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IT Certifications

There are hundreds of certifications available in today's IT industry, so it should come as no surprise that IT certifications come in various forms. For this discussion, we consider two different ways of describing IT certification programs:

By origin, in terms of who stands behind a certification program. Please note that any single certification program may itself include one or more specific certification credentials; for example, Microsoft's certification program includes numerous individual certifications, such as the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP), Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA), and the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), among several others.

Three types of organizations typically back certification programs: vendors that sell specific platforms or applications, training companies that support specific programs of study or methodologies, and nonprofit or user organizations that likewise support specific programs of study or methodologies. Just to make things interesting, such offerings can overlap!

By testing method, in which the kinds of interaction with prospective candidates for certification help to describe a program. Certifications invariably include exams (and some also include detailed application forms, projects, essays, reports, and even background checks) as part of the qualification process.

In the various headings that follow, you will learn about vendor-neutral versus vendor-specific certification (a distinction that derives from the axis of origin); and also about content-, simulation-, and performance-based certifications (a distinction that derives from the testing methods used).

Vendor-Neutral Certifications

When considering a certification program of any kind, it's important to understand who's behind that program. Vendor-neutral certifications earn this designation when they cover a subject or technology without focusing on any single specific implementation. That's why vendor-neutral certifications can be valuable to those seeking to demonstrate a broad knowledge of big subjects, such as PC repair, networking, or information security. This broad focus also explains why most vendor-neutral certifications focus on entry-level or intermediate professionals in specific fields because these are the levels of knowledge at which broad conceptual coverage is most likely to be useful. Also, most certified professional populations include more entry- and intermediate-level professionals than advanced professionals, in a typical pyramid model for a variety of reasons.

Vendor-neutral certifications most often originate from training companies, or user or industry groups that don't have particular product or platform allegiances to worry about.

Vendor-Specific Certifications

As the designation indicates, vendor-specific certifications focus on specific products or platforms. In this realm, there's often a distinction between "official" certifications such as those in the Microsoft Certified Professional program for Windows and "unofficial" certifications, such as those available for Windows, SQL Server, and other Microsoft products and platforms from various training companies (Global Knowledge or Learning Tree, for example).

Content-Based Testing

Some credentials rely on examinations that seek to assess a certification candidate's knowledge (in whole or in part) of concepts, tools, technologies, and platforms by asking substantive concept- or activity-based questions about such things. An example is a hot spot question, in which the test-taker is asked to correctly identify an item by clicking an area of a graphic or displayed diagram. Another example is the case in which a candidate must apply her knowledge to construct an appropriate TCP/IP subnet mask or CIDR address range. Such tests rely on reading and comprehension skills as much as they rely on knowledge of the underlying subject matter to test the candidate's skills and knowledge. Nearly all certifications include at least some content-based components, even if they also use other testing models such as simulation or performance-based testing.

Simulation-Based Testing

Some credentials rely on examinations that seek to assess a certification candidate's knowledge (in whole or in part) of concepts, tools, technologies, and platforms by requiring candidates to run a simulator that looks and acts like the "real systems" it imitates to solve problems, answer questions, or demonstrate specific proficiencies. Such tests rely on hands-on knowledge, skills, and experience in operating the various tools, utilities, consoles, and so forth that practitioners must use on the job. A growing minority of certifications include some simulation-based components along with content-based testing. Microsoft and Cisco's certifications increasingly fall into this domain, for example.

Performance-Based Testing

A small but growing number of credentials rely on examinations that model or are based on real-world experience, skills, and knowledge. All of these programs also include one or more conventional exams as part of their testing strategy, along with a so-called "practicum" or "laboratory exam." In this latter component, candidates must install and configure systems and equipment to meet specific needs or troubleshoot real installations of some kind; that's what makes such credentials performance-based (at least in part). Other such programs rely on the observation and analysis of a candidate's activities in the workplace to verify real-world skills and abilities.

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