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Big Certs, Big Pay, Big Effort, Big Deal!

Although there are hundreds of IT certifications across all walks of professional life available in today's marketplace, only a few come with reasonable expectations (if not near guarantees) of six figure incomes. While the subject matter for such elite certifications may vary, all share an ability to garner big paychecks or consulting fees for their holders. Author and columnist Ed Tittel explains that gaining the knowledge, experience, and training required for such prestigious credentials can be time-consuming, difficult, and often expensive. In that process, he provides pointers to five high-dollar, high-visibility cert programs.
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Reaching the Peaks of IT Certification

Before we explore these pinnacles of IT certification, it's important to understand that all these programs have a lot in common, even though they cover very different walks of life in the IT profession. For example:

  • Most of the credentials require years of work experience and tangible professional skills to obtain. Even though only a few of them include specific injunctions that holders must have five, seven, or more years of relevant work experience, all are complex and tough enough to demand lots of hands-on, on the job experience and ability — whether or not such requirements are explicit or implicit.

  • An individual can reach the summit of any particular specialty or topic without mastering a great deal of technical information, as well as related systems, tools, and technologies along the way. Some pinnacle certifications stand at the top of a ladder of lesser certifications; others stand alone (but it's almost always possible to design your own ladder to climb to such heights, one rung at a time).

  • Some of these premier certifications exact pretty steep charges from their holders en route to success. Others may not look as difficult or expensive, but involve heroic efforts (time is worth money, after all), or special training (never cheap these days). For other certifications, repeated attempts to pass necessary examinations and labs can also up the ante (while not exactly cheap, costs go up when it's normal for candidates to make two or three attempts before passing certain exams or labs to qualify them for certification).

  • Obtaining several of these certifications requires obtaining other certifications as necessary building blocks, or makes other certifications reasonable stepping stones on the way to top programs. It's well documented in salary surveys that an individual who holds multiple certifications (especially three or more) typically makes more money than those who hold fewer certifications. Couple this with a tendency for people with more years of experience to make more than those with less years, and you have an alternate explanation of why pinnacle certifications tend to pay so well.

None of the certifications we'll explore here is typically completed in fewer than three years. Some of them require considerably more on-the-job experience to attain, even if it might not take so long to meet training, examination, laboratory, or other qualification requirements. Because each of these credentials in some way represents the apex of a certification hierarchy, paying big dues along the way to such attainment is part of the process.

Meet the "Big Dogs" of IT Certification

Based on recent surveys of salaries or earnings for certified professionals, I selected the following credentials as the top five, in no particular order. I used figures reported in various magazines, surveys (such as www.footepartners.com) and websites (including some figures supplied by the organizations that sponsor these credentials):

  • Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE)
  • SAP/R3 Consultant
  • Compaq Master ASE
  • Senior Security Professional (3 Programs)
  • Senior Protocol Analyst (3 Programs)

It's also important to understand that compensation reported includes salary and bonus, and that such figures are based on averages. All too often, averaging factors out the powerful effects that one's work location can have, as well as the industry or sector in which one works. If you hold one of these titles and don't make six figures, those factors no doubt have something to do with such variations, or stem from occupying the lower end of a range of compensation or years of experience that extends into the five-figure range, as well as into the six-figure range next door.

The Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE)

This is a certification program that's rife with legend, and rich not only in compensation but also in rumor. My favorite rumor (since substantiated to some extent) is that Cisco itself could hire all the CCIEs it produces just to meet their own internal demand. But since Cisco produces less than 3,000 CCIEs per year and the credential is also in high demand outside that company, this helps to explain why CCIEs command such hefty compensation.

Interestingly, Cisco requires CCIEs to complete none of its other, more basic certifications en route to this premier credential. In practice, many successful candidates do work their way up from the entry level Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), then to the Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) before tackling the CCIE. Most successful candidates have five or more years of Cisco-related work experience when they attain this certification — many also have ten or more total years of IT experience.

While it's only necessary to pass a single written exam and a one-day laboratory exam to obtain a CCIE, these have the reputation of being among the toughest, most demanding exams across all IT certifications. Many CCIE candidates must take the laboratory exam two or more times to pass. The lab exam not only costs $1,250 per attempt, but usually requires travel to one of a dozen or fewer (depending on the track) specially equipped testing centers around the world to take this exam. It's often hard to get a slot in the exam schedule with less than six months advance notice (though it is possible to join a waiting list for cancellations, and plenty of those are reported to occur).

The following is a typical CCIE Completion profile:

  • Average years of direct Cisco experience: 4+

  • Average total years IT experience: 9+

  • Time to complete credential: 3 to 4 years

  • Average number of written exam attempts: 1.5

  • Average number of lab exam attempts: 2.5

  • Average out-of-pocket expense for cert: $3,500 (This does not include related classroom training costs, if any.)

For more information on the CCIE program check out these URLS:

SAP/R3 Certified Consultants

SAP offers numerous certified consulting credentials, but those in application and technical tracks command the highest rates of pay.

Application Consultants, for example, must pass a single $500 exam on any of the following SAP modules:

  • Financial Accounting (FI)
  • Controlling (CO)
  • Materials Management (MM)
  • Production Planning (PP)
  • Sales and Distribution (SD)
  • Human Resources (HR)
  • Accelerated SAP (ASAP)
  • Plant Maintenance
  • Project System

A mere $500 for the exams might not sound like much of an investment, but when you consider that classes for these modules typically require 25 days in the classroom and cost between $8,500 and $18,500, the outlay of time and money can add up fast. Then, when you factor in that many SAP Certified Application Consultants cover two or more modules, it's easier to understand why this type of certification pays so well.

The Technical Consultant program is much like the Application Consultant program, except that there are only three modules to choose from:

  • Basis Administration
  • ABAP Workbench
  • Workflow

Exam and training course costs are more or less the same. The official website indicates that candidates may take exams without taking classes if they have significant or substantial experience working with the underlying SAP, R/3, or Basis technologies.

The following is a typical SAP Consultant completion profile:

  • Average years of direct SAP, R/3, or Basis experience: 6+

  • Average total years IT experience: 10+

  • Time to complete credential: 3 to 4 years

  • Average number of written exam attempts: 1.1

  • Average out-of-pocket expense for cert: $500 (This does not include related classroom training costs, if any.)

For more information on the SAP programs check out these URLS:

Compaq Master Accredited Systems Engineer (MASE)

The Master ASE program is the apex of Compaq's internal certification ladder. To qualify for this program, candidates must first obtain an ASE certification, and then they can acquire additional certifications relevant to the areas in which Master ASEs may specialize.

These eight areas are listed with relevant other certifications, as follows:

  • Enterprise Management: CA Certified Unicenter Engineer (CUE), Tivoli Certified Consultant, BMC Patrol Course Completion Certificates, MCP exams 70-018 or 70-086 on Systems Management Server (SMS), various HP OpenView exams

  • High Availability and Clustering: Compaq StorageWorks, SANWorks Solutions, or ProLiant Clusters exams. ProLiant ASE also required for this program

  • Internet/Intranet: ASE ProLiant/Windows prerequisite; Compaq Internet Integration, Security Solutions, or Microsoft eCommerce Solutions exams also required

  • Messaging and Collaboration: ProLiant Windows or NetWare ASE prerequisites; Windows tracks to various Exchange exams, NetWare to various GroupWise exams

  • SAN Architect: Various Compaq StorageWorks Solutions or SANWorks exams required

  • Oracle on Windows: ASE ProLiant Windows prerequisite; various Oracle 8i or 9i exams required

  • Oracle on Tru64 UNIX: ASE on AlphaServer/Tru64 UNIX v4 or v5 pre-requisite; various Oracle 8i or 9i exams required

  • SQL Server: ASE ProLiant Windows pre-requisite; Compaq/Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Integration and Performance exam also required

The requirement for some kind of ASE to enter the Master ASE program may seem innocuous, but the ASE program usually requires another professional certification on the order of an MCSE or CNE as part of its entry requirements. Thus, there's no doubt that some of the compensation associated with Master ASE comes from its implicit requirement that successful candidates complete at least three certifications (ASE, Master ASE, and one other) by the time they qualify. Factor in the average years of experience (7+) and the numbers make good sense.

The following is a typical Master ASE completion profile:

  • Average years of direct Compaq experience: 7+

  • Average total years IT experience: 9+

  • Time to complete credential: 2 years

  • Average number of written exam attempts: varies with program

  • Average out-of-pocket expense for cert: $250 to 625 (This does not include related classroom training costs, if any.)

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