VARs, vendors debate value of security certifications

Some vendors won't let you sell a product without a certification; others think experience can be qualification enough. But skilled or no, customers may not believe in you without that certificate in your hand.

Integrators and resellers specializing in security routinely weigh the value of training versus experience. Specifically, they have to decide -- often several times -- whether spending the money on training and testing employees for certification on a particular product is worth more than relying on their experience with that product as a credential.

As more vendors create more certification programs -- or layer additional, security-specific layers within existing certification programs -- the value of any individual certificate becomes less obvious.

"The main reason [resellers don't invest in certification] is they don't believe there is enough value," said Julie Parrish, vice president of global channel strategy at Symantec.

Thus Symantec -- which uses the term "certification" only for its most complex products -- makes certification part of the reseller arrangement to make its value unquestionable, Parrish said.

"In some cases, certification may be required in order to [sell] a certain product," she said. By undergoing certification training, "the partner gets access to a product that has a more limited distribution model," and therefore may be sought out by customers for that specific expertise.

Higher-end technology -- the kinds of products for which Symantec reserves its certifications -- usually carry a better margin for the reseller as well, Parrish said. Those who are certified can expect a discount on product pricing or additional training; those who are not may be paying a premium.

But not even all vendors consider certification a prerequisite for competence.

"I am always very careful to say that I don't look at training or certification as the only benchmark for success," said Al Valvano, director of the Microsoft Certification Program, which spans Microsoft's product lines, including its security products and features. "Managers don't necessarily make recruiting decisions based on certification—but in two like candidates, certification can be a weighting factor."

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Microsoft divides channel partners into categories according to broad areas of specialty -- such as security -- as well as by their certification on specific products.

Despite its acceptance of hands-on expertise, however, Microsoft does place a high value on certification because of the correlation it measures between effectiveness of people who have attained certification and their satisfaction with Microsoft products, Valvano said.

When surveyed by Microsoft, users and resellers who have gone through certification, no matter at what level or on what product, routinely test as more satisfied with Microsoft products than any other groups Valvano said.

"We believe [certification] helps partners capitalize on new business opportunities tied to areas of new Microsoft releases in the marketplace and arms the partner with new skills as well as offers a benchmark of technical ability," he said.

That may simply be because those certified in a particular technology have gone through the training necessary to be familiar enough with the technology to be comfortable with it, according to Brian Moody, vice president of sales and business development at CMT, a San Jose-based Symantec partner focused on storage.

Even talented engineers need that training to avoid gaps in their technical knowledge, Moody said. He added that many customers demand that only certified people work on their projects.

Resellers such as Atlanta-based Forsythe Technology, Inc. have have even found ways to turn the certification they pay for into a line of business all its own, by offering the same training to their customers.

"I have been in environments where there were guys who were experts on a product and had never been certified on it," acknowledged Dadisi Olutosin, director of training services at Forsythe, a privately held company that reports grossing $518 million last year. "They had worked on one product for years and knew all the ins and outs of it."

Even without certification, those specialists were more capable than technicians with certifications, but without much real-world experience using a product in a complex environment, he said.

Forsythe staff , however, undergo multiple levels of certification before leading the courses on Check Point Software Technologies' software, Olutosin said. "All of our instructors have more certifications than the tech guys who do the delivery work," he said. But even in training, vendor/reseller conflicts can arise.

Amy Hughey, education services manager at Check Point, said the company works hard to avoid cannibalizing "any services that our partners provide" -- including training.

Nevertheless, Check Point's professional services team, with whom Hughey's group works closely, may conduct direct training engagements themselves -- typically with large customers. "Certain customers demand a direct vendor relationship," she said.

Whether channel partners are offering training to customers or undergoing it themselves in order to attain certification, they tend to view the certification in terms of how much more attractive the certification will make a reseller to a potential customer, or an IT person to a potential employer.

"We see a definite philosophy change within Symantec's strategy that depicts the value behind an organization with certified technologists," said CMT's Moody. "The days of just being a fulfillment partner will begin to dwindle for some of the very large channel partners as more and more [of them] develop technical delivery practices around their product offerings.

"The challenge for the non-certified person is if they ever leave that company and seek to find a job somewhere else," said Forsythe's Olutosin. "The way HR departments work, using software to look for keywords like 'certification,' that person's resume is likely to be passed over."

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