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Navigating the maze of competencies and certifications

Vendors are pushing their partners hard to get certified, but where does a solution provider draw the line?

While the idea of competencies and certifications came from simple beginnings, today a partner looking to navigate the ever increasing and inter-linked Web of programs offered by the various vendors can feel like they’re in a maze.

It’s a maze they’ll need to navigate, however. To get access to the best margins and technologies it’s a must to get certified.

An industry association for the IT sector, CompTIA regularly conducts research on issues such as competencies and certifications. Neill Hopkins, vice-president, skills development, says the industry believes there needs to be some methodology for validating that partners can do the work. That’s what certification is, it validates that a partner has the skills to do the job.

He adds vendors want to focus more on their top tier VARs to sell their high-end products, so they’re pushing accreditation programs to identify which partners are capable of installing, managing and selling those high-end products.

“That, to me, is a logical step,” said Hopkins. “If you want to get into the arena where you’re going to make some good margins, probably get some reasonable business from the vendors, you’re probably going to have to go through an accreditation process.”

Legend Corp, a Toronto-based solution provider and Microsoft Gold Certified partner, has felt the pressure to certify and specialize says its president, Andy Papadopoulos.

“I’ve seen more interest from (vendors) like Microsoft asking us to step-up the number of people we have certified or increase areas of specialization within the programs people are members of, or ask us to take on other areas of their product line,” he says.

However it’s not just the vendors pushing certifications, says Hopkins. VARs see certifications as a way to differentiate themselves, and that’s important in today’s market. They want that certificate to hang in the window so to speak, and to use in their marketing.

It’s a positive for Legend, says Papadopoulos. He wants every person on the team to have some level of certification within the product lines they represent.

“That only gives us more credibility, not only with Microsoft but with our clients as well,” says Papadopoulos, adding it helps clients feel more confident they have processes to deliver predictable, consistent implementations.

That said, Papadopoulos admits it is a challenge. If Microsoft makes a change to its certifications Legend won’t get there overnight. The training needed needs to be factored into each employee’s plan for the year and built into their goals and objectives.

VARs are also keen on certifications because users factor them into their buying decisions, says Hopkins, something that’s barred-out by CompTIA’s research.

“When looking at a reseller they want to deal with they will weigh whether they have certain certifications,” said Hopkins. “It gives them a comfort-level that they’ve taken the time to go out and learn the product.”

That’s echoed by Carol Terentiak, manager of the Microsoft partner program with Microsoft Canada.

“Competencies to us, and to customers, should recognize a skill level that the partner has achieved based on certifications they have within the organization and based on customer references,” says Terentiak.

Microsoft tweaked its specializations around security in November, bringing in identity management as a specialization within the security competency. A number of other changes will be coming in May. Hosting and business intelligence, both areas Terentiak says partners are looking to go deep, are being elevated from specializations to competencies.

Terentiak says partners have responded well to Microsoft’s many choices around competencies and specializations. Some partners elect to go broad and offer expertise, while others decide to go deep in one or two areas.

While Microsoft’s Excellence Program isn’t designed to reward partners that just play in one or two areas, Terentiak says the vendor works with those products to develop a solution plan that recognizes their expertise. They’re also likely to be Gold partners as well, she says, so they do get the benefits of that level.

“A partner can engage as much as they choose, it’s up to them,” said Terentiak.

Networking vendor Cisco Systems recognizes talent is one of the biggest factors for partners trying to grow their business. Accordingly, Cisco has tried to build as much flexibility as possible into its competencies and certifications program, whether they choose to focus on depth or breadth says Rick Graham, vice-president, distribution and channel operations with Cisco Canada.

“We think partners understand making those investments help them differentiate their business and they’re seeing a payback, so they continue to make them,” said Graham. “We don’t expect them to be masters of everything.”

With its program Cisco is focusing on four key technologies: routing and switching, unified communications, wireless and security. The partner program is focused on building competencies there, but there are also programs for partners that want to go deeper, such as wireless mesh within wireless, or contact centre within unified communications.

“What we’ve seen over the last year is increasing interest and investment by partners to take the next step and go a little deeper and develop their competency around a technology,” said Rebecca Leach, manager, partner programs with Cisco Canada.

While it is tempting to try to be all things to all people, CompTIA’s Hopkins says for small-to-medium sized resellers in particular, it may be important to narrow your focus.

“I’d have to start making choices, and asking myself if there are specific vertical markets in my region…I should focus on what makes business sense to me, and go after those accreditations,” said Hopkins.

Legend’s Papadopoulos agrees it’s important to take a strategic approach.

“Microsoft is one of those companies that has an incredible number of products,” says Papadopoulos. “It’s great you have these opportunities, but you can’t sell every product Microsoft sells unless you’re a company of 1,000 people. You have to pick and choose those you think you can be successful in.”

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