Three ways VARs can optimize technology certification investments

Technology certification is a necessary evil for any solution provider. Get advice for optimizing the time and money you spend accruing them.

Maintaining a minimum level of certifications continues to be a necessary evil and cost of doing business with certain technology vendors. But that doesn't mean technology solution providers can't control how and where they invest.

Reviews for technology certifications are an ongoing component of strategic planning for GreenPages Technology Solutions. This is a "monster" undertaking driven by the office of the chief technology officer, not the sales and marketing team, said Glen Jodoin, vice president of marketing and operations for the integrator, which is based in Kittery, Maine.

"In most of the areas, we have two options," Jodoin said. "We always want to be out there with the market leader as well as with the best up-and-coming technology. The two aren't always the same."

All of the company's decisions regarding certifications center on how they support GreenPages' vision to be a leader in cloud virtualization. "This guides who we will, strategically, agree to represent," he said.

Atrion Networking Corp. takes a similar view, focusing on customer needs and employee development considerations when deciding how to prioritize the certifications that its staff holds, said Chris Poe, chief technology officer for the integrator, based in Warwick, R.I.

"For our core partners whose minimum certification requirements we already meet, we choose certifications in collaboration with our employees, the career paths/development they desire and fundamentally in alignment with the business needs," Poe said.

So, it's a given that technology solution providers must spend money on certifications that their customers don't usually request. How can they leverage the necessary technology certification evil to their best advantage? Here are three ideas:

Strive for well-rounded technicians

While having engineers focus on just one technology might be good for a vendor partner, the best engineers are those with both wide and deep expertise, Poe said.

With that in mind, Atrion Networking requires its entry-level employees to become well-rounded in a range of different disciplines before they begin to "major" in a technology area where they can become a specialist.

But becoming well-versed in one particular area should not be a dead end for employees. Atrion Networking encourages its people to be specialists in more than one area. "Ultimately, as they become more expert, they need to be well-rounded, too," Poe said. "So we start wide, then go deep on one thing, switch and go deep on something else, and then eventually have expertise that is deep and wide."

View certifications as an employee development investment

At both GreenPages and Atrion Networking, for example, technology certification milestones are built into individual employee career plans.

This helps offset the personal time investments that employees might have to make in attending classes or studying for exams.

"While not the only development they receive (more important are the professional skills, vendor-agnostic experience/knowledge), when an employee is navigating the career path/role-leveling program, certifications are a component of their ability to matriculate to higher levels of responsibility and compensation," Poe said.

Tying certifications to compensation also can help a solution provider keep closer tabs on the value of a particular skill set -- because they can weigh all of the costs associated with earning one (including lost bench time that could mean lost billable hours) against the revenue generated through services and solutions driven by a particular designation.

"We have hundreds of certifications in this building, and management of them is incredibly complex. You need to keep close tabs on what you have, as well as what is end-of-life," Jodoin said.

Focus vendor-neutral certifications on professional skills, not technology

While most certifications are vendor-specific -- because they are required -- engineers can benefit from courses that emphasize project management, business analysis and expertise that isn't tied to a particular technology.

For Atrion, that includes specific courses from the Project Management Institute and the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, as well as broader education related to lean software development or agile methodology, Poe said.

GreenPages maintains few non-vendor specifications, Jodoin said.

The ones that it does support are focused on two key areas for its cloud virtualization practice: the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), which defines architecture and management techniques for security policy; and a similar certification program run by the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) that underscores storage-related skills.

About the author:
Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist in the New York City area with more than 20 years of 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 business-to-business trade publication covering news and trends about the high-tech channel.

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