Finding the best of anything can be a challenge, and is always interesting. When it comes to choosing among multiple certifications in and around specific topic areas here at Tom's IT Pro, that goes double.
The Best IT Certifications series, lists almost 30 categories, each of which links to an article that recites our top five certifications therein.
We want to be sure you know how we identify candidates for inclusion in those Best IT Certifications lists. And how we decide which ones to feature in the top five, as well as which ones to mention in the Beyond the Top 5 section, and which ones to omit in crowded niches where dozens of credentials may be available. Our goal is to be as transparent as possible. That is, we want to help certification sponsors and IT pros alike understand how we choose certification categories, how we find certifications and sponsors, and the methodology we follow to decide which certifications make the cut, and which don't.
Establishing the Niches
We've divided up the general field of IT into areas of specialization and expertise. These aren't completely independent of one another, nor are they devoid of occasional overlap. Many IT certifications qualify under more than one heading, so we do our best to put them where they fit best, and to mention them under other headings where they might also apply.
Our notions of category come from careful study of IT certification programs and credentials, and how they describe themselves. They also come from constant, ongoing attention to the job market for IT professionals, and how the roles and tasks that such people are asked to occupy or perform are described and explained. And finally, they come from the various market analysis and job placement firms such as Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Robert Half, Foote Partners and so forth. For the freelancer perspective, we follow Upwork's regular employment reports. We also follow training companies or providers that serve the IT certification market closely as part of their bread and butter operations, such as New Horizons, Global Knowledge and their ilk, as well as edX, Coursera, Udemy and so forth.
In examining the options presented to willing consumers of training and certification prep, and analyzing job descriptions or population surveys of IT workers that involve certification, one can glean a lot of data about how the space is organized into categories. This also provides great guidance on which ones are attracting great interest and activity at any given moment.
Finding the Players
Once we identify a specific niche or area of technical focus or specialization, we start searching for relevant certifications within that space. Our Best Certifications articles invariably stick to the most active parts of the marketplace, for several reasons:
- They're the ones most likely to appeal to our readers.
- They're the ones most likely to host a large enough collection of certifications to make them worth covering.
Because these topics suggest a variety of options from which to choose, some input or guidance on which ones make most sense is usually welcome. That's why we wrote these stories to begin with, and why we keep updating those whose interest and activity levels warrant continued attention and effort to keep them current.
Our first and primary sources of certification names and information comes from various specialized databases in this area. GoCertify.com, for example, maintains a fairly comprehensive list that includes hundreds of entries along with basic descriptive and access information. Various certification topic portals offer unique insight into and information about security certifications and other niches. (See Clement DuPuis's excellent CCCure.com, and our thorough survey of information or cyber security certifications for TechTarget as well.) Careful examination of the items that appear within and across such multiple information sources helps to populate the players for any given niche fairly well.
To round out each such list, and to make sure we haven't missed anything, we then turn to search engines. By playing the permutations on a niche's name, and its synonyms and euphemisms, we ferret out other (often new or less well-known) credentials to add to our lists. We also make appeals to readers and sponsors to share items they know about that we've yet to find with us by posting comments to our stories or sending us email.
Making the Cut
As firm believers in empirical metrics to rate and rank certifications, our next effort involves some serious screen scraping to determine how much our players are in demand. Thus, we turn to a battery of job posting and job advertising or placement sites to look for specific mention of our candidate certifications.
We count up those mentions on a per-site basis, then add them all together to see how they stack up against one another. We pick a weekday at random while working on a story, then run our searches to see what pops up on that given day.
To forestall the inevitable questions or concerns, we've also tried as many as three or five randomly chosen or consecutive days in a given month to see if the averaging effects of multiple samples would affect our rankings. They didn't cause the numbers to budge much, if at all, and then only at the lower end of the scale, where smaller numbers fluctuate more dramatically than bigger ones. That's why our current approach is to pick a day, make our snapshots and use that data for ranking, with reasonable confidence that the data reflects reality rather more than less.
Our Go-To Job Sites
Over the years, we've looked at, and worked with, many sites that specialize in providing job listings and information online. Our best results come from sites that represent jobs all over the country, and that can deliver a country-wide perspective as well as more local purviews. We also like those that include salary data, that mention specific job duties and responsibilities, and so forth. Of course, we absolutely require sites that mention certifications by name (preferably by acronym).
In the five or six years we've been writing these articles, our job sites lineup has changed. Primarily such changes have reflected one or more of the following:
- Strong divergence in numbers and coverage from other sites in our pool
- Declining participation or use from employers and/or job seekers
- Inconsistencies or frequent variations in the numbers observed for specific certifications
- Failure to include, or reduced coverage of, IT certifications on the site
Here's our current roster of job sites from whence we scrape data to establish rankings for our candidate certifications, and to establish our top five lists.
Excellent job info by title, skills, company and certifications
Job and resume posting site; excellent salary data
Microsoft-owned social media site for practicing professionals
Excellent job info by title, location, keywords, company and certifications
Establishing the Cut, Dealing with Ties or Close Finishes
Most of the time, picking the winners is pretty straightforward. If the numbers don't lie – and we believe they're reasonably representative based on long and frequently repeated experience – laying things out in order from highest to lowest helps us get things organized. When an occasional surprise presents itself, we're not above making adjustments to suit the data, and to provide additional information or explanations to help things make sense.
In general, we like to see triple-digit numbers in our job search tables. That means at least 100 job postings mention a certification on any given day, and provide some confidence that its appearance, presence or absence isn't simply a glitch or a transitory thing. When a category tails off with two or more certifications with less than 100 mentions from our screen scraping efforts, we have to look closely at those items to decide what to do with them. For example, if two items have about 50 mentions and both are candidates for the last spot in the top five, we'll almost always pick the one from the biggest and/or best-known certification program rather than picking the one from a program that's less than two years old or that we never heard of before. This doesn't happen very often, but when it does, we document our reasons for selecting one over the other, and try to do so rationally and defensibly.
Populating the Beyond the Top 5 Section
Particularly for busy niches, we may be selecting from a field of dozens of potential candidates, sometimes even more than that. But for any certifications that don't make the numeric cut by ranking, we keep an eye on them for several factors to guide their potential inclusion in this section.
Certainly, a close finisher by the numbers will almost always be included in the Beyond the Top 5 section of a Best Certifications article. Likewise, credentials from sponsors well-known in other niches or markets may also appear, drawing on name recognition and cachet from other contexts. And finally, especially interesting or innovative offerings may also come in for mention, just because they've caught our attention, and perhaps might make a bid for yours, too.
Feedback Always Helps
Now that you know more about how we find and select the credentials we include in our Best Certifications series, we hope you'll appreciate the work that goes into the process behind the scenes. We also hope you'll understand that we may not always find the certifications, certification programs or certification sponsors you know about, and that you'll share such data with us early and often.
Finally, we welcome your input and comments on our selections and findings. If something doesn't make sense to you, or we appear to have gotten something wrong, please let us know. You reach us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We carefully evaluate all feedback from readers and sponsors, making every effort to fix errors right away, and keep track of potential additions to articles for our annual update cycle.