It's not hard to write the initials after your name: CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert), CNE (Certified Novell Engineer) or dozens of others. They mean that you have a professional certification. The thing is, for a networking professional, are those initials worth the effort necessary to acquire them?

"It's a tough question," says Robert Rosen, president of the Share IBM mainframe user group and CIO of the US National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. "But I know a lot of people who use them as a gating factor [when hiring], so if you want to maximise your opportunities, they're a good thing to have."

"It certainly is worthwhile," says Matthew Cody, now a convergence engineer at Verizon Business. Desiring to specialise, he began acquiring four different Cisco certifications four years ago, and the effort eventually led to a new job with a 10 percent pay hike.

David Foote also tends to agree. As head of Foote Partners in Connecticut, he tracks the career value of about 220 high-tech certifications, of which about a third involve networking.

His latest figures show that the possession of a networking certification results in an average pay premium of 9.2 percent. The average for all certifications is 8.2 percent. Non-certified networking skills result in a 7.1 percent premium, barely above the 7 percent average for all non-certified skills. (The best premium he found was 14 percent, for project management certification. The worst was 5 percent for a general certification, which was lower than the premium for any of the non-certified skills he tracks.)

Boosters all round
But certifications offer benefits to organisations as well as to individuals, says Cushing Anderson, an analyst at market research company IDC. As opposed to having a staff with no formal training, having a staff with certifications should increase the organisation's ability to resolve networking failures by 20 percent to 40 percent and reduce the number of unexpected outages by 10 percent, he says.

Bosses who resist promoting certification among their staffers, fearing they will leave, are wrong, Anderson adds, since training programs reduce turnover by 25 percent. "People who feel invested-in take that as a benefit and are more loyal, especially as the people around them also get trained," he notes.

As for the effort and money required to get certified, Anderson estimates that most people who follow the certification ladder spend three to six months every other year in some kind of training process. If taken in a classroom, the training might amount to 10 to 12 days at a cost of £300 to £600 a day, often funded by the employer. Online and self-directed study through books and videos are less expensive alternatives. Anderson estimates that about a sixth of the students are "certification junkies" who collect certificates regardless of any financial rationale and may even spend their own money.

Cody recalls that his four certifications each required him to pass four or five exams, and an instructed class for each individual exam would have cost about $3000 (£1800) in metropolitan New York. He instead used self-study and less expensive third-party online training, taking about six weeks for each. Each test costs $125 and could be repeated if failed, but participants would pay the money again.

Choose your certification carefully
Of course, there are certifications - and there are certifications. Neill Hopkins, vice president for skills development at The Computing Technology Industry Association, divides the field into high-stakes and low-stakes exams, with the former having the most career benefit. High-stakes certificates involve carefully developed tests delivered in a proctored setting, meaning there is a supervisor who checks the test-taker's ID and prevents cheating. Low-stakes tests may take place online and there is no precaution against cheating or imposters. But low-stakes testing can be beneficial for self-assessment, he adds.

Beyond that, there are vendor certifications, such as from Cisco, Novell and Microsoft, and vendor-neutral certifications, such as those offered by CompTIA or the Institute for Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP). Anderson said that vendor-neutral ones are useful mostly for those starting out, with financial benefit mostly arising from the vendor certifications.

But Kewel Dhariwa, executive director of the ICCP, noted that vendor-neutral certifications give an organisation more flexibility in terms of integrating diverse products and moving people between projects.

Paper doesn't mean proficiency
The downside of certification is that it's no guarantee of competence.

"I have seen people with great paper certifications who could not troubleshoot their way out of a paper bag," Rosen says. "Some are great test-takers, but they can't apply it. The certificate shows they have made some effort to learn the technology, but the key to hiring is what they have done with it. Can they address real-world problems?"

Bureaucrats love certificates because it gives them a box to check off, "but that's not doing due diligence," Rosen complains. "You have to ask things like, 'Tell me about a really interesting problem you solved and how you solved it.'"

"Having that piece of paper is proof that you have the baseline knowledge," agrees Cody. "But it would be foolish to hire just based on certification, since you also have to make sure they know what they are doing. It's possible to have a good career without certifications, but certifications make it easier to get in the door."

Meanwhile, Hopkins notes that the industry is still young and standards for credientials are still evolving. "I would not be surprised if licencing were eventually required for those managing network infrastructures, especially for government accounts," he says.