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Cisco Asks, Can Security Skills Be Certified?

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Yusuf Hussain Bhaiji explores the value of certification in IT Security given its rapidly changing nature and offers suggestions on choosing the right certification program.
Reprinted with permission of Certification Magazine
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Security is no longer just a technology concern, but a key strategic consideration. As companies rely more on their networks to connect employees, business partners and customers, security has become increasingly complex. Many key security technologies are still evolving, and new standards are emerging. You might wonder if it's possible to develop a valid security certification. Do the vast array of certifications available offer real value or merely reflect the booming interest in security?

A survey of security-related IT positions over the past five years finds increasing specialization in areas such as security design, virtual private network (VPN) implementation, security operations and intrusion analysis. Some of these roles are being recognized as individual professions, with universities offering course work in certain security disciplines and industry associations catering to specific niches. As the roles have become more narrowly defined, the skills required have too. Specialization therefore actually facilitates certification, as exams and programs are able to focus on a more specific set of topics.

The Value of Certification for Employers

As organizations become more globally connected, they are also more vulnerable to network attacks and threats. Compromised security can disrupt key operations, reduce productivity and inflict significant economic losses on a business. While many innovative security products are available, it is the security experts who choose, implement and maintain the appropriate solutions that will truly protect assets and ensure seamless operations. In this environment, certification is an objective way of identifying such experts.

Another reality of IT security is that hiring managers may have little direct experience with the technologies their employees must implement and maintain. Even small and medium-sized businesses are adding security professionals to their staff. Hiring managers need a benchmark to help them choose a qualified person. Certifications can play an important role in gauging and verifying an individual's proficiency and skill set.

Security concerns are not just confined to the company's managers and executives. Customers, investors and business partners are also sensitive to security threats. Having certified individuals on staff can increase the confidence these groups have in their interactions with an organization, boosting credibility, reputation and value.

The Value of Certification for Professionals

On an individual level, certifications help you characterize your experience and expertise for potential employers. Earning a particular security certification, especially one with rigorous hands-on testing, offers objective proof of your ability. In a slow job market, certifications help you differentiate yourself from other job seekers and can help you position yourself for broader opportunities. In a current work situation, earning a certification can lead to a higher level of trust or authority over new projects.

With the demand for IT professionals who are certified in security-related topics on the rise, those holding the most highly regarded certifications are reported to receive consistently higher base salary, bonuses and raises compared with other, less specialized IT positions. According to Information Security Magazine, "Security professionals in four out of six surveyed positions earn in excess of $100,000 in annual base salary and bonus." Salary scales for security certification holders are actually outperforming the overall market for IT professionals, and overall, security experts have maintained their value and positions equally or better than most other skill sets in the past years.

Choosing the Right Certification Program

A list of current programs shows certifications sponsored by hardware vendors, software vendors, point solution vendors, process specialists, consulting organizations and industry consortiums. How do you decide which credential to pursue?

You might start by considering one of the most notable trends in information technology today—the growing connection between security and the network. According to Jon Oltsik, senior analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group and security industry expert, "Networking and security are moving closer together—a critical process in ensuring system availability and performance."

Another consideration should be the reputation and rigor of the program. As more and more IT certifications have been introduced in the market, skepticism has grown over whether a particular exam tests real-world skills or merely theoretical knowledge that can be found in a book. Hands-on exams stand out as being the most practical and the toughest to pass.

Make sure the certification you spend your time and effort to earn is well respected in the industry as a symbol of true expertise. Find out whether the program has a requirement for recertification and how often the exams are revised and updated. You want your certification to have strict standards to maintain its value over time.

Cisco's Security Strategy and Certification Program

Cisco Systems Inc. is committed to the intersection of networking and security. Cisco's Integrated Security strategy is a critical component of the Intelligent Information Network and has led to Cisco's recent acquisitions of Riverhead Networks and Twingo Systems, as well as its "Self-Defending Network" initiative-an innovative approach to security that develops the network's capability for identifying, preventing and mitigating security threats.

Cisco offers three graduated levels of certification: Associate, Professional and Expert. The expert-level certification, Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) is known throughout the industry as the "doctorate of networking." CCIE is one of the industry's most respected certifications, requiring candidates to pass both a written exam and an eight-hour, hands-on lab exam.

In 2001 Cisco began offering a special CCIE track for security. Cisco recently revised the exam with updated security technologies. The new exam tests knowledge of stand-alone intrusion detection system (IDS) sensors, which provide accurate threat detection and quick response to breaches; stand-alone VPN concentrators, which create a secure path into the enterprise and improve security for branch locations and remote employees; VPN/security management systems, which help configure, deploy and troubleshoot complex, secure networks; and AES and EAP wireless protocols, which help ensure secure wireless access.

Learn more about Cisco security certifications.

Yusuf Hussain Bhaiji, CCIE No. 9305, is CCIE security program content lead and proctor in the Cisco Systems Sydney, Australia, lab. Yusuf's passion for security and VPN-related technologies has played a dominant role in his 13 years of industry experience, reflected in his initial master's degree in computer science and his numerous certifications.

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