IT Certification and Training

November 7, 2006

Why have I been skeptical about the benefits of certification?

Filed under: background, certification — Jim Henderson @ 13:05

I have long been a skeptic about the value of certification. In this post, I’ll explain why.

Let’s turn the clock back to the early 1980’s: I had just learned how to program in BASIC on a Commodore PET computer. I took a class in summer school about programming, and most of the time, the teacher left me pretty much on my own while he helped other students with problems they were having. When I asked about this, he told me that I “got it” better than the other students and that I should be able to pretty much handle this on my own.

Frustrated with the lack of help, I pretty much stopped taking classes in programming right then and there (I did take a few in college, many years later), and became a self-taught BASIC programmer. I wrote educational software for the school district, and in high school, I worked for a software retailer selling software packages. One of the benefits of selling software in a chain owned by a bookstore was that I got to borrow the books and read them.

My first introduction to non-Commodore computers was a DEC PDP 11/72 (I was told, more likely an 11/70 in retrospect) during a summer course where I learned C programming. I spent so much time playing with the underlying UNIX operating system that I didn’t do the assignments or the final projects. I was fascinated by systems administration – even taking time out to help the administrator do backups: My first taste of working in a data center. I was hooked.

When I entered college in 1989, I started as an aeronautical engineer, but I worked in the computer lab. We had a small network (IBM PC/Net) for sharing an Ada compiler amongst 4 IBM PCs. It didn’t work very well, so the school invested in NetWare 2.15. I was so interested in this “networking thing” that I made a pest of myself and the student who was responsible for setting things up asked me and one other guy (who was doing the same thing) to help out. While taking drafting classes, organic chemistry, and history of aviation was interesting, working in the lab became a real passion for me. I changed degree programs to computer science, ultimately ran out of money and left college to pursue an IT career at the company I’d spent my summers at working on an assembly line (at first – I moved to the MIS department near the end of the last summer). By the time I left school, we’d upgraded to NetWare 3.11 and NetWare 4.0 was due to ship later in the year.

When it came to networking (and really the sort of IT work that I ended up doing), I was completely self-taught. As I started looking at formal training and even certification, several people indicated that the testing for certification was actually more difficult if you didn’t posess the “book” knowledge but were self-taught. Many people gave me this same advice, and I decided not to pursue certification, but rather to continue my own education using the NetWire forums on CompuServe.

Eventually, I went on to become a NetWire SysOp on CompuServe, co-authored a couple of books on NDS and eDirectory troubleshooting, and became generally regarded as a subject matter expert on directory services technologies (NDS and eDir mostly, but I have done some work with Active Directory, Sun, OpenLDAP, and others) as well as systems security – you don’t administer an academic computer lab’s network without a certain level of paranoia about security.

So, having gotten so far in my career, why – I asked myself – do I need to be certified? The field doesn’t require certficiation, though some employers strongly desire it. I interviewed for a position in the IT department for a storage management company many years ago, and even though I’d written a book (they still have the one I took with me to the interview), the decision maker couldn’t fathom hiring someone without a certification credential.

In fact, it wasn’t until after I went to work for Novell as an Advanced Technical Training instructor that I received my first certification. My interview included a presentation that was evaluated much like the Instructor Performance Evaluation – I’ll write more about IPEs in a later post. I earned my LPIC-1, CDE, and CNA6 along the way.

My conclusion from my experiences was this: Certification is a marketing tool. Since I could effectively market myself without certifications (and did – moving from a 200 user company to a Fortune 50 company with 250,000 employees – with a few stops along the way), then why should I learn “book knowledge” that I had heard contradicted my own experience and – so I had heard – in some cases actually contradicted the reality of how the software actually worked?

Now let’s talk for a minute about the history of certification (and Novell’s in particular).

Back when the CNE program was first announced in the mid-to-late 80’s, I remember hearing that there was going to be a cap on the number of candidates considered. I want to say it was 1500 or so, but the actual number is not important for the purposes of this discussion. The important thing is that somebody realised that value is something that we assign to something when a market isn’t saturated. In other words, scarcity brings value.

Spin forward a few years. Microsoft enters the game with the MCP/MCSE certifications. Microsoft came to the conclusion (for better or worse) that saturating the market with certification holders was something they could use to market their products – and it worked. At this time, there are probably more MCSEs out there than there are people in China. In order to achieve this feat, Microsoft did something that nobody else in the industry dared to do: They made certification easy. They made it a commodity, then used the large numbers to market their product, at the expense of the marketability of those who held the certification.

Now some of you reading this entry may say “Well, hey, I am an MCSE and I don’t feel that commoditization of the certification has limited my ability to compete for a position – in fact, I’m better paid and have plenty of opportunities”. And you’d be right. Sort of.

Let me explain. Certification in this instance is a foot in the door – some HR person who defines a job role asks an IT manager what the requirements are for a position. The IT manager says something like “college degree or equivalent experience and a certification”. The HR person identifies the certification that goes with the position (if the manager doesn’t provide that information – and usually they do), and that goes into the requirements.

Resumés (CVs for the Europeans and Canadians in the audience) flood in. Someone has to filter through them, so the certification is used as a filter. Don’t have a cert? In the circular file it goes. (The really good candidiates who don’t have a certification aren’t going to be in that pile anyways – because they don’t submit through the HR department, but to the IT department – if not the decision maker – directly most of the time).

But as a measurement of what you’re actually capable of, that’s determined in interviews – with the hiring manager, technical interviews with the team, and so on. The fact that you have the MCSE got you in the front door and put you on equal-ish footing with the candidates who came in through the back door. Don’t fool yourself: There’s always a back door, and if the position’s worth it, someone will have used the back door – and most of the time they have done so to avoid the filters the HR people apply.

Certification – traditionally – has been nothing more than a validation that you could pass a test by whatever means necessary. Braindump sites proliferate illicitly acquired copies of test questions with the answers highlighted – memorize a couple hundred answers, and you pass the test. Some of these providers guarantee results, in fact – if you don’t pass the test, you can get your money back.

Study guides are more above-board, and there are some very good ones out there. The thing that differentiates a “study guide” from a “braindump” is this: A study guide helps you understand why the answer on the test is what it is. A “braindump” doesn’t – it provides answers for you to memorise, you take the test, and you retain little – if any – actual knowledge.

The end result often is a devaluation of certification in the marketplace. The “paper” certification point has been made over and over in the past several years. Often times, holding a certification works against the candidate rather than for them.

In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about how I square my skepticism with my professional role of building and managing certification programs.

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2 Comments »

  1. It is only common sense if you are going to study….anything and they have a cert for it….you might as well have follow through to the piece of paper.

    Everyone should study to learn and finish it with the test. I myself have tried the college route but considering the slow agonizing pace…..I wasn’t able to handle it. All that money for something I can teach myself. I learned more and quicker on the job.

    I have many certs and have mainly gotten the book….studied….learned what I needed to know…but kept going to the end where the piece of paper was waiting.

    Plain fact of life…with the certs an applicant is more likely to get the job….college helps also but screw it…I got the certs and experience. The certs get you in the door and then it is all on your own shoulders to succeed.

    Last thought and kind of an example. I knew a smart guy who went to college and got his degree. He then went to a training site and got his certs. This fellow is more marketable than the guy who has neither of these. After he get his experience, he will be the one who gets the job ahead of the crowd.

    Comment by bayti — January 30, 2007 @ 15:06

  2. I agree that different people learn in different ways – for some, self-study is the way to go; myself, I learned most of what I know while on the job. There’s an old adage that says “experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted”, and I do have a fair amount of that – but fortunately for my employers (past and present), I try to do my learning in the lab rather than on production systems.

    Instructor-led training can be beneficial particularly to those starting out in IT – but it depends on getting a good instructor who can relate the material to the students’ common experiences.

    The trick is to end up ahead of the crowd, and I believe a good certification program will help people do that.

    Comment by Jim Henderson — January 30, 2007 @ 16:54


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