The Certification System is Sick (and No One Wants to Cure It)

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This week’s guest blogger is Fabrizio Volpe who works with the Iccrea Banking Group as a network and systems administrator. For 3 years running he’s been awarded the Microsoft MVP Directory Services Award as recognition for his practical expertise and for contributing to technical communities worldwide. Fabrizio

Every time we use our company’s money (or ours), we have to ask to ourselves whether the expense makes sense or not. This is what I did recently when I had to renew one of my IT certifications. I have to admit that the answers that I found were unpleasant.

I sit there, I select the answers and I am done.

In more than ten years, in which my profession has seen many (often-dramatic) changes, one thing that has remained unchanged is the mechanism of certifications. You reach an authorized testing center, you answer questions on a terminal and a small or big part of your certification path is complete. Repeat the previous step for all the necessary certificates and you are all done until the next renewal. The fact that the procedure is virtually unchanged, the same procedure I faced to certify myself on NT4 (!) should make it clear that the mechanism has something wrong with it. A simple question and answer as the sole method of assessment is a limited way to measure the skills of a professional. Knowing the specific individual entry in a menu (many questions do not go beyond that), has almost no use. Over the years, the utility of the procedure has fallen further, dramatically.

The Age of Brain-Dumps

Over the years, the number of sites or resources that allow you to memorize the questions and the correct answers before the test have increased tremendously. The use of brain-dumps is not allowed, but how do you check during the test if someone, at home, used this material? The result of this is that those who face the test honestly, has a good chance of failing, while those who use unlawful instruments will pass with minimal effort.

Is an Employer Interested in Certification?

Companies realized long ago that the certifications were no longer a useful tool to select candidates. In some specific areas, a minimum number of certified individuals is required to ensure the maintenance of partnerships with software and hardware companies. Of these spaces, certification could be recognized (at best) as a small positive signal. But some companies may see a certification as a negative achievement. They may think that a candidate has not been able to do anything more significant than to certify himself / herself.

If you are Able to do Something, Prove it.

With the dawn of the Internet, ways to demonstrate your competence have increased exponentially. You can answer questions in technical forums, publish articles on a blog, participate in local professional communities and contribute to “open” projects presented on the Net. The list is potentially infinite, and addressing at least one of these activities demonstrate unequivocally your value. A smart company will be more interested in this type of demonstration, rather than a certification that could be “a paper cert”. Yet there are valid certifications. Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) and the Microsoft Certified Masters (MCM) certifications are (were) requiring complex practical and verification tests. A credential of this kind is an achievement for the few and requires commitment and competence (and a lot of money too). A company can look at them as a good sign of competence and passion for your work.

Is it so Difficult to Change the certification system?

The short answer is no. It is not so difficult. With up-to-date tools, you could ask a candidate to address practical tests on virtual machines, to correct code simulating a real development environment and dozens of similar activities. Certifiers could increase the database of possible questions to the point that a brain-dump becomes extremely difficult to create and they could change often the questions proposed, to make it difficult to create documents with questions and answers.

You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

The question of why things are not changing is legitimate. A first reason is that a change requires investments by those who create the certificates and by those who provide the tests. The suspicion is that that even certifiers do not believe in their training courses and do not intend to invest in that direction. A more stringent certification would attract far less test-takers and even that would be a financial loss. Finally, marketing would also be required to make it clear to companies that certifications have entered a new era. Again, it seems that no one is investing in this direction.

So You Are Saying That You Will no Longer Take a Certification Path?

For some years now, I have been following only the renewal of existing certifications, with little or no interest in new paths. While using products from many vendors, I am hardly interested in their training courses. Which is already a bad sign, whereas in previous years, at my expense, I had obtained certificates of three or four different companies at the same time. I wonder, if I were to start today a long series of certification exams, if I would invest my time this way? My answer might surprise me.

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