CertCities.com’s 10 Hottest Certifications for 2006

CertCities.com’s 10 Hottest Certifications for 2006
Our annual attempt to predict the certifications that will shine brightest next year.

by Becky Nagel

12/14/2005 — CertCities.com 2006 Hot CertsSo we’re at it again: Trying to predict the future of IT certification with our annual hot cert list. If you’ve read previous installments of this article, you probably already know everything we’ll cover in the following introduction by heart, but we have to say it anyway to make sure everyone’s clear on what we are — or aren’t — trying to do here.

To start off, this is NOT a list of overall popularity. If we did that, Microsoft’s MCP would win every year. Instead, we’re looking for the certifications that we think will be the most influential in 2006, the ones that will grow the fastest, the ones that we think will show the true future of IT certification. As a simple analogy, think of it more as a Billboard Hot 100 singles list — instead of the most popular songs, we’re looking for the ones that will rise the fastest.

Also realize that we do base it on some actual research. We start with our annual reader survey, on which we present more than 70 certifications and ask you to tell us which ones you hold and which ones you plan to get within the next 12 months. Positive differences are then converted to a 1 to 20 scale (20 being best), resulting in a “reader interest” score.

Next comes the buzz score: What are people saying about particular certs? What is the title’s reputation? What recognitions have they received? How well known are the titles in the marketplace? What do our contributors (who submit personal Hot Cert top 10 lists for scoring) think of the titles? We combine all this into a “buzz” score. Add this to the reader interest score and our top 10 picks for the next year emerge.

As always, please read the following caveats so the list makes a bit more sense as you go through it — including one to explain why there’s isn’t a No. 5:

The more established a title becomes, the harder it is for the certification to make this list. As you follow up on your pledge to get particular titles, it becomes harder and harder for that certification to make this list. So when favorites drop spots or even drop off — like (ISC)2’s CISSP did two years ago — more often than not it’s simply because that credential is living up to its potential, and not because the certification isn’t “good” anymore (remember, that’s not what we’re looking at anyhow).
This is a list of 10 certs, which can make the numbering slightly confusing when there’s a tie. This year, there’s a tie at No. 4. Because of this tie, there is no No. 5 spot on this list, because the total number of certifications listed needs to remain at 10. This is a standard way of handling ties on top 10 lists, so we’ve gone with it, but wanted to say something up front since it’s sometimes been a confusion in the past.
We’re not perfect. While we base this survey on some actual research, there’s also semi-intelligent guesswork involved. Take the list for whatever you think it’s worth, and be sure to share your picks for next year by posting at the end of the article.
With all that out of the way, here’s our predictions for 2006…

#10: Linux Professional Institute Certification, Level 2 (LPIC 2)
Vendor: Linux Professional Institute
Reader Interest Score (out of 20): 10
Buzz Score (out of 10): 5
Total: 15

Previous Hot Cert Lists
2005 Hot Certs

2004
2003
2002

When you’re a community-driven, non-profit certification program, it’s often hard to get noticed, especially when certification is all you do. There is no corporate marketing budget you can dip into, no company products to piggy-back your promotions on. Add in LPI’s goal of keeping its exams affordable — they cost $100 U.S., when not discounted further at special testing events — and it’s no wonder that this program doesn’t (yet?) have the name recognition of Red Hat or even CompTIA’s Linux+.

But it’s getting there. By relying on community involvement and the reputation of its exams, the profile of LPI continues to grow — particularly for its Level 2 certification, the only major offering for mid-level Linux administrators looking to earn a truly vendor-neutral title.

LPIC 2’s sophomore appearance on this list particularly pleased our Linux columnist, Emmett Dulaney. While several of our contributors placed the title on their personal top 10 lists for 2006, Dulaney put it firmly at No. 2, citing the title’s marketability: “As the Linux matures in the marketplace and continues to gain acceptance, the need to have higher-level, vendor-neutral skills becomes more important than ever.”

As you’ll see later in this list, the vendor-specific Linux skills aren’t hurting either. But for now, let’s move on to No. 9…

#9: Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP)
Vendor: (ISC)2
Reader Interest Score (out of 20): 13
Buzz Score (out of 10): 4
Total: 17

(ISC)’s flagship title, the CISSP, was a staple on this list until two years ago, when so many of you earned it simply took the title out of the running for this list of up-and-comers. Those who sent us hate mail back then can take some solace that the program’s lower-level SSCP title has found its way onto this list, debuting at No. 9.

While SSCP is, of course, often widely seen as a stepping stone to the CISSP, it’s also beginning to earn a reputation in its own right. Like its big brother, the SSCP is a vendor-neutral security title. It comes with its own experience requirement (one year, instead of the CISSP’s five) and even focuses on the same body of knowledge (seven areas, instead of the CISSP’s 10).

Contributing Editor Greg Neilson was pleased to see this title make the cut this year because it fills a niche for the industry. “There are so many wanting to move into security and are looking for a program that will both structure their learning and provide a validation of their security skills,” he commented.

Contributing Editor Andy Barkl agreed, saying that the title “deserves to climb the ranks,” because its ability to stand on its own as well as lead candidates to the CISSP pinnacle.

#8: MCSE: Security
Vendor: Microsoft
Reader Interest Score (out of 20): 12
Buzz Score (out of 10): 6
Total: 18

This title debuted on last year’s 2005 Hot Cert list No. 2, and while many of you obtained the title last year, enough of you still plan to get it in 2006 that it was able to hang on for another year, coming in at No. 8.

In fact, with its combination of Windows networking and security, the title would probably be poised to become an industry staple — if not for Microsoft’s recent announcement that it will completely revamp its certification program over the next few years. And while the company has said it won’t retire or discontinue any of its current certifications, candidates will find it hard to justify the cost of an eight-exam title when its next-generation replacement (most likely featuring less exams) is just around the corner.

Despite the uncertainty, thanks to your reader interest score and continued buzz, MCSE: Security should continue strong through at least 2006. Three of our four contributors agree, placing it somewhere on their personal top 10 lists, with its highest placement coming on Barkl’s at No. 4.

#7 Cisco Certified Network Professional
Vendor: Cisco
Reader Interest Score (out of 20): 12
Buzz Score (out of 10): 7
Total: 19

If you’re looking for perpetual hotness, it’s hard to beat the CCNP. After a few years on this list, most title rise to the level of the truly established credentials, such as Microsoft’s MCSE and CompTIA’s A+. But no matter how many of you achieve this title, every year more of you line up, making this one of only two titles that we’ve called a Hot Cert for all five years we’ve done this list.

And the CCNP shows no sign of slowing down. “Cisco certifications are extremely popular,” commented Barkl, who said that the mid-level title is right for those who don’t want to rise to the CCIE level.

Dulaney agrees that the future is getting brighter for the CCNP, calling it a “doorway to many positions…It has now become what the CCNA once was.”

#6: Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert
Vendor: Cisco
Reader Interest Score (out of 20): 11
Buzz Score (out of 10): 9
Total: 20

Okay, don’t freak out. We know this was our No. 1 title last year. And we also know that this title probably the most respected certification in the world thanks to its grueling, day-long lab exam that tests candidates’ hands-on skills with Cisco hardware at the highest levels.

And no, the title’s reputation isn’t sinking. Quite the opposite: Its buzz is stronger than ever, and all of contributors once again placed the CCIE on their personal top 10 lists, with two putting it at No. 1.

So why did it end up at No. 6? It all comes down to the reader score. This year, slightly less of you said that you plan to achieve the title in the next 12 months — perhaps the reality of exactly how difficult that goal is has set in for some. Also, more of you reported already being CCIEs than even before. While the increase is only a handful, the two factors combined are enough to keep the title “hot,” just not hot enough to take first place again.

Even with this explanation, we know some of you will still be very disappointed with this ranking. At least it leaves some suspense for the 2006: What will be No. 1? Just five more to go, so let’s move on to our next entry — two actually, as there’s a tie at position No. 4 (read note at start of article if you’re wondering why there’s no No. 5).

#4 (TIE): Cisco Certified Security Professional (CCSP), Project Management Professional (PMP)
Vendors: Cisco, Project Management Institute
Reader Interest Score (out of 20): 13, 14
Buzz Score (out of 10): 8, 7
Total: 21

Up and Coming…
Every year, a few titles just miss this list. To give them their due, here’s the top five runners-up for 2006:

Microsoft Certified Information Technology Professional: SQL
Check Point Certified Security Expert
Planet3 Certified Wireless Security Professional
Sun Certified Java Developer
GIAC (SANS) Intrusion Analyst

Since we’re already on a Cisco roll, let’s continue with the CCSP — the company’s mid-level security title. It’s no surprise to find this title so high our list for 2006, as it combines two of the hottest certification areas today: Cisco and security.

CertCities.com contributor and CCIE Scott Morris placed the CCSP at No. 4 on his personal top 10 list, citing the popularity of security plus the title’s role as a stepping stone to the security track of the CCIE.

Dulaney thinks this is the title for 2006, placing it at No. 1 on his personal list. As he puts it, “You can’t go wrong with security and Cisco.”

PMI’s PMP title also made a strong showing this year, rising from its debut stop at No. 10 last year, thanks in part to even stronger buzz for this industry-neutral title within the IT community. Our contributors like it as well. The title placed at No. 4 on Neilson’s personal top 10 list for 2006, and Barkl placed it at No. 5. “There’s always a need for those who understand project management,” he said.

Dulaney agrees, saying there’s a lot to like about this title, which he placed at No. 8 on his personal list. “The recent updates to this certification have kept it current,” he commented. “[It’s] useful for administrators, engineers — just about anyone.”

#3: Microsoft Certified Architect
Vendor: Microsoft
Reader Interest Score (out of 20): 15
Buzz Score (out of 10): 7
Total: 22

It wasn’t a surprise when Microsoft announced its architect certification earlier this year; rumors that the title was coming had been swirling for a while. What did surprise many was the format: Instead of a hands-on lab exam, Redmond went with a peer-review format modeled after professional board certifications, along with an estimated $10,000 price tag.

As you can probably tell from the cost, one of Microsoft’s stated goals with the MCA is to keep it relatively exclusive. Even so, enough of you say that you’re up to this challenge (and presumably, have an employer willing to pick up the cost) that the credential scored well enough to debut at No. 3 on our list while still in beta format. (Look for public registration to open in January.)

Neilson is particularly bullish on the title, putting it at No. 1 on his top 10 list. “Those with a long-term Microsoft architectural background…will seriously be considering the new MCA program,” he commented.

#2: Microsoft Certified Technical Specialist: SQL & .NET
Vendor: Microsoft
Reader Interest Score (out of 20): 18
Buzz Score (out of 10): 5
Total: 23

While the MCA represents a new top-level addition to the Microsoft program, the MCTS will be the first step, requiring between one and three exams to earn a variety of specialties.

So far, only the SQL and .NET tracks have been officially announced (they’re currently in beta), so those are the only specialties we asked you about. Even with this limitation, the title scored extremely well on our survey, earning it a No. 2 debut. Interest in this title (along with the higher level Microsoft Certified Information Technology Professional, which just missed the cut this year) should only continue to rise as the expected Windows server tracks are released during the next few years.

But back to the SQL and .NET focus of the MCTS right now. As Greg Neilson points out, the acronym doesn’t yet roll off the tongue, but the timing is right: “With the launch of the new SQL Server 2005, there will be a great deal of people wanting to upgrade their database skills.”

Neilson put the title at No. 3 on his personal top 10 hot list for 2006, while Barkl placed it at No. 9. “The pool of Microsoft SQL and .NET developers is gaining interest,” he remarked. “Microsoft wants to make sure their programs remain ‘fresh.’”

About the only problem this certification currently faces is a lack of name recognition in the industry — one that, for a company like Microsoft, won’t be a problem for much longer.

And our prediction for the No. 1 hottest certification for 2006 is…

#1: Red Hat Certified Engineer
Vendor: Red Hat
Reader Interest Score (out of 20): 17
Buzz Score (out of 10): 8
Total: 25

If you’re looking for yet another sign that Linux is becoming a real player, then you’ve got it. While Linux certifications have regularly made our Hot Cert list over the past few years — in fact, the RCHE has appeared on this list since we started it for 2002 — this is the first time one has ever taken the top spot. Quite a feat, especially when you consider that the vast majority of CertCities.com’s readers are Windows professionals.

So how did this Linux title break through to No. 1? Having a stellar reputation never hurts, and Red Hat is well known for the quality of its RHCE lab exam, which tests candidates’ hands-on skills with Red Hat Enterprise. “It’s a truly challenging certification,” commented Dulaney. “It carries a lot more respect than others in the market.”

But the title wouldn’t go anywhere unless its skills were seen as marketable. And according to Morris, high-level Linux skills may be more marketable than some might think. “These days…it seems that demand for a great Linux person outstrips the demand for general Microsoft administration skills,” commented Morris. “Not that Microsoft is going anyplace, but serious Linux networking is more [rare]. While [this is] not my personal area of interest, I highly recommend that others look at it with keen interest.”

So there you have it, our picks for the hottest certs for 2006. Now its time to share yours! Post your personal picks below, or e-mail me at bnagel@certcities.com.

Becky Nagel, editor of CertCities.com, is an award-winning journalist with almost 10 years experience covering the tech industry. She was hired to create CertCities.com in 2000, and has been editor of the site since. She can be reached at bnagel@101com.com.