Linux certifications: Hot or not?

Employers want Linux skills, but they don't care much about certifications -- and for some, it is a red flag

With Linux having gained traction in business, certifications of Linux expertise are becoming more popular, similar to how Novell or Microsoft systems certifications became important for those platforms. But some in the Linux community say the emergence of certifications is by no means a golden ticket for admins, and perhaps just a waste of time and money.

Major Linux distributors, including Novell and Red Hat, have their own certification programs, notes Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation.

Employers come to the foundation seeking Linux talent and want to know if a candidate is qualified, he says: "They want to see a Good Housekeeping seal of approval, for lack of a better term, that's neutral and third-party." So the foundation offers the Linux Foundation Certified Developer certification and accompanying courses.

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Certification of Linux skills has become "pretty mainstream," Zemlin says, and more people are seeking certifications of Linux proficiency, including those previously certified to work with Solaris, Microsoft, and Novell systems.

"Particularly with the down economy and consolidation in the Unix market, people are looking to improve their skills and make [themselves] more marketable [in] the job market," he adds.

Linux certification is by no means a must-have to get a job

Yet on a list of most desirable certifications, Linux is nowhere to be seen -- even though Linux skills are highly desired by companies. The April 2009 Foote Partners Hot Lists cite Linux IT skills as No. 2, right behind Java, on its roster of most desired, noncertified IT skills.

The employment research firm's other list, featuring "hot" IT certifications, doesn't include any Linux certifications. "Certifications are not particularly necessary with a lot of people that are hiring," says David Foote, CEO of Foote Partners. "Clearly, the world is not saying, 'You need a certification in Linux to be hot.' You simply need Linux experience," he adds.

Even an unlikely source -- Linux vendor Novell -- backs up the notion that not everyone values the certifications. Corporations are looking for Linux skills but not putting value in the certification, says MaryJo Swenson, vice president of training services at Novell, which offers the Suse Linux distribution.

But Foote says he has heard from managers who find certifications attractive in hiring for deeply technical jobs in security, for example. But when hiring project managers or architectures, experience is the main criteria, he notes.

The case for and against Linux certifications

"The premise of any certification is that it should ultimately help a hiring manager sort the pile [of résumés]," says Randy Russell, Red Hat's director of certification.

Dennis Little, a member of the Central Pennsylvania Linux User Group, sees government agencies particularly looking for people with Linux certifications, especially Red Hat's. (Little says he would prefer a Linux Professional Institute certification, because he believes it to be superior to Red Hat's certification.)

But the use of certifications can raise eyebrows about a candidate's actual skills at many companies, says Eric Andreychek, lead organizer of the Central Pennsylvania Linux User Group.

"Some folks feel that [certifications] are used by underqualified people to try and hide their lack of real-world knowledge or skill," he says. "One person said they'd scrutinize a résumé even more if a person had a certificate than if they had none. Other people felt that [the certification] wasn't testing knowledge and skills that are usable in the real world."

Experience matters more than anything

It's clear that experience is what matters most to employers. By themselves, Linux certifications are "just a piece of paper," Little says, and employers will avoid candidates who "don't have any real-world experience." Yet employers will hire experienced candidates who don't have a Linux certification, he notes.

That's the case at hosted service provider Rackspace, which does not require technicians to gain Red Hat certification.

"While we don't require it, there're not really any technicians that don't take it," says Frederick Mendler, a vice president for support at Rackspace. And he sees that Red Hat certification is common on employee résumés. (More than 100,000 people have taken its certification exams, according to Red Hat.)

Some certification providers have gotten the "experience matters" message and adapted their tests to be more real-world. For example, Novell now determines attainment of its Suse-oriented Certified Linux Professional certification on a performance-based test.

"You have to actually perform administrative and troubleshooting tasks," Swenson says. If something is broken, the candidate must fix it. "I usually tell people, if you have a downed server in an exam, you have downed the server and now you have to figure your way out of it," she notes.

Only about 45 percent of candidates pass Novell's tests on the first try, Swenson notes, while the second-time passage rate is about 70 percent.

Likewise, the decade-old Red Hat Certified Engineer program's certifications are performance-based.

"People earn these certifications and credentials by passing practical examinations using live equipment and performing real-world tests," says certification director Russell.

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