Why IT certification matters
[By Matthew French]
It is one of those inevitable facts of life on a technical mailing list that one day someone will post a job advert. It is another fact of life on a mailing list that nobody will respond to the advert itself.
Instead, half the responses will criticise the advert for requiring the prospective candidate to walk on water for a salary that a penniless student wouldn’t accept. The rest of the responses will be complaints about why the position requires certification.
Most of the people on the list taught themselves. Who cares about a piece of paper?
If we look at job advertisements, the answer is just about every employer.
In IT we can categorise certification into one of two groups. First we have vendor certification, where a company that sells a product certifies people to use their product. The second category is a general certificate, which essentially means a university, college or technikon degree or diploma.
In the case of vendor certification, vendors will usually explain that the benefit of their certificate is that customers have a pool of trusted individuals who know how to implement and support their product. But the cynical among us might say the primary motivation for vendors to provide certification is so that they can show customers the product is widely supported while earning revenue from hopeful candidates. If we extrapolate this view, we could say the incentive is for the vendor to get as many people as possible to pass, and not to worry too much about quality control.
Unfortunately, there is some truth to this. Too many vendor certificates require the candidate to memorise answers with no comprehension of the subject matter. And this is one of the reasons why many technical people are hostile to vendor certification — it conveys authority to people who might have no understanding of the subject matter but who are able to memorise often inconsequential facts.
The good news is that not all vendor certification is like this. Some certificates have a strong practical focus, requiring candidates to complete a number of simulations in a laboratory test. Other examinations don’t rely on rote learning but ask candidates how they would solve real-life problems, requiring the candidate to demonstrate an understanding of the product.
Certification is not always controlled by the vendor. The LPI Linux certification, for example, doesn’t focus on a specific version of Linux and is not tied to any specific vendor. Independent certification has the advantage that the examiner’s goal is to create a certificate that people will trust. The disadvantage is that vendors will push their own certification first, which means independent examiners have to work hard to get recognition for their certificate.
There are other problems with vendor certification. For example, in its very early days, Microsoft’s MCSE was seen as a tough test and anyone who passed it had to be good. Sadly, the popularity of the MCSE became so great that at one point it seemed that every school with a computer was offering it. As so often happens, some teachers started coaching students on how to pass the exam instead of understanding the content, which in turn ended up devaluing the certificate.
Another problem is the decision by some vendors to allow their certificates to expire. On one hand, it is understandable that in a fast-changing field it is necessary to stay up to date. On the other hand, it doesn’t say much for the quality of a certificate if the examiner is not confident the graduates will be able to translate their skills to new versions of a product. If a certificate doesn’t indicate the capability of the candidate, what exactly is the point?
This brings us to the other category of certification: the university degree. Universities don’t teach a single specific subject but instead use a shotgun approach to learning. For example, at one point engineers were required to study labour relations and economics. The reasoning was that many engineering graduates would end up in management roles where people skills and the ability to do cost-benefit analysis would be more important than third year maths.
The downside of the shotgun approach is that someone with an engineering, computer or business science degree often enters the IT world with little knowledge of the tools they will be using. A computer science graduate might know about the fifth normal form in relational database design, but have no idea how to calculate the number of days between two dates in an Oracle database.
The irony is that while graduates might know less, a degree carries more weight than a vendor certificate. There is a good reason for this — when university students are studying abstract ideas like compiler theory or double integrals, they are learning about the process of learning. So while university graduates might not know about a specific product when they are released into the real world, they should have the confidence and the ability to go find the answer out for themselves.
Unfortunately, the idea that you can teach learning doesn’t do justice to those many self-starters who figured out how things work without needing a degree. This exposes the problem with both vendor certificates and university degrees: there are plenty of capable people without a single certificate to their name who can run rings around people with fancy degrees and gold embossed certificates.
Small wonder technical mailing lists inevitably erupt with indignation when certification is required. Most people on these lists are self-starters, who are on the list to learn and to share the experiences of others. To then imply they are not capable of using the tools they work with every day because they lack the certification is an insult.
Which brings us to another point: experience is more important than paper. No amount of lectures and exams can substitute for using a product in the field. Knowing the command to recover a database, and executing it with senior managers breathing down your neck because the production database has died are two very different scenarios.
So does this mean certification is a waste of time? Not at all. What certification does is demonstrate to employers that a candidate has a certain level of skill. It makes it easier to choose between prospective employees. Of course there are people with doctorates who should never be allowed to roam free, and independent geniuses who have no degree but would be an asset to any company. But they are the exceptions.
We need to remember a degree or a vendor certificate is just a starting point. They don’t tell you anything about how much initiative a person has, how good they are at solving problems or how well they work in a team. Certificates don’t even guarantee a person is knowledgeable about the subject they are certified for. However, they do give the employer a better chance of finding the right candidate. And this is why certification matters.
- Matthew French is an independent consultant with more than 20 years of experience in the IT industry