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Data center certification options vs. less calculable IT skills

Companies want IT pros with business acumen who communicate effectively, but that's hard to measure with a data center certification.

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The data center job market is changing. In-demand IT skills used to match up with a certification -- or several certifications. Today, businesses still value certification programs, but a data center certification may not even cover the hottest skills on their list.

When certifications rose to prominence more than a decade ago, businesses large and small were deploying servers rapidly. Microsoft offered the main server operating system and Cisco Systems made the main network systems. Consequently, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and Cisco Certified Network Associate certifications gained popularity because businesses needed individuals trained in those areas to support rapid growth.

Traditional IT certifications remain in demand, but virtualization and cloud computing drive a need for new job titles that come with rising salaries. Looking further down the road, data center professionals will need to supplement their technical skills with business knowledge -- but that road still isn't clearly mapped out.

"Large corporations maintain a strong interest in IT certification programs," said Katie Hurst, marketing manager at certification training company OpenSesame Inc. Certifications are a way for businesses to vet potential hires for a baseline set of skills on a particular technology.

Communications and business sense are replacing deep technical knowledge about select devices on IT skills lists.

Security was, and continues to be, a hot area, as seen with the Certified Information Systems Security Professional title. "CISSP certifications remain quite popular," said John Reed, senior executive director at Robert Half Technology. IT security jobs have seen a 50% spike in demand since 2010, shows the website's IT Security Jobs, which reports that the average salary for a security professional has also risen by a substantial 16% per annum.

Data center certification leaders evolve

Certifications became so popular that vendors have added numerous programs. Microsoft now breaks its certification programs into more than a dozen subcategories, each touching upon multiple products. If that is not enough, the company has various levels of certification, such as Associate and Master, for each area. Microsoft now issues close to 100 different certifications.

Facing this data center certification mishmash, vendors are now pruning. In 2012, Microsoft overhauled its certification program. It sent its Microsoft Certified System Engineer cert to the scrap heap and replaced it with four certification grades: Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate, Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert, Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer and Microsoft Certified Solutions Master. Because Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate is new, it is the most highly coveted data center certification at the moment, according to OpenSesame.

But data centers are changing and so are certification demands. "The expansion of cloud computing means there will be new certifications created to match," noted OpenSesame's Hurst.

With virtualization's rise came VMware Certified Professional, which OpenSesame ranks as the fourth highest in-demand certification -- and one that earns a data center admin an average of $69,000 per year.

Microsoft recently added a Private Cloud certification, and OpenSesame found salaries for cloud administrators surpassing the six-figure mark. CloudSchool offers the Cloud Certified Professional, a collection of courses for professionals who want to successfully deploy the many facets of a cloud platform. CompTIA developed Cloud Essentials, a specialty certification to demonstrate the degree of a professional's knowledge of the cloud computing concept from technical and business perspectives. VMware also added cloud-focused certifications at several levels.

Tomorrow's IT skills ≠ certifications

Virtualization and cloud computing also signal a change in the types of skills organizations want from their data center staff. Rather than relying on a deep understanding of the hardware, IT pros let today's smarter hardware handle the bulk of configuration. They deploy troubleshooting tools to catch and resolve problems. To improve network and system performance, IT teams can turn to monitoring software using big data analytics rather than lengthy tests, reports and root cause investigation. Automation has replaced tedious, linear processes.

As a result, communications and business sense are replacing deep technical knowledge about select devices on IT skills lists, said Robert Half Technology's Reed.

Training for these types of soft skills is available on an informal basis rather than through formal channels like software and hardware certification programs. Reed recommends that data center pros find mentors or take ad-hoc business courses to gain communication and business skills.

About the author:
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in cloud computing and data-center-related topics. He is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com.

This was first published in September 2013

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