The economic climate of the past two years has forced many IT solution providers to pause before committing time and money to vendor certifications that won't earn them extra sales or operating margin.
That means even venerable platform infrastructure vendors such as Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard may find it harder to get VARs to renew their elite status or to opt for newer specialist designations. And if you are a vendor pushing an expensive certification for a point product, you might want to rethink that plan.
"I like the strategy of going for an elite certification. It gives credibility, but I need the reward," said Mike Thompson, president and CEO of Groupware Technology Inc., a solution provider in Campbell, Calif. "We have had to prioritize as far as elite specialties and vendor support go."
James Watson, CEO of Northwest Computer Support, a solution provider based in Seattle, echoed that sentiment. "Even though we want to have as many competencies as we can, we do look carefully at where we partner. Different vendors have different clout," he said.
Certifications have to prove their worth
If a certification "title" doesn't carry some sort of benefit in extra product discounts, priority technical support or a smaller pool of potential channel partners, the value isn't clear, many solution providers said.
"We would expect more out of a platform certification than out of a point certification," said Tim Hebert, CEO of Atrion Networking Corp. in Warwick, R.I. "If the certification doesn't take some level of effort, I question why we should do it. If it's not going to make my company better in some way, what's the point? I strongly believe in certifications for that reason: better support, better discounts, better access."
Hebert cited Cisco as an example of a company that has done many things right -- and wrong -- over the years with aggressive certification programs. For example, he praised the vendor's move to include project management skills as part of the skillset needed for certain core specializations. On the flip side, Hebert said Cisco needs to rethink its advanced technology certifications more thoroughly before requiring partners to invest thousands of dollars in products that might be overhauled or sidelined. "For emerging industries or technologies, you could be chasing an ever-moving target," he said.
Assessing opportunity cost of training
Let's be clear. IT solution providers have griped about product certifications as being too expensive, too time-consuming and even too ephemeral for years. What's different now, they say, is that the tough economy has made it more difficult for them to cut back on billable hours for their engineers. That makes complying with new certification mandates, such as the rewritten rules for becoming a Microsoft Gold partner, more challenging and a question for some soul-searching. Under the new Gold rules, solution providers must declare their specialization; individual engineers can only be counted toward one designation.
For some partners, that is a perceived positive. "There will be a lot fewer partners, so that will be a differentiator," Watson said. "For the customer, it will also mean something more."
Others aren't so sure. Richard Vaughn, vice president and co-founder of i-Tech Support Inc., an Orlando, Fla., solution provider, chose to opt out of Microsoft Gold status for now because he believes the title doesn't carry much value in his market. But his company is going deeper with Cisco, especially its videoconferencing and collaboration technologies, because it views the expense as a barrier to entry for other solution providers in the region.
Certifications, generally speaking, are a career path option for i-Tech employees, although real-world experience is valued highly. "If you get a smart guy, you've just got to get them to take the tests," Vaughn said. "It really does differentiate someone internally when they are willing to do this. That is the sign of a sustainable engineer."
Another factor that makes certification planning tougher in today's market is the accelerating pace of mergers and acquisitions across the high-tech industry. Often, the inclination for the acquiring vendor is to overhaul the certification process to bring it into line with its legacy policies, but many solution providers say vendors need to get better at recognizing technical expertise that has already been earned by the acquired vendor's top channel partners. They might want to consider taking longer before flipping the switch on changes, they say.
Jeff Freeland, founder and CEO of Astreya Partners Inc., an IT services company in Santa Clara, Calif., said he counters certification uncertainty by focusing on ensuring his employees are well versed in Astreya's own internal processes and service techniques. Essentially, Astreya invests in its own certifications rather than paying for vendor-designated badges. Mind you, Freeland said the company makes the most of the certifications that its people do carry when they walk in the door, but Astreya is more interested in the "scar tissue" that real-world experience at customer sites builds over time.
"It's where the rubber meets the road that counts," Freeland said.
About the expert Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist in the New York area with more than 20 years experience. Her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Clancy was previously editor at Computer Reseller News, a B2B trade publication covering news and trends about the high-tech channel.