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Vendor-focused UC certification and training can narrow career choices

Independent unified communications (UC) certification programs are sparse, meaning that UC pros may find training options limited and job responsibilities in conflict with career goals.

Many of the problems that dog unified communications adoption today -- poor interoperability, proprietary protocols and inconsistent use of so-called standards -- are reflected in the fragmented, vendor-specific assortment of unified communications (UC) training and certification programs. Independent programs are sparse, meaning that UC pros may find their training options limited and their job responsibilities in conflict with career goals.

"You've got to weigh all of those things, because maybe the best solution for your organization isn't Cisco or Microsoft.

If you're a fairly small shop, something like Mitel might be the right solution," said Zeus Kerravala, distinguished research fellow at Yankee Group. "But if you're thinking about your career path … that's going to push you to Cisco or Microsoft."

The gravitational pull of Cisco Systems and Microsoft certifications creates "this weird, self-fulfilling prophecy" among UC deployments and the IT pros who manage them, Kerravala said. Enterprises may choose to deploy UC systems from Cisco or Microsoft because that's what the staff is certified in, but UC pros often pursue those certifications because the equipment is so widely deployed.

Unlike other areas of IT, there isn't one prevailing choice among unified communications certifications, Kerravala said.

"In security, you can become a CISSP [Certified Information Systems Security Professional]. There's no standard like that [in unified communications]," he said. "Even in networking, the CCIE [Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert] is largely regarded as the premier networking certification, but there's nothing analogous to that even in the VoIP space."

Industry group CompTIA and training firm Certification Partners recently married their programs to create a joint vendor-neutral UC certification, CTP+, which combines networking and communications skills. But more proprietary UC training and certification programs from Cisco, Microsoft and Avaya-Nortel will enjoy much more popularity for now.

I don't plan on moving on to a VoIP-only job at a big company ... and I just don't have the time to sit and take tests just to have a few letters after my signature.
Susan ParsonsNetwork Manager, East Bay Regional Park District

Although vendor-specific training is not unique to UC, the market is especially plagued with proprietary protocols and vendor standoffs that inhibit interoperability. Even among vendors that have attempted to extend the olive branch by building their products with Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), UC pros maintain that SIP compliance doesn't necessarily deliver interoperability. As a result, UC pros who commit to a Polycom certification program may find their credentials snubbed by would-be employers looking for certification in Cisco TelePresence systems.

Because of Cisco's large installed base and its broad suite of UC technologies, its IP telephony and UC certifications have become the default choice for many UC pros, Kerravala said.

"You can argue whether they're the best technology or not, but at least they're the single vendor to go to," he said. "Does Avaya have video expertise? Maybe, maybe not; but you know Cisco does."

Unified communications certification: A career choice

Susan Parsons, network manager for the East Bay Regional Park District in Oakland, Calif., had a background in basic networking when charged with migrating her organization's legacy analog PBX to a VoIP system.

She took one of Cisco's short "boot camp" courses in VoIP, but hasn't pursued any certifications in UC, telephony or networking.

"For myself personally, at this point in my career and in this specific job, I'd say [certification is] not so much [of a benefit]," Parsons said. "I don't plan on moving on to a VoIP-only job at a big company, so a cert really doesn't do much for me, and I just don't have the time to sit and take tests just to have a few letters after my signature."

Network ManagerEast Bay Regional Park District

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But UC pros early in their careers and lacking enterprise IT experience may be forced to invest hundreds or thousands of dollars in certification classes and exams, if only to beef up their résumés, she said.

"In my opinion, direct hands-on experience usually outweighs the certs, even for a manager, because it gives perspective. But hands-on is hard to get in many of the larger companies," Parsons said. "Many companies use certs as a screening tool for who they will even look at for a job. Other companies use certs as a tool to give or withhold promotional opportunities. Others want to know what you actually know how to do on the job, but [they] are fewer and farther between."

New focus on networking in unified communications training, certification

For technicians trained only in traditional telephony, today's unified communications certification and training programs that focus on IP-based communications and converged networks -- managing voice, video and data on one network -- will have a steep learning curve.

The informal merger between CompTIA's Convergence+ and Certification Partners' CTP programs, now CTP+, was driven in part by the need for traditional telephony pros to learn to support applications such as VoIP and desktop video conferencing, according to Jim Cook, director of sales and marketing at Certification Partners.

Vendor-specific UC certification and training programs often cover basic data networking as well. Learning@Cisco, Cisco's educational and certification arm, requires all certification tracks, including its voice and UC tracks, to begin with its Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT) course.

"If telephony people don't understand networking, they will not have a job soon," Cook said. "It's no longer an option to know only telephony, because telephony is data now."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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