IT Certification and Training

April 3, 2007

Interview Questions from Allan Hoffman

Filed under: certification — Jim Henderson @ 11:11

I wrote in an my previous post about an article written by monster.com’s Allan Hoffman. Allan’s article is a great piece, but I wanted to include his questions and my answers in a post here as well. With Allan’s permission, I’m reproducing the Q&A here.

Q1. You note that you’ve been skeptical about certifications. Given that, where do you see their real value?

A1. A lot of my skepticism has to do with the simple economics of certification programs. While I don’t claim to be an economist or an expert in the dynamics of supply and demand in the free market, it occurred to me back in the early 90’s that tests based solely on book answers that contradict how things work in the real world did not provide real proof of anything beyond the ability to memorize facts. For example, I had to take an engineering physics class during my first year in the Computer Science program when I was at University; I had a debate with my professor about the value of memorizing formulae when, as a CS student, my objective was to learn how to write code that would evaluate complex equations in order to model/simulate situations in the physical world. The focus of that physics class as well as others was on memorization of facts rather than application of knowledge to solve problems. This is the underlying root of my skepticism about “traditional” certification based only on the candidate’s results from written exams.

The value of certification increases when you move to a practical testing environment – demonstration of skills learned. At Novell, we use a practical examination (the “Novell Practicum Exam”) using online technologies to deliver a real-world (not simulated) scenario with a set of tasks to complete in a specified time. Being able to demonstrate the skills necessary to complete a task or series of tasks increases the value of certification because the test provides those real-world scenarios and also applies the pressure of a time constraint – something that is all too real in the world of IT, especially when troubleshooting.

From the standpoint of a certification candidate, the real value of certification comes in scarcity (this is where I have to restate that I’m not an expert in economics or supply/demand dynamics) – in my mind, the more people who achieve a certification, the lower the value of the certification to the holder because the certification becomes much more commoditized. Being one of a million is a way of getting your foot in the door; being one *in* a million is a way to actually get the job. In other words, if a certification sets a high bar, then it helps you stand out from the pack. Most certifications these days turn knowledge into a commodity, and I personally believe that’s why research like the Foot Partners report shows a decline in value of certifications when applied to pay scales. When I see statistics showing, for example, many millions of MCSEs in the world and then look at discussions about CISSP where people who hold the certification number in the tens of thousands worldwide and the candidates are concerned that the certification might lose its meaning, I see that as supporting my personal point of view on certification.

Q2. Foote Partners (see the first item at http://www.footepartners.com/ fp_html/pressreleases.htm) says its research shows that certifications are declining in value (in terms of pay). Should IT orkers be concerned?

A2. I think IT workers should be concerned if certification is something they consider as a goal unto itself. The problem I see with many certification candidates is that they see certification as an end rather than as a means. Ultimately, the goal of certification should be to expand one’s knowledge and build competencies and proficiencies that allow the candidate to apply what they’ve learned to solve business problems. A great many IT certifications in the market these days still seem to focus more on basic skills – installation, troubleshooting, and maintenance. IT workers need to become much more versed in the language of business and understand what their business’ goals are. The real value that a skilled IT worker brings to the table isn’t their ability to install, manage, and troubleshoot the platform, the web server, or the database, but rather their ability to look at an abstract business need and identify ways to streamline that business process by applying technological solutions in creative ways.

An example of this type of thinking comes when tying multiple systems together to provide a single means of authentication across multiple applications (ie, “Single Sign On” solutions). Sometimes an IT professional has to be creative in figuring out how to synchronize user ID and password information between systems, because many systems do not store the password using reversible encryption technologies; once the password is in the system, you can never get it out again without resorting to brute force techniques. Today, I see many different types of systems tied together through a common authentication credential set, allowing even your voice mail password to be a PIN that is used in other parts of the systems. While security experts debate the implications of using common authentication across systems, the end user experience is streamlined and the user can be more productive. Even 5 years ago, this was considered an emerging technology, and 10 years ago, most people never considered that maybe you could accomplish this without manually managing a dozen passwords.

A lot of the creativity that takes place in IT today centers around things like supply chain management – where understanding how the supply chain works is essential to successful design and deployment of a system that is truly going to capitalize on the efficiencies that technology can provide.

Q3. What’s a smart perspective for IT workers to bring to decisions regarding certification? I.e., is it a way to gain skills? Increase pay? Make themselves more attractive to employers? Or some mix of these factors (and others)?

A3. Ultimately, training is a way to gain skills – increased skills usually equates to increased pay. The smart way, in my personal opinion, to look at certification (especially mass-market certifications) is as a stepping stone. I’ve seen many candidates consider certification as the end of the road; in reality, it’s only the beginning. The programs that I see as good certification programs make it clear that learning doesn’t end with the certification – the certification is instead a measure of a certain level of competency, but the candidate must add to that a differentiating factor that helps them stand out from the crowd – even with certifications where scarcity of certificants means there is an increased value in the certification alone. Certificants need to understand that learning is an ongoing process, and that nobody can ever know it all.

I can speak to this point directly and personally: Prior to coming to Novell, I had co-authored a couple of books on Novell Directory Services (NDS) and eDirectory troubleshooting with my good friend Peter Kuo up in Canada. In addition to that, I had also contributed to a book on RedHat Linux (a section on connecting Linux machines to NetWare servers) and had performed technical reviews of a number of other books on topics pertaining to Novell technologies. From the standpoint of an outsider looking in, I knew more than 99% of the other NDS and eDirectory people out there. Novell was impressed enough with my knowledge that I was hired to both build and teach the eDirectory Advanced Technical Training course delivered around the world.

Once I started teaching the courses, I found students were challenging me with questions that I had never even considered, and decided I needed some training on the internals of the product in order to gain insight that allowed me to answer these questions. I received some in-depth training that’s offered internally to the best of the support engineers, and found that my knowledge barely scratched the surface of how the product actually works – I had made some very good guesses (and some not-so-good guesses) as to how things actually worked. I moved very quickly from thinking I “knew it all” to realizing that I knew a very small part of the whole, but that the part that I knew was the part that was mostly relevant to implementation, and consequently that knowledge was relevant to the majority of the people that I was teaching.

The bottom line is this: There is always more to learn, no matter what your level of expertise. Consequently, my advice is this: never stop learning. Whether it’s technology or business, IT professionals need to be conversant in both in order to be successful. Being able to combine knowledge in both of these areas in order to affect a company’s profitability by lowering operational expenses (which is the usual place IT investment is offset – it can generate revenue, but that’s normally a niche play for IT usually reserved for applications like online shopping) is what makes an IT worker successful. Certification and training help the IT worker achieve this goal.

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