologies and taking on new
responsibilities, you always run the risk of getting stale. The certification process can be a way to avoid that rut.
Throughout my 25 years in the IT search industry, I have seen a pattern repeated over and over again. The first group of professionals to learn a new leading-edge skill or software package become highly sought after by the next wave of companies to implement the technologies or software package. This usually means a salary premium of 10 percent or more.
Will this happen for those who get IBM certification? Again, its too early to tell, but I believe certification will have some value. If nothing else, going through the certification process will give you a better idea of what you know and what you still need to learn. Passing the certification test will give you the recognition, which you have truly earned.
Time Will Tell
Certification supported with other in-house and external education can prove to be a real asset to a companys productivity as well as for employee attraction and retention. For as much money as is invested in hardware, software, and services, it always amazes me how some companies fail to invest enough time and money in training staff to properly support it. Maybe the IBM certification program will be a key factor in implementing new technology faster and more successfully. The key to the success of the IBM Certification Program lies in how well IBM markets the certification process to companies and individuals other than Business Partners and, in turn, how well IBM midrange professionals, employers and employees alike, accept the validity of the certification process.
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