More than Just Database: A Beginner's Guide to Oracle Certification
Twenty years ago, the information technology certification landscape was vastly different than is the case today. The number of certification authorities in existence now is an order of magnitude greater than what existed then. In 1995, two of the credentials most likely to turbo-charge someone's career were the Certified NetWare Engineer (CNE) and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) designations.
Fast forward two decades and NetWare has essentially disappeared from the marketplace. The CNE certification still exists in a modified format, but its importance has diminished to a tiny fraction of what was the case in the '90s. The retooled MCSE certification suite is still significant, but arguably does not have the same level of mojo that it had once upon a time.
One lesson to take from the above is the transitory nature of all things related to information technology. Earning a CNE in 1992 almost invariably had a significant influence on job offers and salary, but the same cannot be said of earning one in 2012. Since working careers generally last forty-plus years, it is extremely unlikely that any given technology that someone picks at the start of their career will be the same one they are using when they retire.
While this is something to keep in mind when choosing a career, it is not really the reason for bringing up the CNE and MCSE certifications. Instead what struck me as I started writing this article was that in 1995, these were the only two certifications that I considered pursuing. The Oracle certification program had not started. The Cisco CCIE had kicked off in 1993, but had not yet become widely known. The only CompTIA certification available was the A+ credential. There just were not very many choices.
Today there are dozens of certification authorities to choose from and hundreds of potential certification tracks to follow. Individuals must (or at least should) devote a considerable amount of time researching which one makes the most sense for them before they can begin the process of earning it. This article will not deal with the myriad certification options available in the market today. Comparing and contrasting all of the potential companies and technologies would take a novel-length presentation. Instead this article is about the Oracle certification program and presents some factors for consideration when determining whether to pursue one of the offered credentials.
Oracle as a company primarily focuses on high-end or enterprise-class solutions. Their software products tend to be high-performance and highly scalable tools directed at medium to large organizations. Most of their products also tend to be fairly expensive, albeit with a handful of exceptions such as Oracle Linux, MySQL, and VirtualBox.
Organizations tend to use Oracle software products for activities that are critical to their business. They are willing to pay a premium to have a solution that is more robust or faster or more capable than is possible from alternate products. From a professional standpoint, I have always found job openings for Oracle DBA and developer positions to have a higher salary range than comparable positions for other RDBMS (relational database management system) options such as MySQL, MariaDB, or Microsoft SQL Server. In my opinion, this is part of the same rationale that caused the organization to choose Oracle software.
When a software solution is critical to their business, companies want to hire candidates who can get the best possible results from it. The downside of that desire is that it is notoriously difficult for IT professionals with zero work experience to get their first job working as an Oracle DBA or developer. Getting a foot in the door of an Oracle shop requires more effort. Earning an Oracle certification can be a factor in landing that initial position.
The Oracle certification program now offers six distinct types of certifications. The credentials cover a wide range of potential candidates — from people who have never used Oracle to ones with many years of professional experience with the database. Three of the certifications below form a hierarchy (OCA, OCP, and OCM), while the other three (OCJA, OCE, OCS) have no relationship or dependency with any other Oracle credential.
Oracle Certified Junior Associate (OCJA) — This is a recent addition by the Oracle certification program. The OCJA exams are targeted at individuals who are very new to Oracle. The information tested is comparable to what is taught in college-level MIS and computer science courses. Note that while some people use the acronym OCJA to refer to the Associate level Java certifications, the official certification for these is "Oracle Certified Associate, Java". They are still OCA-level credentials and are unrelated to the Oracle Certified Junior Associate designation.
Oracle Certified Associate (OCA) — These are entry-level certifications that are designed to assess knowledge of the fundamentals. OCA tests tend to cover a broad range of topics to a shallow depth.
Oracle Certified Professional (OCP) — Most OCP credentials require passing a set of exams that call for knowledge of material that is more advanced than the associate certifications. Tests at the OCP-level generally cover a narrower range of topics than OCA exams and require a greater depth of knowledge to answer.
Oracle Certified Expert (OCE) — The expert exams are designed to test for a high degree of proficiency in a specific subject area. OCE certifications are earned with a single test and cover a very narrow range of topics to a significant depth.
Oracle Certified Specialist (OCS) — The specialist exams are designed to focus on knowledge of the features and functionality of a specific Oracle product. Less technical than the OCA/OCP/OCE/OCM certifications, these exams are largely targeted at professionals who will be performing the initial implementation of a product.
Oracle Certified Master (OCM) — Oracle offers Master-level exams for database administration and Java developers. The administration exam is a two-day lab exercise while the Java OCM exams require candidates to complete a programming project in Java. Both require significant experience to pass.
One of the first preconceptions to dispense with is the thought that the Oracle certification program is only about the Oracle database. When it first started in 1998, Oracle created a handful of certifications that were intended for database administrators and Forms developers. While the number of exams fluctuates, however, as new ones are added and old ones retired, there are currently almost 300 offered. Less than a third of those exams are specifically about the Oracle RDBMS. The current counts and categories of the exams available are:
? Applications — 82
? Database — 84
? Enterprise Management — 3
? Industries — 28
? Java and Middleware — 66
? Operating Systems — 15
? Systems — 16
? Virtualization — 3
? Foundation — 2
In particular, Oracle's acquisition of Sun expanded their certification program beyond the Oracle RDBMS. Thousands of IT professionals who have never worked with the Oracle database hold one or more Java certifications. The Solaris and MySQL certifications are likewise not directly related to the Oracle database. The company has purchased numerous other software development companies over the years, many of which had existing certification programs that have been rolled into Oracle's offerings.
As a result, "Oracle" certifications are no longer restricted to database geeks. An information technology professional interested in working as a system administrator might find it rewarding to take the Oracle Linux Administration exams: Oracle Linux 5 and 6 System Administration (1Z0-100) and Oracle Linux 6 Advanced System Administration (1Z0-105). Given the current paradigm shift to virtualization, he might consider supplementing those credentials by pursuing a certification for Oracle VM 3.0 (1Z0-590). None of these certifications require any knowledge of the Oracle database.
In addition, many of the applications owned by Oracle are widely used by organizations around the globe. Taking PeopleSoft as a single example, there are eight certifications dedicated to this application suite alone. The PeopleSoft 9.2 Human Resources Essentials exam is targeted at professionals who specialize in the sales and installation of this solution. That said, the exam is open to anyone and there are several reasons why a human resource professional might decide to earn the certification even though they will never be responsible for installing it. Three potential examples include:
1) The company where the HR professional works (let's call him "John") is about to migrate their human resources software from another package to PeopleSoft. John has been given the task of working with the application integrator to ensure that the migration goes smoothly. Studying for and earning this certification will allow John to combine his inside knowledge of the organization and their legacy application with an in-depth understanding of the capabilities provided by PeopleSoft. This would almost certainly result in a smoother transition to PeopleSoft.
2) The company where John is working is considering moving to PeopleSoft from their current human resources application. Learning the capabilities of PeopleSoft will allow John to provide upper management with an insider's perspective on whether the move makes sense. Software transitions of this type are both expensive and disruptive. It makes sense for an organization to invest the time and resources to gain a better understanding of whether the migration is worthwhile.
3) John is either unemployed or looking to change positions. He routinely sees job listings that reference PeopleSoft experience, but he has never worked with that application. Earning the certification and adding it to his resume may be just the thing to advance his career.
With minor changes of wording, the above three scenarios could be applied to several dozen certification exams offered for various Oracle applications. Anyone whose job role involves using one or more of these applications may find it worthwhile to earn the associated certification. The knowledge has a good likelihood of making them more effective at their job. Adding skills applicable to your job role will almost invariably improve career prospects.
The incredible range of exams available mean that a very broad set of people can locate a certification that matches their interests and skills. In an earlier article at CertMag.com, DBA or Developer? Deciding which one suits you best, I noted the importance in choosing a career path of matching your interests and aptitudes to the tasks you will be performing.
If you think that earning a certification for one or more Oracle products might be a good career move, check out the All Exams page on the Oracle certification website. Look through all of the offerings to determine which (if any) seem interesting to you. If you find one or more that seem like reasonable candidates, then I would recommend performing some additional research into them.
Only you know what your interests are. For example, if you hate social media, then it should take you only seconds to dismiss Oracle Social Relationship Management Cloud Service 2014 Essentials as a potential certification objective. If the reverse is true, you might want to spend some time researching what that test entails. Check out job sites to see if companies in your area mention the tested skills. Run some searches in Google to see what information you can find about the product. Ask questions on product forums from people who are using it. Career choices have a lasting impact, so it is important to spend the time required to make good ones.
If you do not have any knowledge or abilities useful to companies, then you are likely to be restricted to jobs that require candidates with few or no skills (such as the fast-food industry or politics). At this moment in time, Oracle is a name to conjure with. It has the lion's share of the relational database market and is very profitable. So long as they maintain their position as the top dog in that market and continue to have applications that are widely used around the world, having Oracle skills will be useful to IT professionals. As noted in the first two paragraphs of this article, these things change over time. For the moment, however, if you are shopping around for a certification program (and company) to hitch your star to, Oracle is arguably a good choice.