Six years ago when Gary Fish, founder of FishNet Security, received his Check Point Certified Security Engineer (CCSE) certification, he charged about $150 (£102) per hour for his services. Today, Fish oversees 18 CCSEs who are hired out at about $225 per hour, and a privately held business that has tripled its turnover in the past three years.
"We are very happy with our Check Point training," said Fish, whose US-based company has been profitable since its inception. "It is a must for anyone who wants to get into the security software market."
His experience is an example of how profitable a new certification can be for a reseller. In fact, Check Point's technology features prominently in solution providers' certification plans, according to the 2001 Computer Reseller News US Certification Study.
The Check Point Certified Security Administrator (CCSA) and CCSE designations were among the most profitable certifications for smaller solution providers, the research found.
Overall, security, Linux and storage certifications were among those growing fastest in importance to the group of solution providers surveyed, according to the research. Two Linux certifications - Linux Professional Institute Certified Level 1 and Red Hat Certified Engineer - headed the list, with three Check Point certifications rounding out the top five for all respondents rating the importance of certifications now and six to 12 months from now.
That said, solution providers said they still see certifications from established vendors in established technologies as most important to their business operations over the next year. Certifications for products and technologies from Microsoft, Cisco and Oracle take up the first seven spots on the list of most important vendor certifications to solution providers looking six to 12 months ahead, the research found.
Novell, in contrast, is losing ground. Its Certified Novell Engineer (CNE) and Certified Novell Administrator certifications will become less important to resellers over time.
Rick Dunn, chief technology officer at US consultant nVARix, explained that the CNE designation has lost as much as half of its monetary value - i.e. billing potential - in the past five years. CNEs are now being billed out at the hourly rate of about $75 against about $150 several years ago, he said.
"Five or seven years ago, if you had three certified Novell engineers and the competition didn't, you'd win the business," he said. "All that has changed. It is now a per-hour price war."
You pays your money ...
Return on investment (ROI) is a crucial part of the decision process for solution providers when it comes to hiring certified individuals or training existing personnel to earn new certifications. For the most part, solution providers get what they pay for, according to the survey results.
The higher the level of compensation that is being paid to certified personnel, the more solution providers can charge for their services. But the results also show that certifications from Compaq, Oracle and especially Check Point offer a superior rate of return for solution providers, while those from Sun Microsystems lag behind.
The ability of solution providers to exploit certifications with a high ROI could be limited by difficulties in finding qualified individuals.
For example, 62 per cent of smaller solution provider respondents said it is very difficult to find qualified Check Point-certified people, and 58 per cent said the same for Oracle Certified Professional Database Administrators (DBAs).
The situation has improved over the past year, however, with more than 70 per cent of the solution providers participating in the survey saying it has become easier to find qualified individuals.
A strong overlap exists between the certifications that solution providers cite as most important and those cited as most important by businesses. But differences exist within each group as well, based on the sizes of both the solution provider and the business in question, and these differences illustrate where solution providers may miss out.
For example, two Check Point certifications are among the most important to larger businesses, but they do not appear on the list for larger solution providers. This could prove costly to solution providers, as 60 per cent of larger companies said they would look elsewhere if their solution provider did not employ a Check Point-certified individual.
Plugging into wireless
Wireless will be a big area of specialisation over the next year, according to the data. Some 36 per cent of solution providers not specialising in this technology plan to do so within 12 months.
One problem in the wireless arena is the dearth of certifications or training, said Grady Crunk, executive vice president at Central Data.
The US-based solution provider is planning to invest in Cisco's wireless specialisation. Wireless is "such a new field that customers don't even know what to ask for. We're going to start seeing a lot more companies breaking out wireless certifications," he explained.
Solution providers generally rate the technical competence and qualifications of certified individuals quite high. Sun and Oracle get the highest rankings, while Microsoft is rated lowest.
Solution providers also give vendors high marks for keeping the technical standards of their certification programmes up to date. Again, Microsoft receives lower ratings in this area, compared with other vendors. Cisco and Citrix get top grades, along with the Linux Professional Institute, a non-profit organisation offering vendor-neutral Linux certifications.
Ironically, Microsoft certifications also are among those most likely to be sought after by solution providers within the next six to 12 months.
In addition, the survey results show that 56 per cent of solution providers see a need for generic, vendor-neutral certifications in addition to vendor-specific certifications.
Finally, with certified staff worth upward of $200 per hour, solution providers are loathe to let these individuals take time off for training.
As a result, vendors must keep their programmes short and intense: 60 per cent of solution providers said they allow their employees a total of 10 days or less each year for training related to certification.
Not just for techies
But solution providers also recognise that certifications are not just for technicians. Around 64 per cent of solution providers said that training for their sales force is also important for solution selling.
Crunk is footing the bill for Oracle Certified Professional DBA certifications for two members of his technical team because he knows he can then hire out those experts for up to $275 per hour. But Crunk refuses to pay for the training to add another Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) to the solution provider's staff because MCSEs are billed out at only about $75 per hour.
His experience with Oracle and Microsoft is an example of just how important ROI is for solution providers that spend exorbitant amounts of money to train or hire certified personnel. The results from the 2001 Certification Study show that Oracle and Check Point certifications offer the highest rate of return for smaller solution providers, while Compaq and Oracle certifications offer the best ROI for larger solution providers.
To estimate the ROI on individual certifications, CRN US compared the median level of compensation for certified individuals with the percentage of solution providers that charge customers in excess of $100 per hour as a result of having such certified people on staff.
For example, smaller solution providers said they pay the same median level of compensation, about $60,000, to both CCSEs and Cisco Certified Networking Associates. But while 78 per cent said they charge at least $100 an hour for the services of Check Point-certified employees, only 56 per cent said the same of Cisco-certified individuals. Therefore, the Check Point certification in this instance offers a relatively higher return, compared with the Cisco certification.
"Security has saved us in this tight IT market," said Todd Barrett, networking sales manager for CPU Sales and Service, a US-based solution provider with Check Point and SonicWall security certifications. "Security has been elevated to first or second place on the must-do project list for IT staff."
In contrast, the Check Point certification did not even show up on the list of the top 11 most important vendor certifications for larger solution providers. Instead, the certification offering the highest perceived ROI for larger solution providers was Compaq Accredited Systems Engineer.
Larger solution providers pay both Compaq Accredited Systems Engineers (Cases) and Citrix Certified Administrators a median compensation of $60,000.
About 73 per cent of these providers said they charge at least $100 an hour for the services of Compaq-certified individuals, compared with 53 per cent that said the same for Citrix-certified employees.
Rates of return
In some cases, the rate of return for a single certification varies based on the size of the solution provider. For example, the Case certification offers a relatively high ROI for larger solution providers but only an average return for smaller solution providers, the survey showed.
This trend also extends to different certifications offered by a single vendor. For smaller solution providers, for example, the Oracle Certified Professional-Application Developer certification offers a much higher ROI than the Oracle DBA certification.
Still, both larger and smaller solution providers could have difficulty capitalising on certifications that offer higher potential ROI because, in many cases, they have difficulty finding and hiring qualified individuals with these skills.
Sixty-two per cent of smaller solution providers, for example, said that finding qualified CCSAs is difficult, while 63 per cent said the same for CCSEs. And 48 per cent of larger solution providers said they have difficulty hiring Cases, and 57 per cent said finding qualified Oracle DBAs is hard.
Among both larger and smaller solution providers, major vendors with established technologies dominate the list of most important vendor, or technology-specific, certifications over the next six to 12 months, according to the survey.
The five most important certifications are the same for both larger and smaller solution providers, only their order of importance differs. These Microsoft and Cisco certifications are in technologies, such as networking, that are highly profitable for solution providers.
Oracle and Compaq are two other 'old-line' vendors with certifications high on the 'most important' list for both groups of solution providers.
But solution providers also are keen to take advantage of the profit opportunities offered by newer technologies, the study found. Certifications from Citrix and the Linux Professional Institute are among the fastest-growing certifications in terms of importance for larger solution providers.
There are some notable differences, however, in the preferences of solution providers, depending on revenue size. For example, certifications from Sun, Hewlett Packard and Check Point are among those most important to smaller but not larger solution providers. Citrix and Linux Professional Institute designations, in contrast, are important to larger but not smaller providers.
In fact, smaller solution providers consider certifications in general to be more important to their business operations, compared with larger solution providers. On a scale of one to five, where five is considered very important, smaller solution providers give the Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert (CCIE) certification a rating of 3.54, compared with 2.91 from larger solution providers.
Asem Abusir, general support manager at Texum Technology, a small solution provider in California, said the CCIE title continues to be a time-tested certification heavily valued by businesses. "The networking certifications are worth more than the operating system certifications," he explained.
The CCIE certification translates into an hourly rate that is at least twice that of an MCSE, Abusir said.
Newer technologies, including Linux, storage, security and the internet, dominate the list of certifications growing fastest in importance for both smaller and larger solution providers.
The certification for Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE), for example, was high on the list for both smaller and larger solution providers, and Texum has seen its RHCE certification growing in importance as more customers turn to Linux as an alternative to Microsoft technologies.
As part of the survey, CRN US asked both larger and smaller businesses to specify which certifications are most important to their operations.
Although larger businesses named the CCSE and CCSA certifications, these are nowhere to be found on the same list for larger solution providers. This also holds true for the Sun Architect for Java certification.
Tuning into customers' needs
Smaller solution providers appear better attuned to their customers, the survey found. Nine of the 10 most important certifications for smaller businesses also appear on the list for smaller solution providers. This is not surprising, as the relationship between customer and solution provider at the small business level often tends to be closer and more personal than at the enterprise level.
Citrix is the exception. The CCA certification ranks as the eighth most important for smaller businesses but does not even appear among the top 15 certifications for smaller solution providers.
The cost of not employing the certified staffers that customers want can be high for solution providers. CRN US asked businesses if they would switch solution providers if the one they were planning to work with did not have a certification for technology involved in the solution. In the case of the Sun Architect for Java certification, for example, 61 per cent of larger businesses said they would.
Tobi Gagne, director of professional services at US solution provider GreenPages, said that certifications are "absolutely essential" when discussing or planning the technical underpinnings of solutions with IT professionals.
"I'm in meetings all the time where the solutions architects turn over their cards and list all their certifications. It is a gold stamp of approval. Customers don't question your technical knowledge. They assume that you have it," he explained.
Both larger and smaller solution providers rate the technical competence and qualifications of certified individuals highly, giving most key certifications a rating of at least four on a one-to-five scale. Larger solution providers tend to give higher ratings than smaller solution providers, the results found.
Three Microsoft certifications that appeared on the most important list for larger solution providers, however, are ranked noticeably lower than other vendors' certifications. Among smaller solution providers, the MCSE certification also received a significantly lower rating for technical competence than certifications from other vendors.
A relatively high percentage of larger and smaller solution providers, however, said they plan to add Microsoft certifications within the next year. Given the vendor's pervasive presence in the market, its certifications remain a 'must have' for solution providers.
Finally, the survey found that certification training has broken away from the traditional, classroom-based methods to include online and self-paced programmes.
While classroom-based training is still preferred by roughly 40 per cent of the solution providers surveyed, another 30 per cent or so cited self-paced programmes as their preferred method, with 25 per cent choosing online training. This is a major shift from just two years ago, when 80 per cent of respondents preferred classroom training, according to a previous CRN US study on training.
But significant differences exist in this category as well. Smaller solution providers have a marked preference for classroom training when it comes to Check Point or Hewlett Packard certifications against those of other vendors. Larger solution providers are more open than their smaller counterparts to non-classroom training methods but still prefer classroom training for Oracle and Citrix certifications.
Rick Dunn, chief technology officer at solution provider VARix, felt that classroom training and the interaction between the instructor and other students is critical to a successful certification programme.
That said, classroom training and certifications do not mean a thing if employees are not tested with real-world scenarios and can prove themselves in an account. "You have to back up those certifications with references and a proven track record," Abusir said.
- Certification is not a guarantee of success for resellers, but a lack of suitably qualified staff could result in lost business.
- Linux, security and storage certificates are among the most important to solution providers.
- Certificates from different vendors have different values. For example, Oracle experts can charge £190 per hour, while Microsoft certified systems engineers can charge only £50 per hour.
- Smaller solution providers tend to be more attuned to the needs of small to medium sized enterprises.
- Teaching methods are changing as online and self-paced programmes replace traditional classroom-based methods.
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
To determine the relative importance of certifications, in July CRN US first surveyed 200 randomly chosen resellers, 100 with annual revenue between $1m and $25m and 100 with annual revenue of more than $25m.
They were asked to rate certifications on their importance to business operations both now and in six to 12 months from now. Ratings were given on a scale of one to five, with one meaning 'not at all important' and five meaning 'very important'. Solution providers rated 45 certifications covering 23 different vendors.
The results of this initial survey showed the most important certifications for this group now, as well as six to 12 months from now. The certifications growing fastest in importance were determined by comparing the importance rating now and in six to 12 months.
CRN US followed this initial survey by asking a larger group of solution providers in August follow-up questions about related topics, such as return on investment for a select number of individual certifications considered most important six to 12 months from now. Details were collected on the top 11 certifications for larger solution providers and the top 15 certifications for smaller solution providers.
A total of 1,039 responses were received from 311 smaller and 251 larger solution providers. Some respondents were able to answer the questions for more than one certification on the list.
The magazine also surveyed 160 businesses with more than 1,000 employees and 196 companies with fewer than 1,000 employees to assess how important certifications are when choosing a solution provider. The results offer an insight into how well resellers are clued in to the needs of their customers, at least when it comes to certification.
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