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Peer Pressure Drives Many To Acquire Security Certifications

New survey reveals how security pros really feel about the value -- or lack thereof -- of certs
Most security professionals attain security certifications for fear that if they don't have one, they'll be passed over in favor of those who do.

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And most believe that holding a certification directly influenced their job advancement -- all of this according to the results of a new survey that will be disclosed next week at Black Hat USA in Las Vegas. Some 54 percent of the 1,350 IT security pros who participated in "The Value of Information Security Certifications Survey" said that they were either promoted or got another job based on their security certification status, while some 46 percent said they were not.

But security career experts say this could be more a matter of perception than reality. "Fifty-four percent believe the certification is powerful ... and a result of their advancement. I'm blown away by the perception of that," says security professional recruiter Lee Kushner of Information Security Leaders, an independent security careers website that hosted the survey. Kushner, who is president of LJ Kushner and Associates, says he sees a different reality in his day-to-day dealings in the field.

"In the world I live in, no one says, 'Hire this person because this person has a certification' or not," he says. "They hire the best person" for the job regardless of their certifications, he says.

Mike Murray, also with InfoSec Leaders and co-founder of MAD Security, says as a manager, he has never hired or promoted someone based on a certification: "I can't remember a time I've ever done that or known anyone who did that," he says.

"A lot of people believe in the value of certs. That value is because people believe in it," he says.

Three-fourths of the respondents in the survey either currently or previously have held information security certifications. Around 40 percent of the respondents "somewhat agree" that peer pressure is what motivated them to gain certification, and that it was necessary so they would not be passed over for jobs or promotions, while 15.4 percent said they "strongly agree" it was the impetus. More than 26 percent disputed that, and nearly 20 percent were neutral on whether certs give them a leg up professionally.

Even so, around 80 percent said the time and money they spent attaining certification was "a good use" of their resources, while nearly 9 percent said it was not.

Most of them said that if they were in a position to hire a security pro, they would require the new hire to hold at least one security certification. "So if you don't have one certification, you have no chance of getting a security job" in that case, Kushner says. And 16 percent said they wouldn't even offer an interview to a job candidate who didn't hold a cert.

"What other choice do I have but to get a certification?" Kushner says. "It's a self-perpetuating process."

But when asked whether the certification organizations that provide these certifications have security pros' best interests at heart, they are skeptical: More than three-fourths of the respondents said certification bodies are mostly focused on promoting their brands and proprietary certs -- and of that 75 percent, nearly 30 percent of them "strongly" feel that is the case. Around 16.5 percent are neutral, while about 7.6 percent disagree.

Even so, about half said the cert organizations do offer services outside of the certs themselves that "enhance" the careers of IT pros.

So does this mean that if you don't already have a CISSP, a SANS GIAC, or a CISM, you should definitely get one?

"It depends on where you want to be. If you want to work at a small company where no one has a certification, don't bother," Murray says. "But there are lots of places where you cannot get in the door without it."

Kushner and Murray will present the full survey results during their "InfoSec 2011 -- A Career Odyssey" workshop on Aug. 4 at Black Hat. The half-day workshop focuses on professional development, and namely skill development and differentiation. Among the presentations: the information security leader of the future, job applicant and employer perspectives during the interview process, and future career trends.

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