Technical certification programs enhance employees

Feb. 1, 2002


Nearly all large integrators, and those who rely on them, want the same thing-bigger, better, smarter, faster networks. Yet, wanting them is one thing-getting them is quite another. It demands not only selecting the right equipment, but also being able to properly place that equipment in a network and optimizing it once it is deployed. The bottom line for those who oversee network operations and integration is in knowing whether their personnel can operate the products they are handed.

That's where technical certification programs (TCPs) come into play. TCPs are offered by vendors to assure engineers, technicians, and operators can use their products effectively. They are crucial to everyone involved-from the vendors to their partners, system integrators, and end users. Unfortunately, not all TCPs are created equal.

While the vast majority of vendors offers certification, programs range from simple online examinations of product specifics and capabilities to extensive skills-based exams. The more involved programs, which can take several days to complete, often demand that applicants show both a deep understanding of underlying technology and hands-on problem-solving capabilities.

All these programs have their worth, but TCPs that demand both a deeper knowledge base, experience with live networks, and extensive hands-on skills are more likely to guarantee the performance of those certified. In the case of Juniper Networks, its TCP involves a two-fold approach. The first part requires applicants to pass a 90-minute knowledge-based test that determines whether they possess a sufficient background, both in general networking technology and Juniper Networks products, to even qualify to be examined on their practical skills.

If they do, applicants face a two-day exam designed to mirror a real network environment. Participants are required to work with actual products against a background of simulated live traffic feeds. The process not only entails identification of network shortcomings or problems, it also requires applicants to rectify any dilemmas by reconfiguring the network, with the added pressure of completing the test within a limited time span.

It is estimated that fewer than half of all network equipment vendors offer some type of performance-based testing. But even among these programs, there are critical distinctions. The most effective skill tests are those based on reality, meaning they are conducted on actual products using live and generated traffic under the type of time pressure engineers experience in their jobs every day. Without this approach, it is impossible to know whether certified personnel can be depended on to operate proficiently in a crisis situation.

Certification is important at all levels. At first glance, both end users and equipment makers stand to gain substantially from TCPs. End users learn to get more out of products, and vendors find their equipment is cast in the best possible light.

These programs, however, are also critical for vendor partners and system integrators. By certifying partners, equipment makers guarantee their associates fully appreciate the products they are involved with, which provides them with more leverage in marketing and selling products. System integrators also benefit by garnering greater understanding of the range of products they are working with, helping them achieve their goals.

In some cases, end users securing a certification reap another benefit. They are assured access to expert advice. That not only leads to top-level problem-solving assistance, but also evolves into deep cooperation to push networks and products to their highest performance levels.

Passing reality-based performance tests, however, is anything but a given. Even engineers who have demonstrated a strong base of networking and product knowledge can stumble if they have not worked at length with the products on which they are being tested. Well-designed TCPs, however, can even benefit those who fail to pass because they can clearly point out areas where applicants need to develop their skills. In some cases, anyone failing to gain an expert certification has to wait at least a few months before retaking the performance-based test, which allows them enough time to improve any shortcomings.

Even those who pass these tests stand to gain if they're properly designed. Some exams, for example, do not demand 100% performance proficiency, because that would be unrealistic. As a result, those securing a certificate also get some insight into what skills they may need to develop further as they apply products in various networking scenarios.

TCPs are only part of vendor efforts to promote optimal product deployment. In many cases, companies provide a range of technical education services designed to help participants come to grips with both the underlining technologies and their products.

Surprisingly, a small number of companies are reluctant to have their employees certified due to fiscal concerns. What is more alarming, however, is that some companies simply avoid fully training and certifying their workers, because they worry they may become too attractive to competitors.

While there may be some truth in that, nothing could be more shortsighted than limiting employee development and technical skills. That not only undermines the investments companies have made in networking products, it undoubtedly also undermines employee confidence in management-and that's no way to achieve bigger, better, smarter, and faster networks.

Scott Edwards is senior manager of technical education at Juniper Networks (Sunnyvale, CA). He can be reached at the company's Website,