The ABCs of Certification


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Does it really make a difference to a client that Louis Gutberlet is Louis Gutberlet, CPA, CQA, CMA, ATA, ABA? Just how valuable are all those letters on his business card? "It's a very simple thing for me," says Gutberlet, who has been in the business for more than 30 years. "It's to demonstrate competence in the subject matter both to myself and to anyone else that might be interested."

Actually, those are only some of the 18 designations held by Gutberlet, the founding partner of LGG & Associates of Lawrenceville, Ga., near Atlanta. Besides holding professional credentials, Gutberlet has also qualified for every QuickBooks certification since it became available in 1999, and most recently received the Microsoft Professional Accountants' Network Consultant title, a designation introduced in May.

With dozens of certifications to choose from, the vendors, regulatory bodies, and professional organizations that offer them must fight for the attention of financial and technology professionals trying to decide how much of the alphabet soup is worthwhile.

Partner Insights

The answer varies from person to person, but the reason for devoting all the effort often boils down to proving expertise without having to flash a resume or provide a list of references.

Similar to Gutberlet's experience with his string of letters, Brent Goodfellow finds his clients appreciate the letters MCSE, the widely known abbreviation for Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.

"[MCSE] has the same acceptance and recognition in the technology area as the CPA designation does in the financial [world]," says Goodfellow, a partner in Hillsboro, Ore.-based BKR Fordham Goodfellow, and manager of its wholly owned subsidiary, One Tech. "It provides a level of comfort for our clients that there's an independent organization that has certified our expertise. It takes a little of the guesswork out of hiring a tech professional."

Choosing carefully is important, because achieving certifications generally costs professionals time and money.

To be even a QuickBooks ProAdvisor, costs candidates $399 per year. Accounting professionals holding this designation must achieve an 85 percent score on each of three exams, a testing process that takes about 16 hours.

It takes about 40 to 80 hours to prepare for the much more technical MCSE, which targets people who design and implement an infrastructure for clients' business applications based on the Windows operating system. As Microsoft upgrades its technology, MCSEs upgrade their certifications through additional study and testing. CPAs generally require 40 hours of continuing professional education per year, with the hours and deadlines varying by state.

Making Sense of Alphabet Soup

The letters may roll off the tongues of credential holders easily, but beyond the broadly accepted designations, such as CPA, many technical and professional credentials are only vaguely familiar outside of their home turf.

Credentials range from those established by law or regulation, such as the CPA and Enrolled Agent titles to technical credentials established by vendors.

Here is a guide to some examples:

Certified ProAdvisor. This QuickBooks designation is held by 13,000 accounting professionals, and was designed by Intuit to give holders greater technical cache than the more numerous ProAdvisors.

CISA. Certified Information System Auditors get their designation from the Information Systems Audit and Control Association's CISA Certification Board. The credential has boomed as Sarbanes-Oxley has spurred the need for IT audits. There are currently about 50,000 of these.

CITP. Certified Information Technology Professionals are CPAs who have demonstrated proficiency in technology. There are about 1,050 of these.

EA. Enrolled Agents take their name from the fact that they are enrolled to practice before the Internal Revenue Service. The last count by the National Association of Enrolled Agents showed there were 45,621 of these professional tax practitioners.

MCSE. The Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer is a certification awarded by the nation's biggest software company. It is one of the most widely recognized vendor designations.

CFD. Certified Fraud Deterrence Analysts are hard to find, with only about 50 in the nation. The National Association of Certified Valuation Analysts introduced the program as a foundation for CPAs to help companies prevent fraud. Making Sense of Alphabet Soup

The letters may roll off the tongues of credential holders easily, but beyond the broadly accepted designations, such as CPA, many technical and professional credentials are only vaguely familiar outside of their home turf.

Credentials range from those established by law or regulation, such as the CPA and Enrolled Agent titles to technical credentials established by vendors.

Vendors have a range of training requirements for individual products, although the process of studying for some of these provides CPE credits. Those vying to become Certified Information Systems Auditors must complete a 200-question exam, and maintain at least 20 hours of continuing education per year with a minimum of 120 hours every three years.

While all the designations don't have equal marketplace standing, they all compete for the time and attention of the accounting professional embroiled in the technology marketing wars.

But as Gutberlet and Goodfellow note, the payoff can be significant in setting them apart from competitors. And that means winning deals and commanding higher billing rates and salaries.

Microsoft says that organizations with 25 percent or more of their staff certified report they deploy projects on time and on budget; rely less on external support; experience less downtime; and experience higher end-user satisfaction with their IT staff.

"Microsoft Certified Professionals and their organizations benefit from a structured and complete approach to learning: higher skills retention, increased productivity, industry recognition, improved career opportunities, exclusive benefits, and a more connected relationship with Microsoft and with a worldwide community of peers," says Al Valvano, director of certifications for Microsoft.

But much like a kid at Baskin Robbins, all the flavors can overwhelm IT personnel. Microsoft provides dozens of certifications to more than 2 million people worldwide.

"We heard from IT managers that the proliferation of our credentials is making it more difficult for them to understand which credentials best meet the needs of their business," Valvano says.

To ease confusion, the Redmond, Wash., company launched the "Next Generation" of certifications last October. It consists of three series of credentials-Technology Specialist (MCTS), IT Professional or Professional Developer (MCITP or MCPD), and Architect (MCA). These offer a shorter, more cost-effective path with fewer, more targeted exams, including case-study testing to validate skills associated with specific job roles or technologies.

"The new generation enables the individual to distinguish the certifications they are interested in based both on their job role as well as the technologies they work with," Valvano says. "We have created a framework that keeps the number of credentials to the minimum, while still allowing individuals to show their specialization."

Advisor Frenzy

Intuit's certifications, aimed more at accountants than at IT technicians, are also in great demand.

With the company adding 600,000 QuickBooks customers to its 3.7 million-user base this year, the number of ProAdvisors climbed to 35,000, with 13,000 of those certified. That's up from 27,000 ProAdvisors and 10,000 certified last year. Intuit predicts there will be 50,000 ProAdvisors, with 18,000 certifications, by fall 2007.

As participants achieve higher skill levels, the benefits grow, and include an increasing amount of marketplace exposure that is provided by Intuit.

Certified ProAdvisors receive priority placement on a Certified QuickBooks ProAdvisor Referral Web site, and can use the ProAdvisor logo on their own Web sites and business cards. They can also earn up to 16 CPE credits, and are eligible to join the Accountant Speaker's Bureau and present at engagements arranged by Intuit.

In October, Intuit launched the QuickBooks Advanced Certification Course as a pilot program to set apart ProAdvisors who have a higher level of expertise. It expects roughly 700 to 800 people to participate in this program by October 2007.

To qualify, participants must have been certified for the last three years, and complete a two-day, in-person training session for $236, and four two-hour online training courses.

In January, Intuit will begin offering certification for its mid-market QuickBooks Enterprise Solutions in a pilot program expected to attract roughly 400 to 500 participants.

The Web site for Certified Advisors represents a marketing tool with a wide reach, receiving more than 30,000 hits per month from small businesses looking for a local expert. For the average member, those visitors turned into six prospect calls during the last 12 months, with about half of them becoming clients.

In the past, prospects sought ProAdvisors by location. This year, they can sift through the list based on various services they provide and specific industries in which ProAdvisors specialize.

Getting toward the top of the advisor list is important, says Gutberlet, who highlights his eight QuickBooks and five Point of Sale certifications in hopes of gaining competitive advantage.

It's also important to Gutberlet to pass each test as early as possible. "I'm usually first or second in the country because I get up at 3 in the morning," he says. "If you're first, you're listed first in their database. Atlanta alone has 15 pages of certified ProAdvisors. I want to be on page one."

Lesser-Known Letters

But flashing certifications doesn't always win deals. When the letters are more obscure, sometimes they need explanation.

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