Weighing the “800-lb Gorillas” of IT Certification

Weighing the “800-lb Gorillas” of IT Certification
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Weighing the “800-lb Gorillas” of IT CertificationWeighing the “800-lb Gorillas” of IT CertificationWeighty silverbacks responsible for certifying tens of millions of IT Professionals.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that the simple act of measurement also imposes some kind of view of the items or objects being measured. I was forcibly reminded of this as I pondered candidates for the biggest and best-recognized of all IT certification programs, and realized that to some extent, the answer to the question involves who’s doing the asking.

There’s also a bit of black magic involved in sizing certification programs, because not even a majority of them freely publish and regularly update their counts of certified professionals. Then, too, what’s biggest and baddest even depends on whether you’re asking about the numbers of unique certified individuals, or the programs that aspiring certified professionals find most interesting.

As I went through the process of identifying the weighty silverbacks I wanted to single out for coverage, the whole notion of what’s being measured, where the numbers come from and how accurate they are kept forcing itself into continued consideration. Thus, you’ll want to regard the members of this list (and other similar lists) with some degree of healthy skepticism, while asking for information about what drives the reporting and ranking involved.

Presenting the Usual Suspects

Based on my personal experience in following the IT certification market closely and carefully since the mid-1990s, I had no trouble coming up with what I’ve long thought of as the “Big 3” of IT certification –namely Microsoft, Cisco, and CompTIA. This short list not only captures tens of millions of certified professionals, it also presents them in their most likely rank order for total certified population size.

The reason why Microsoft is on top is two-fold: not only has it been running a large and successful professional certification program around Windows, development tools, and Server-based platforms such as Exchange, SQL Server, and so forth, since the early 1990s, a program that may include as many as three-plus million certified participants. In addition, the company also has Microsoft Office credentials to brag on.

Although Certiport runs the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) program on Microsoft’s behalf – a program with as many as seven million certified participants – MS still gets the credit for this biggest-of-all certification programs. Microsoft also operates an Academy program that is widely implemented around the world, and involves more than 1,000,000 students per year in its training and certification offerings.

Across all its programs, Microsoft probably certifies at least 300,000 individuals per year – perhaps even as many as half a million!

Cisco follows next with an extremely popular and multi-faceted certification program that’s been up and running since the late 1990s. The company has consistently certified 50,000 to 100,000 entry-level CCNAs yearly since 2000 (it was introduced in April 1998), along with a lesser but still considerable number of holders of its more advanced credentials.

These include a sizable Specialist program, numerous Professional-level credentials (CCNP and CCDP, plus other now-retired credentials), and its evergreen CCIE credentials (now available for routing & switching, voice, security, wireless, data center, storage networking, and service provider areas). There are even architecture level credentials now available from Cisco (and Microsoft, too, for that matter). All combined, the total annual number of Cisco certified professionals is probably around 200,000 – 250,000 including everything just mentioned.

CompTIA introduced its first certification exam – the two-exam A+ certification for computer bench, field, and repair technicians – in 1993. The A+ remains this trade organization’s most popular certification, with just under 100,000 such credentials granted annually. Its other leading certs include Network+ and Security+, which together account for an additional 65,000 or so certifications granted yearly.

But CompTIA’s certifications cover a broad range of topics and technologies, with more than 15 currently available (see their certification page for a complete list), and another half-dozen or so that have come and gone over the past two decades (see the Wikipedia CompTIA entry for a complete list under the heading “discontinued certifications”). Across all of its programs, it’s likely that CompTIA currently certifies 200,000-plus individuals yearly .

Ed TittelEd TittelEd Tittel is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who’s worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written and blogged for numerous publications, including Tom's Hardware, and is the author of over 140 computing books with a special emphasis on information security, Web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.

Check out Ed's Tom's IT Pro  Making It in IT - Certification & Training blog here.

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(Shutterstock image credit: Monkey Business)

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