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Is certification "worth it"?

First, understand that an entire industry profits from certification. Trainers sell certification-oriented courseware, consultants push training, publishers market books, and vendors sell all the above. The upshot is that you can't take most articles on certification at face value. Let's take a different tack. We'll try to look at the issue objectively, strictly from the IT professional's standpoint.

Why certify? Some do it for the challenge of demonstrating their knowledge, or for the inner satisfaction that comes from mastery of the material. Whether a "certified DB2 developer" is better than one that is not certified is, to say the least, highly debatable. What we can say for sure is that if you certify you'll end up knowing more about DB2 than you did when you started.

Many certify for career benefits. If you view it this way, you need to:

  1. Certify with a product that has major marketshare (and is on the upswing)
  2. Investigate the marketability of the specific cert in which you're interested

On the first point, DB2 is the right choice. Most analysts agree that IBM has taken the lead in the database market away from Oracle ( 1). For example, Figure 1 shows recent figures from Gartner Dataquest (2).

Figure 1. Database Market Share by RevenueFigure 1. Database Market Share by Revenue

First Exam Experiences
Some Struggle...
"My first exam was a total disaster... and I really studied! I'm not so sure about this certification thing anymore..." - Bob K., database administrator
"It's was completely, totally impossible. Nobody knows all that stuff! I'll never know how I passed. Maybe a higher power guided my mouse." - Chris P., DB2 developer

Some Soar...
"It was pretty much what I expected... not difficult if you were ready. I'm sure glad I asked around and got on the forums first." - Rajni P., database administrator.
"Piece of cake.. well, not quite that easy, but really not that bad if you knew what to expect. How could anybody not?" - Reilly C., programmer

Why ?
What these widely-varying experiences show is that before taking your first certification exam, you need to plug into what to study and how to study. The candidate who learns about the process from others who have been through it, who has worked with the right resources and taken the right practice tests is light-years ahead of those who have not. A few hours of orientation up front can make the certification process easier, more effective, and ultimately more successful. Sharing this information is the purpose of this article.

 

DB2 marketshare continues to expand. How did IBM pull off such a feat in a "mature" market? The company bought Informix® for one billion dollars and shrewdly invested another billion in the Linux marketplace, positioning DB2 as the leading database on this exploding platform (3). But the real reason may be what I learned while doing an informal survey of the database market last year. One manager after another told me: "DB2's features and technology are second to none, yet it costs way less than Oracle."

Since database marketshare varies by platform, which platform you work on should factor into your decision. DB2 completely dominates on mainframes and the IBM e-server® iSeriesTM (AS/400), with over 90% of the database marketshare for each. IBM comes in a strong second in UNIX® database marketshare, and a distant but growing third on Windows® Server. Data for Linux is sketchy, but DB2 appears dominant among the commercial databases (3).

The most practical way to verify the marketability of a certification is simply to check out job ads on the Web. Do they mention it? And when they do, is it considered preferable or a job requirement? Few ads today specifically mention DB2 certification. This likely reflects of the newness of the DB2 certification program more than anything else. Given the investment IBM is making in the database market and the statistical trends cited above, the most likely scenario is that DB2 certification becomes increasingly valuable as a career credential.

Whether you can enhance your career through certification depends on how you approach it. Here are examples from my own experience where IT pros have leveraged certification to their benefit:

  • A DB2 programmer wanted to shift into database administration. Getting her DBA cert bagged her the transfer.
  • A DB2 developer was great with JavaTM but felt too narrow because he didn't know about other approaches to DB2 application development. Getting the "developer" cert gave him the breadth he needed.
  • A stay-at-home mom wanted to reenter the workforce after a 10-year absence. She got certified and successfully leveraged this as "proof of currency" for her skills.
  • A new college grad desperately wanted to be a DBA but only received programming job offers. He proved his devotion to his goal by certifying as a DB2 DBA, which led to an entry-level DBA position.
  • A mature database veteran realized he needed to update his skills. Certifying both did this for him and supplied the proof. Age discrimination? His certification is as current as anyone else's.

Benefits must be weighed against costs. Discussion on popular certification web sites like Cramsession.com and Certification Magazine indicate that most IT pros take from two to five weeks studying for each test. You'll also have to take an "update" test as new DB2 releases come out, once every couple years, to remain current. The dollar costs can potentially run into the thousands of dollars per cert, but as we discuss below, you can certify for little more than the cost of a few books, if you know how (my DB2 DBA cert cost me less than $150). Finally, consider the "opportunity cost" of certification. What other use would you make of the time you would spend certifying if you did not certify? Some might prefer non-directed, serendipitous learning or extending their knowledge into entirely new areas.

As a contractor, I've directly benefited from certification. It gives me instant credibility with potential employers who've never met me and serves as my trump card for contractor interviews. It deals me an Ace in today's extremely competitive job market.

Employers desperately want some standard measurement to quickly separate qualified from unqualified candidates. Fair or not, they've adopted IT certifications as that yardstick. There is little question that DB2 certification can help your career, but ultimately each person must decide for him or herself whether it's worth the time and effort.

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