When your value add is systems integration, the quality of your engineering staff is paramount. Experience, self-study and training are the methods your workforce use to become proficient.
However, these do not provide marketable evidence of technical competence.
Qualifications give focus for staff and provide customers with confidence in engineering ability, sales staff with identification of the appropriate resource to undertake a job, marketing with the basis for a professional corporate image, engineers with career development recognition and managers with an impartial basis for the staff recruitment and compensation package.
Qualifications based on exams are preferable to those based on course attendance. With exam-based qualifications, engineers can attain knowledge through experience, self-study or formal courses and test this knowledge when ready. Computer-based exams provide impartial mechanism for ensuring standards are maintained, regardless of how each candidate attains their product knowledge. During course-based qualifications, each course must run at the pace of the slowest learner, which can result in failure to cover course material.
An excellent model for technical qualification is provided by Microsoft. The primary qualifications - MCSE, MCSE+internet, and MCSD - require a breadth and depth of knowledge. This is attained by passing a selection of Microsoft certified proficiency (MCP) exams. Core operating systems exams are compulsory, while there is flexibility in the choice of product exams. This provides recognition for equivalent seniority between engineers who specialise in different product areas. After confirming the level of competence, a customer or salesperson can recognise the engineer's speciality by examining a list of MCPs they have undertaken.
Older MCPs are retired when they lose relevance, and replacement exams must be passed for the engineer to maintain the MCSE or MCSD status. This assures clients the engineer has current knowledge of the products they install.
Unfortunately, not all have convenient or comprehensive qualification programs. Sun has an excellent range of training courses but its 2000 qualification programme covers only the core operating system. Qualifications do not cover volume management or security components which clients often ask to be installed.
Compaq's certified engineer programme forces engineers to attend specific training courses before sitting exams - frustrating for those with extensive hands-on experience or knowledge of other manufacturers' equipment, and can be a barrier preventing the smaller Vars attaining more than the minimum quota of certified engineers. Most smaller manufacturers do not have a qualification programme at all.
As a systems integration house, we would like to see wider adoption of Microsoft-style qualifications. This is happening with the wavers Microsoft is offering on the MCSE programme - passing the Solaris Certified Network Administrator exam exempts you from the networking essentials MCP. But it does not address the problem of the recognition of specialist product skills - Hummingbird Exceed or Segate Backup Exec.
One solution may be the creation of an industry-wide engineering qualification. This could have components supplied by operating systems manufacturers and a range of product-specific components drawn from manufacturers. It would be the role of the manufacturer to ensure exams and study material are current, while some authority could be elected to ensure standards.
Professional qualifications provide a yardstick against which players in the integration business can measure needs and abilities and help staff sell appropriate integration resources - leading to successful projects and repeat business - providing the basis for more structured career development for employees.
Additional qualifications covering more specialised products would extend these advantages, but a consistent approach is essential to maintain the usefulness of the qualifications.
An industry-wide qualification may provide the basis for such consistency.
- James Royan is director of InCity.
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