The debate over certification rages on in the AS/400 world. How important is certification? Find out by exploring the current trends in certification and the hidden values certification holds for employers and employees alike.
Many IT professionals wonder about the emphasis placed on certification. Why is it so important to my career? they ask. Good question. Of course, the question presumes that certification is, in fact, important to a career in information technology.
Hardly a new phenomenon, certification has existed for years in other professions. Anyone planning to become a lawyer, doctor, or accountant must first obtain the appropriate education. The education you receive qualifies you to take an exam that, should you pass, certifies you to practice your profession. Certification also provides a guarantee that the food you eat and the medications you take have gone through some sort of approval process before they are ready for consumption. Certification is all around you.
Closer to home, certification serves as an important measuring stick in the world of network technology. Microsoft and Novell have devised excellent certification programs. In fact, it is likely that you cannot find a job in that specific industry unless you are either certified or in the process of obtaining certification. Becoming certified demonstrates you have an accepted level of competency to perform the necessary tasks of your trade. Basically, those who do the hiring consider job candidates without certification risky.
Certification hits even closer to home with the increasing attention it receives in the AS/400 arena. Currently, only IBM Business Partners are required to be certified. Because certification is not mandated for other AS/400 professionals, some might answer no when asked whether certification is important to their career. However, I think those people are a bit shortsighted.
An RPG programmer, for instance, can get a job without obtaining IBMs certification in RPG programming. In fact, that same person can win a job even when directly competing against an IBM Certified Specialist in RPG Programming.
The reasons are twofold. First, todays AS/400 marketplace has an overabundance of jobs and a shortage of programmers. As a consequence, prospective employers dont necessarily focus on certificationthey want bodies. The workload is too demanding and the backlog too deep.
Second, IBM certification exams for the AS/400 are new to the industry; therefore, not enough certified professionals have penetrated the market. While the jury is still out on certification, neither the AS/400 talent nor those searching for AS/400 talent will take certification seriously.
Assessing Needs of the Future
Lets look at the supply and demand trend for a moment. Today, AS/400 professionals have no problem getting jobsand jobs that pay wellwithout certification. However, what about the future? What happens after the Y2K circus is over? At some point, IT staffs will catch up on the projects put aside because of Y2K. Although it might seem distant now, I see a time when the AS/400 workload and the backlog of projects will become more manageable.
In addition, drastic changes in the development environment with RPG IV and Java, the introduction of ILE, and a shift in AS/400 usage bring new challenges to the interested parties. The skills an AS/400 professional needs will become more diverse. These changes will spark an increase in training and education. All this, I believe, will cause companies looking for AS/400 help to become more selective in their hiring.
In short, the supply will soon surpass the demand. Moreover, the demand is going to take new form. When that happens, competition for AS/400 jobs will increase. As the pendulum swings in favor of employers, those seeking work will need a competitive edge. In addition, those doing the hiring will look for more ways to weed out applicants. All this will take place regardless of whether the industry obtains a true understanding of the value of certification.
Backed by Facts
Understanding of certification will come only with time. Meanwhile, more people will take the IBM certification exams. As the sample of data increases, so too will the legitimacy of the process. History has already shown this with other certification processes. As mentioned in Thomas M. Stockwells white paper, AS/400 Certification and You (MC, February 1999), which is also available at www.midrangecomputing.com/mc/99/05, the International Data Corporation (IDC) has conducted surveys sponsored by companies that provide certification programs. The most recent study, completed in October 1998, is summarized in Financial Benefits to Supporters of Microsoft Professional Certification, a white paper you can download from www.microsoft.com/ train_cert/download/downld.htm.
This study tried to determine whether companies that invested in Microsoft Certified Training for their employees had a return on their investments. IDC surveyed 150 IT managers working with Microsoft Windows NT environments in companies with more than 100 employees. The survey found that the cost to certify one employee runs just under $14,000. This cost includes training, testing, travel, and indirect costs such as lost employee time and a 12 percent premium per year paid by some companies for certified employees.
Despite the cost, IDC found the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) certification to be a wise investment from a financial perspective. The white paper reported a decrease in server downtime and an increase in help desk productivity. Additionally, according to the report, IT managers generally rated MCPs as more productive in at least their area of certification. The report also stated that these more productive employees helped reduce reliance on outside contractors and consultants.
Even though this particular study concentrated on Microsoft, a 1996 survey conducted by IDC and sponsored by IBM, Lotus, Microsoft, Sybase, and Sylvan Prometric also employed similar methods. The results of this survey appear in Benefits and Productivity Gains Realized Through IT Certification, a white paper you can find at www.ibm.com/ Education/certify/news/proidc.phtml. This study interviewed 253 IT managers in shops with more than 100 employees. All shops operated in a client/server
environment and were classified as either certification supporters or certification nonsupporters.
The findings concluded that certification supporters (those who employ certified professionals) can operate in a more sophisticated environment with the same number of resources. Substantiating this conclusion is a 25 percent increase in the number of LANs and a 40 percent increase in the number of servers found in supporters shops compared to those of nonsupporters. These shops do not implement LANs and servers merely for the sake of having new equipment or technology. The more sophisticated environment means greater client/server decentralization and the ability to work with more complex operating systems, such as Windows NT, Novell, and OS/2.
Increased complexity does not necessarily guarantee increased productivity. Operating more machines while using more complex software could just as easily create more problems. However, the 1996 survey revealed certified staff could handle a more sophisticated environment as well as the noncertified group handles a less complex environment, and they did so with the same number of people.
Of the IT managers interviewed who support certification, more than 80 percent said that certified employees are more productive. Almost half (46 percent) of the nonsupporters agreed that certified employees were more productive in at least their area of certification. In addition, 92 percent of surveyed managers who supported certification said they achieved all or some of the benefits they expected from their certified employees. Respondents said the top five benefits of certification were as follows:
Greater knowledge and increased productivity
A higher level of expertise and skill
Improved support quality
Reduced training costs
Better morale and greater commitment Again, as in the 1998 survey, IDC compared the productivity of certified employees with the cost of getting them certified and measured the return on investment in dollars. To do this, IDC further classified supporters and nonsupporters by specifying parameters. To be considered a certification advocate, a company must have done one of the following:
Required certification when hiring IS employees
Used an outside service firm only if the staff is certified
Required certification of all technical staff Conversely, the survey deemed a company a nonadvocate if it had not required certification to hire IS employees, had not supported or paid for certification, or had failed to consider the certification status of service firm staff when choosing outside service firms. The study used the certification advocates information to determine the costs of certification, as shown in Figure 1. Then, the study compared the number of support calls taken per employee and the average downtime per server between the advocates and nonadvocates. Figure 2 shows that the advocates handled more support calls per employee: 21 calls to just 15 for the nonadvocates. On average, the advocates also experienced less server downtime: 3.5 hours as compared to 5.3 hours for nonadvocates. Both groups claimed downtime about twice a month.
When comparing the two groups costs (measuring the cost of lost productivity for nonadvocate sites against the price of certifying an employee), IDC found it took less than a year to recoup the costs of certification. After that, the increased productivity of a certified employed coupled with the savings of decreased server downtime produced an annual savings of about $13,000 per certified employee (see Figure 3).
Although the numbers differ a bit between the 1996 and 1998 surveys, both surveys had similar results. Each found that the costs of certifying employees is recovered quickly through increased productivity, decreased server downtime, and less reliance on outside help. Hiring precertified employees just speeds up the rate of return. Another development worth noticing is the escalating return on investment. Even though certifying an employee cost less in the 1996 survey, the 1998 survey found a much greater return on
investment. As the complexity of the environment grows, so does the benefit of employing certified professionals.
The Usual Arguments
As stated before, the number of certified AS/400 professionals is too small to make a similar study possible. However, I believe, based on consistent results from previous surveys, that the AS/400 profession would benefit from certified individuals in terms of increased productivity and an increased ability to operate the more sophisticated AS/400 environment that fast approaches.
All this said, most people you talk with regarding IBMs certification deem it unnecessary. Even with the numbers and data staring them in the face, people still argue that simply passing a certification exam does not necessarily prove you are good at your profession. I agree. Some people might excel at test taking but are not worth the price of the paper the certification is printed on.
In essence, the certification exam tells you that an individual has some minimum competency of the material covered. This competency provides a strong base on which to build the rest of the skills necessary for the job. Certification also provides a consistent base on which to measure those skills.
An offshoot to the latter debunking of certification is the argument that passing the certification exams does not necessarily make you better at your profession. Again, I must agree. The act of taking the exam does not, by itself, increase your skills (except maybe your test-taking skills). It is meant to measure the skills you have. As an added benefit, you might increase your skills by preparing for the test but not by taking the test itself.
One last complaint sometimes made about the certification process is that it rewards good test takers or, worse yet, punishes poor test takers. I dont really know how to answer that one. I believe that if you know the material, you will do well on the test; if you dont, you wont. Of course, anyone can experience a little anxiety, but that should go away as you answer the first few questions, assuming you have confidence in your answers.
Actually, I dont know what all the fuss is about. We have it pretty easy. Many of us enjoy excellent careers and make good money even without a college degree. Some might have a two-year degree, but most AS/400 individuals I work with do not hold a four- year college degree. Look at certification as an effective way (more effective, some studies say, than obtaining a degree) to increase recognition among your peers and, more important, increase your salary.
Microsoft Certified Professional magazine conducted a study that found a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer certificate added $11,000 to an individuals salary. Students are realizing that what they learn in one year of computer science studies in college will be obsolete by the time they earn their degrees. That same study noted a bachelor degree alone will get you $20,000 per year, but when combined with certification, your entry-level salary soars to $50,000.
So, any anti-certification folks out there should look at the bright side a little. When certification becomes more of a demand in the marketplace and more of an incentive for AS/400 professionals, appreciate the fact that you dont have to spend a minimum of four years to obtain a computer science degree just to realize that after the blood, sweat, and tears you invested in that degree, only a small percentage of what you learned is actually applicable in the real world. Go get certified!
AS/400 U! Go, Big Blue!
The changing dynamics of the AS/400 in the next few years will require increased training and education, and going back to school to earn a degree might not be the most practical means. So, how do you get the proper training to pass a certification exam? IBMs AS/400 Division has created a way to concentrate your education on what you really need in a manner suitable to your current situation, all the while leading toward the goal of professional certification. That vehicle is AS/400 University.
AS/400 U is a mixture of AS/400 divisions, third-party educational providers, and university campuses that have come together to solve the problem of AS/400 talent deficiency. The program starts with AS/400 technology and development and branches out to certification, college education, and self-directed study. These goals are met with the help of certification objectives, AS/400 education materials, AS/400 seminars and classes, and, finally, professional certifications. With AS/400 University, the seed has been planted to grow more productive and efficient AS/400 professionals. IBMs AS/400 certification is the fruit of that effort.
Certify and Prosper
So, why is certification important to your career? I think we have seen why. Current trends show that the number of certification tests given by IBM per year will quadruple by 2001. The increasing sophistication of the AS/400 and computing environments in general will warrant a more specialized expertise, which, in turn, will warrant professional certification.
The current AS/400 labor crunch will reverse itself as the new millennium unfolds. As the competition for jobs increases, job seekers will need to distinguish themselves from the pack, and those doing the hiring will want to raise the bar. Certification can accomplish both objectives.
The published success rates for other, more established, certification programs show that certification adds a number of benefits for both employer and employee. For employees, certification proves competency in the field, provides increased recognition among peers, and increases salary. From an employers perspective, certified employees can increase the efficiency in IT support, decrease downtime, and enable a company to lean less heavily on outside help. In addition, the return on your certification investment is met within the first year. This means that the hiring of precertified people will ultimately increase savings for the company.
But forget all those hard-hitting, power-packed benefits. The primary reason certification is important to your career is that you get to wear the little AS/400 certification pin on your lapel.
Median Direct Costs Training, testing, and study materials $2,040 Median Indirect Costs Lost work time and travel expenses $1,690 Additional Salary 11.7% on average, based on $50,000 $5,850 Total Cost per Certified Employee $9,580 Source: International Data Corporation, 1996.
Figure 1: Advocates admit that there is a cost associated with certifying employees.
Average Daily Support Average Downtime Downtime Cost per Calls per IT Employee per Server Server per Incident* Advocates 21 3.5 hours $669 Nonadvocates 15 5.3 hours $1,102 Difference 40% 51% 65%
*Defined as lost employee productivity as a result of inactivity to access the server. Source: International Data Corporation, 1996.
Figure 2: Certified employees handled more support calls and experienced less server downtime.
Monthly PC Support Staff Monthly Downtime Total Annual
Cost per IT Employee* Costs per Server Costs
Advocates $167 $1,338 $18,060 Nonadvocates $452 $2,204 $31,872 Savings $285 $866 $13,812 Certification Expense $9,580 Payback 9 months *Assume one IT staff supports 50 to 54 PCs.
Source: International Data Corporation, 1996.
Figure 3: Investing in certifying your employees can pay dividends.