It's not hard to write the initials after the name of a networking professional: CCIE for Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, or CNE for Certified Novell Engineer, among dozens of others.The initials mean that someone is a certified professional for a specific task or product. But before going through the process of earning such a certification, a networking professional should determine whether those initials are worth the effort necessary to acquire them."It's a tough question," said Robert Rosen, president of Share, the IBM mainframe user group, and CIO of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases in Bethesda, Md. "But I know a lot of people who use them as a gating factor [when hiring], so if you want to maximize your opportunities, they're a good thing to have.""It certainly is worthwhile," said Matthew Cody, a convergence engineer at Verizon Communications' offices in Maplewood, N.J.Four years ago, Cody began a quest to acquire four different Cisco certifications to gain specialized skills. The effort eventually led to a new job with a 10% pay increase, he said.The downside of certification, Rosen said, is that it doesn't guarantee competence."I have seen people with great paper certifications who could not troubleshoot their way out of a paper bag," Rosen said. "Some are great test-takers, but they can't apply it. The certificate shows they have made some effort to learn the technology, but the key to hiring is what they have done with it. Can they address real-world problems?"Bureaucrats love certificates, Rosen said, because it gives them a box to check off, "but that's not doing due diligence. You have to ask things like, 'Tell me about a really interesting problem you solved and how you solved it.'""It would be foolish to hire someone just based on certification, since you also have to make sure they know what they are doing," Cody noted. "It's possible to have a good career without certifications, but certifications make it easier to get in the door."David Foote, president of Foote Partners, a human resources research firm in New Canaan, Conn., said his latest IT compensation survey, released last month, found that networking certification resulted in an average pay premium of 9.1% in the first quarter of 2006. The average premium for all certifications is 8.2%.Certifications can offer benefits to organizations as well as individuals, added Cushing Anderson, an analyst at IDC.IDC surveys have found that, compared with a having a staff that has no formal training, having a staff that holds certifications should increase an organization's ability to resolve networking failures by 20% to 40% and reduce the number of unexpected outages by 10%, Anderson said.Also, "people see [the offering of certification classes by employers] as a benefit and are more loyal," he noted.Anderson did note that the certification process can be time-consuming and costly.Classroom training programs can take 10 to 12 days at a cost of $500 to $1,000 per day and are often funded by the student's employer, he said. Online and self-directed study through books and videos are less-expensive alternatives.Cody recalled that each of his four certifications required passing four or five exams. He kept the total cost of each certification to about $125 by using self-study methods and online training programs. Cody estimated that classroom training for each exam would have cost about $3,000 in metropolitan New York.Of course, there are certifications, and then there are certifications, noted Neill Hopkins, vice president of skills development at The Computing Technology Industry Association in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.Hopkins divided the field into high- and low-stakes certificates. High-stakes certificates, which offer the most benefit, involve taking carefully developed tests delivered in a proctored setting. Low-stakes tests may be administered online with no precaution against cheating or imposters.Nonetheless, Hopkins said, low-stakes testing can be beneficial for self-assessment.Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.* What are your experiences of taking the CCIE exams? Join in on the discussion over at\u00a0Network World's CCIE forum.