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VCP certification highly marketable in today's IT job market

Technical certifications like VMware Certified Professional are helping IT professionals stay ahead of the pack and manage their careers, says expert Joe Foran.

Keeping up with technical certifications can make the difference between getting paid the average salary for your position and getting paid what you're worth. Last year, VMware Inc. introduced certification for ESX Server, and recently it upgraded its program to VMware Infrastructure 3 (VI3). spoke with Joseph Foran, director of IT for Connecticut-based private nonprofit human services agency FSW Inc., to find out how valuable a VMware Certified Professional (VCP) title is in today's IT job market. Jobs in IT require a lifelong commitment to educating yourself in order to stay on top of new technologies. With virtualization staking out a firm role in the data center, is the VMware Certified Professional program, or VCP, still optional, or should it be considered more of an unspoken requirement for job security?

 Ultimately, competence is what counts most. But having the VCP shows commitment to yourself and your career.
Joseph Foran
Director of ITFSW, Inc.

Joseph Foran: Right now the VCP is in the same tier as the top-level architect exams because of its hotness factor. As it cools and becomes more of a baseline technology certification for virtualization administrators, it will be, much like the MCSA [Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator certification]: a good thing to have and a strong way to prove one's knowledge.

Most companies will authorize this training as it becomes clear to them that having a trained, professional virtualization-aware staff is as much a necessity as having certified database administrators. While it won't be required, it will certainly help those who have it to remain secure in their jobs and move upward.

 When choosing a VMware certification class, what should a system administrator look for?

Foran: System administrators should always look for a reputable, well-reviewed training provider who is listed on the VMware Web site and offers authorized courses.

How marketable is a VCP title?

Foran: Right now, it's a blank check. If you have it, you can walk into almost any midsized or large consultancy and say, "Pay me," simply because the VCP is so hot to market to both potential and current clients. In a corporate environment, it's also hot -- hotter even still with any application infrastructure certifications like CCA [Citrix Certified Administrator] or MCTS to show that you can not only implement virtualization but also integrate it.

Is the ESX certification exam, which is no longer offered, worth anything in light of the new exam? Should a sys admin pursue the additional certification if he has already passed the older ESX exam?

Foran: ESX 2.x and Virtual Infrastructure 3 may share some underlying superstructure, but they're otherwise entirely different ships. So much has gone into integrating VMware's many products like VMotion and adding new products like HA [High Availability] and DRS [Distributed Resource Scheduler] to VI3 that the old certification looks bland to any potential hiring manager.

If a system administrator is heavily involved in VI3 or ESX at his current job, is VCP certification really necessary?

Foran: No, no certification is really necessary, not even a certificate of completion from an accredited postsecondary learning facility -- aka a college degree. I've known people with GEDs who could code as well or better than other people with master's degrees. That said, those without the paper to back up their claims to competence -- however justified and true -- had a very hard time finding work and had an even harder time getting promoted [or] transferred to a better department or finding better work.

Ultimately, competence is what counts most. But having the VCP shows commitment to yourself and your career and can be used by hiring managers and supervisors as a way of gauging your expertise through a third party's eyes.

For certain jobs, has VCP certification become a requirement? If so, what if a candidate doesn't have certification but does have real-world experience? Would an employer overlook a lack of VCP certification?

Foran: I think that consultancies are looking heavily for VCPs because of how marketable the certification is to clients. I think the same applies to corporations looking to virtualize their servers in the future. It shows that a candidate is a good fit for their strategy. In both cases, having a VCP title gives you an edge over a candidate without one.

How difficult is the VCP exam? Could an IT newcomer or recent college graduate pass the test without the hands-on experience of, say, a system administrator who works with VI3 on a daily basis?

Foran: The exam itself isn't the hardest in the world, but it's harder than most baseline certifications. The VCP is a great certification exam because it requires cross-platform knowledge. Some Linux knowledge is needed to understand the service console as well as some SAN [storage area network] knowledge to understand how to connect various storage systems to VMware. You have to understand networking topologies in order to work with virtual switching, and guest operating systems like Windows in order to efficiently manage guests. This broad spectrum of expertise adds to the VCP exam's value, because somebody with the VCP is probably well rounded and therefore able to work well in large environments because of their understanding of many technologies and how they interplay (and integrate).

A recent college graduate or newcomer to IT could pass the exam with sufficient training and studying, although this gets difficult because of the cost involved. In order to get a VCP, you are required to take two classes at a VMware-authorized training center. The first, VMware Infrastructure 3: Install and Configure, runs about $3,000, while the second, VMware Infrastructure 3: Deploy, Secure and Analyze, runs about $3,300.

Different companies have developed study tools for the exam, including weeklong boot camp-type classes. Are there specific study tools (books, etc.) that you would you recommend?

Foran: Test King has always been a favorite aid of mine. It doesn't substitute for real-world and classroom learning, but as a study aid, I've always had good luck with their materials. Likewise, Transcender is one people recommend to me all the time, but sadly, they have yet to put out a VMware test-prep product. As for the boot camps, I have yet to find a VMware-authorized boot camp and don't see much value to them in general except for their being a good way for already experienced people to fill in any rough spots before taking a certification exam.

The Unitek VI3 Ultimate Boot Camp, which claims to be the most comprehensive course around, costs $4,295 without airfare. Is the extra training worth the hefty investment? 

Foran: Prospective VCPs should get a good study aid, go to authorized training centers for classes, work with the product and pass the exam. I spoke with Unitek on the subject of their boot camp, and they ran me in circles. Neither their online staff nor the person who followed up with me had any definitive answers about whether the program is "official" VMware training. As for the price, it's actually cheaper than attending both of the classes required by VMware, but it's not authorized, meaning that you must still attend the classes in order to earn the VCP. In short, it's useless as anything more than a supplement.

Are compressed, "boot camp-style" classes enough to gain a handle on VI3 without prior experience? Or does learning require more than a weeklong course?

Foran: Assuming that a boot camp was authorized by VMware, I suppose that depends on the student. One thing I will say, I would ask any prospective candidate how they got their certification, and if it came from a boot camp, their VCP won't hold much weight with me unless they also have experience to back it up. VMware is complex and requires a wide skill set obtained from experience in order to truly master. That said, any paper-only VCP most likely doesn't have the real-world chops to handle something so mission critical as the foundation level of a company's infrastructure.

For more information on VCP certification and the effect of virtualization on the IT job market, see Joseph Foran's blog posts: "The value of the VCP" and "Hiring questions in the virtualization age."

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