The Same But Different: IT Certifications vs. Certificates
There are lots of differences between IT certificates and IT certifications, though both often lead people in the same direction — namely, meaningful employment (or increased employment opportunities) in information technology jobs. It's the subject of a recent (March 10, 2022) story in ZDnet by Matthew Sweeney titled "IT certification vs. certificate: What's the difference?"
It got me to thinking about the strange and interesting ways in which certification and certificate programs are alike, how they differ, and why both can happily co-exist side by side in today's world. That said, there's plenty of interesting material in Sweeney's article that I don't recap or comment on here, so I'd recommend reading the original if you are so inclined.
Step 1: Understanding Certification Programs
Here at GoCertify.com, I imagine readers "get" certification programs pretty well already so I'll just hit the high points:
1. Certification programs come in two primary flavors: vendor-neutral and vendor-specific. By and large, vendor-neutral certs come from industry (e.g. CompTIA) or professional associations (e.g. (ISC)2 or ISACA) with a vested interest in providing general, vendor-neutral or -agnostic coverage of IT subject matters of widespread interest and importance.
On the other hand, vendor-specific certs come from various makers of IT technologies (e.g. Microsoft, Google, VMware, and so forth) whose primary focus is to empower users of those tools and technologies to use them effectively and productively on the job.
2. Certification programs involve completing specific training sequences — or mastering specific, well-defined bodies of knowledge — then taking related exams to meet certification requirements. Some certs also require additional verification of skills and knowledge, including time on the job, time spent working in specific job roles or technology areas, recommendations from other certified professionals, and so on.
3. Certifications tend to come with expiration dates, which may be pushed out by meeting continuing education requirements or re-taking certification exams. This comes in the name of keeping skills and knowledge current, and making sure that cert holders who claim such skills and knowledge are actively pursuing the latest and greatest information to keep up with the constantly shifting and always changing information technology they seek to manage, support and control.
4. Sweeney's article recognizes these various points and also stresses industry standards as part and parcel of what certification involves. IMHO, this varies across certifications, but is worth bearing in mind in the context of best practices, best procedures and widely accepted understandings, models, governance, compliance and so forth and so on. Sweeney also stresses that certifications tend to have a narrow focus on "specific IT skill(s) or tool(s);" I concur.
5. Sweeney's article also recognizes the implicit or explicit existence of so-called "certification ladders" in many programs. Cisco's offerings fall on a continuum of technician, associate, professional, expert, and architect. Many other programs follow similar progressions, and clearly (or implicitly) tie their offerings together in increasing levels and layers of skill, knowledge, experience, and capability.
Sweeney does not mention in his story that some certification programs require completion of training courses to qualify to take exams. Such courses (e.g. SAP certifications, for example) can cost $5,000 to $10,000 to take and complete, with another $1,000 or $2,000 in exam costs to follow. Thus, he somewhat understates the considerable costs that earning some IT certifications can entail.
Given that the CCIE lab exam now costs $1,600 and the written exam costs $450 (with multiple attempts at each typical for many candidates before passing), he also understates the cost of some cert exams at a relatively low $500. Then again, GoCertify.com readers know this already.
Step 2: Understanding Certificate Programs
Certificate programs, on the other hand, mostly originate from academia and represent a less time- and cost-intensive way for students to acquire skills and knowledge than completing a degree program, such as a two-year associate's degree, a four-year bachelor's degree, or any of a number of graduate degrees (master's, doctorate, and more, such as MD and JD).
Sweeney defines a certificate as "a non-degree credential offered by accredited colleges and other education providers." I agree with that, but disagree with his use of the term diploma in describing what those who complete a certificate program get upon successful completion of their studies.
My take: they get a certificate, not a diploma — and especially accredited institutions will insist that those two are not the same thing. No how, no way, in fact.
Sweeney's other points about certificate programs include:
1. Most require between 20 and 60 credit hours (or their academic equivalent in number of courses from five to 20, depending) to earn. Upon completion, students get a certificate — not a diploma, as Sweeney states somewhat haphazardly.
2. Certificates come in undergraduate and graduate forms. An undergraduate certificate may be earned without already having completed an undergraduate degree; earning a graduate certificate requires students to already have earned a bachelor's degree (or higher).
3. Sweeney puts the cost of undergrad certificates at between $500 and $2,000, with typical timeframes of three-to-six months. Graduate certificates are put in a range of between $3,000 and $6,000 and take between five and 11 months. I don't take issue with these general descriptions except to observe that certain specific offerings at both levels can take longer and cost more. As they say on the internet, YMMV ("your mileage may vary").
4. Prerequisites are more detailed, exacting, and demanding for graduate-level certificates than for undergraduate ones, as you'd expect. I hadn't heard of this distinction before reading Sweeney's article. That said, it make sense to understand that some certificates come with more stringent prerequisites, though they may not specifically be labeled as "graduate" or "undergraduate" in my experience.
5. His distinction between the two levels rests on the notion that undergraduate certificates aim at entry-level, starter positions in IT, whereas graduate certificates aim at more advanced and specialized positions in IT with more specific and focused requirements for skills and knowledge. I can't argue with that — nor would I want to, either.
Step 3: Appreciating the Differences
Sweeney's most important point in the story is where he says "Maximize your return on investment by choosing a certificate program or certification based on your professional goals, education and experience level, and budget. The right credential fits your career plans and background."
I'd add to this sage advice, that readers understand some important differences between certificates and certifications. Namely:
1. IT certifications, especially those from leading cert sponsors (both vendor-neutral and vendor-specific) come with serious "brand value." That is, they are well-known, well-recognized, and have come to be associated with well-understood job titles and pay ranges in the IT industry.
Salary information is easily obtained for such things from a variety of reliable and credible sources, including job posting sites and tracking businesses (e.g. Foote Partners, who make a business out of tracking compensation for hundreds of specific, well-defined IT job roles).
2. IT certificates usually trade on the name recognition and perceived value of the academic institution that issues them. Thus, the popularity of certificates from top-tier colleges and universities such as Harvard, MIT, Cal Poly, and so forth.
But top-tier institutions charge top-tier prices — so many students may have to settle for less expensive but less well-known (and highly-valued) institutions. This means candidates must learn how to explain, position, and "sell" the value of their certificates to prospective employers. As it happens, this is an excellent strategy for any job candidate to recognize — and practice — before taking on any job interviews.
In my opinion, IT professionals should pursue a certificate only if a) they are changing fields and need to establish a good general foundation for a transition into IT work, or b) they are looking into a specific certificate program that offers training to develop skills and knowledge that IT certification programs do not cover (or do not cover directly or deeply enough). Otherwise, the name recognition and understood value of a certification trumps that of a certificate, for the various reasons just mentioned.
That said, only you can decide what's best for your personal and professional development. It may be that certain readers will decide an IT certificate is what they need, even if a certification in the same area, with similar topical and technical coverage, is also available.
In any such cases, candidates should make sure the sponsoring institution will assist them with job search, job placement, and interview preparation — in addition to providing the training that leads to the certificate itself. These add-ons can make the difference between earning a certificate and getting a job, and earning a certificate and not getting a job.
To that end, I strongly recommend researching certificate (and certification) programs available from local community colleges. That's because the mission of these institutions is not just to train people, but to provide ready-to-work employees for local businesses and organizations.
This can make a vital difference to participants whose ultimate goal is employment (or a better, higher-paying job) at the end of their learning adventure.