There was a time when professional engineering certification meant something. Every state in the United States has long had education and experience requirements for being licensed as a professional engineer, or PE. Holders of that license were generally accorded a higher salary and more professional respect. The PE license typically requires an accreditation board for engineering and technology (ABET)-accredited degree, several years of experience, and a passing score on two daylong exams administered by the state.

Over the last decade, however, certifications have proliferated beyond government-run standards to many different types of vendor-specific technologies. Software certifications are perhaps best known. This is because the skills and accompanying exam tend to be performed by third parties and promoted widely. In this category, Novell's certified NetWare engineer (CNE) and certified NetWare administrator (CNA) were among the first. But the Microsoft certified systems engineer (MCSE) and its derivatives are perhaps the most recognized and pervasive.

Software vendors aren't alone in the rush to certification. It's possible to acquire certification in Sun Microsystems servers, Cisco routers and switches, and others. Microprocessor vendors are beginning to provide courses and certifications in applying and programming their chips. Certifications ranging from real-time operating-system (RTOS) internals to logic design are coming into the market. The common ground among virtually all of these certifications is that they involve the implementation, rather than the development, of technology.

This kind of certification serves plenty of useful functions. For the vendor, it's a way of ensuring that customer implementations are done correctly and reasonably consistently. A small investment in time and money for certification can pay large dividends for both the vendor and the customer in a correct and standard implementation.

Certification Aids Vendors
And, of course, certification of independent engineers provides a highly skilled and aggressive sales base for that vendor's wares. For example, at its height, Novell claimed over 60,000 CNEs. Many of these CNEs were self-employed, or worked for systems integrators, and consistently recommended a Novell solution to their customers. Therefore, Novell improved sales of its products by providing a valuable service for those who implemented them.

From an industry point of view, vendor certification provides a measurable amount of accomplishment and ability that college degree programs in engineering and computer science no longer convey. In many cases, companies take new college graduates and spend months or even years training them in the practical aspects of engineering. Companies may also have to update the skills of new graduates. This is because a number of engineering fields move so quickly that university curricula rapidly get out of date.

In the realm of engineering, vendor certification could benefit a new graduate, or even someone without formal engineering education. It can help either one to gain a toehold in an industry that badly needs more capable and proven people. With no degree and no documented skills, it's difficult for entry-level people to show what they're capable of. In these situations, a vendor-specific certification can open doors that might otherwise stay closed.

For mid-career engineers, vendor-specific certification is a way to obtain current skills that may be of greater value to an employer. Having an engineering degree from the 1970s, twenty years of solid engineering jobs, and a new certification in programming Texas Instruments' DSPs demonstrates a compelling mix of both experience and the willingness to learn new technologies.

As a career alternative, however, pursuing certifications is a Hobson's choice. Vendor-oriented certification tends to focus on how to implement that vendor's technology, rather than providing any sort of context around the technology. In the short run, this may pay off, allowing a vendor-certified engineer to ride a popular product to a superb new job.

But over the course of a career, it could be far more damaging than helpful. Hot products and vendors that produce them tend to decline over time, and the career of an engineer counting on product-specific expertise may decline along with them. That's exactly what happened to Novell CNEs in the mid-1990s. It was at this time that NetWare ceased to be the universal standard in networking. As a result, many of those trained exclusively in that technology saw their careers grind to a halt.

It gets worse. Those trained only in a vendor-specific technology may be less capable of evaluating alternative approaches to a problem. An engineer with Cisco-specific implementation training would understandably be reluctant to recommend a competitor's switching model. This holds true even when there are clear technical merits in the alternative.

This does both the engineer and the employer a large disservice. The engineer fails in the task of engineering, which not only includes making a given solution work, but also analyzing the value of the solution to begin with. The employer loses the benefit of that analysis, and in doing so, perhaps implements an improper or at best sub-optimal solution.

This is one place where an old-fashioned college education, despite the time and money required, still has a significant advantage over the fast and focused vendor certification. Today, college computing labs and individual courses are encouraged and even sponsored by commercial vendors. Ironically, there's usually little focus on doing things the way the vendor specifies. Instead, the technology is a learning tool used to explore broader technical concepts.

That's not to say that a college education is an absolute requirement for career success in engineering. But college is a venue that attempts to answer the question "why" rather than "how." The how of a technology changes swiftly and sometimes drastically. Why, on the other hand, remains largely bound by the natural laws of physics and engineering, and changes less rapidly.

That's why (no pun intended) we tend to complete our college experience early in our careers, with exceptions for graduate degrees or learning newly developed techniques. Once we have mastered the basic principles of science and engineering, as well as a few generic techniques, we've established a right to be in the engineering profession.

Since we're not yet trained, we're pretty much useless right out of college. Employers want us to be able to answer the question "how." The "why" is implicit. It's something that we're already expected to know so that we can respond to a subsequent "how." We can either figure out how to work with a specific product or technology, or we can get a certification in it.

Still, the "why" is part of our lifelong career baggage. We can learn how to do something without necessarily understanding it. But if we understand it, we can adapt to new and different situations. A vendor-specific certification program trains within a single set of technologies. It's useful in the immediate sense, but less so in the broader context. In short, training through certification addresses an immediate symptom, while education gets to the root cause.

Where Certification Fits In
None of this is meant to disparage vendor-specific certifications as one component of a career plan. Over the short term, certification in a vendor's successful product line could mean a substantial increase in salary and responsibility. This may also add new skills to an already-established career. But this advantage lasts a few years, at best.

Vendor-specific certifications are not short cuts to a high-paying, long-lasting career. Furthermore, even if a certification may open the door to new and challenging work, it doesn't automatically enable you to do that work. You still have to perform, day in and day out, often doing tasks that bear little relation to the subject of the certification.

Given all of this, where do vendor-specific certifications fit into the engineering profession? Such certifications aren't a foundation upon which to build a career. They're too brittle, and highly dependent upon the whims of the market as well as of a specific vendor. Anyone who summarizes their total expertise as being an MCSE, for example, risks that expertise in performing any task that isn't related to the MCSE training subject matter.

For most, the formal engineering education, obtained at a college or university, remains the foundation of a career. With a sufficiently broad and comprehensive education, an engineer should be able to integrate virtually any new product or technique into his or her skill set.

Yet a college education rarely teaches an engineer how to perform a particular duty with a specific commercial product. The tasks we accomplish during college labs are typically trivial and artificial. They're nothing like the complex assignments we take on as working engineers. Usually, the most difficult tasks revolve around a vendor's popular new product. An engineer has two choices at this point—either figure the problem out independently, or take a workshop or short course on the topic (usually vendor-sponsored). If offered, a certification in that product may be a logical next step.

So it's not so difficult to balance the goals of a formal education with a quick certification. Be well educated. Understand your profession and the broad technical concepts and limits. Find the important technologies and products in the area that interests you most. They'll change from year to year, both because of market forces and your personal preferences.

Use your interests and new engineering projects as opportunities to pick up new product-oriented skills. If the vendor offers a certification, and there seems to be a career advantage for you, consider taking the certification. Insofar as it helps you succeed in a current or future job, so much the better. But within a few years at most, it will be replaced by a hot new vendor and product. Be prepared to jettison the old certification and fall back on your engineering education and experience until you get up to speed on new products.