Does you company or organization require certifications for jobs, either to keep existing jobs or to get hired in the first place?  Over the years I’ve had different opinions about the entire certification process and whether it really leads to better IT folks or if it is being used merely as a way to cut through the hundreds of resumes submitted for that new position in your company.

The problem has always been that most certification exams test memorization of key facts (or trivial facts depending on which side of the argument you sit).  There is an industry of books, websites, training classes, and more that promise to help you prepare for some of the certification exams.  Some of the so called ‘boot’ camps even promise that if you do not pass the exam, you can come back and attend the class again at no or at least a reduced cost to improve your odds the second time.

If that was the only problem, it would not be so bad (or maybe it would).  The real problem has been the abuse of the certification system when some people desperate for a passing score hire someone else to take the test for them.  Testing centers have tried to prevent this by requiring photo IDs of the person taking the test.  Some even fingerprint the person going into the testing room and for long tests, each time they leave for a restroom break.  Some testing centers even have people who are paid to do nothing else but to sit and watch you take the test.  Don’t you think that adds to the anxiety of taking the test to have someone watching you?  How does that represent the real world and what a person can do?

Another problem with the certification process even with those who legitimately pass the exam is that they probably spend a few weeks cramming to take the test.  If you were to spot test them a few months (or even a few weeks) later, you might be surprised at how much of the information they have forgotten.  Any good college student knows how to study for an exam so they can remember the facts long enough to take the test (especially for Organic Chemistry) knowing that they will not need to remember those facts after the test is over.  Besides, they know that in their day job, half or more of the ‘stuff’ they are required to learn for the test they will never need to use.

So what is the solution?  I’ve been thinking recently about the advantage of a trades-like approach in which new programmers, DBAs, etc. would apprentice under a person with several years of experience in the area where they wanted to work.  They might even be several levels of competency and each level might require a combination of time spent using the particular technology along with some provable practical success.

Take for example SQL Server.  In SQL Server 2008 and 2012 there are several test that can be taken.  Each test has a slightly different focus on different skills with different parts of the product.  In most companies that have more than a single DBA, it is not unusual to have different DBAs with different expertise.  Not everyone needs to know how to set up a mirrored database, or a parallel database, but everyone probably needs to understand some basic SQL syntax, the way rights work, why indexes are important, etc.  Some people are pretty good at matching the exam goals with their job description and focus only on the certification exams that make sense for them.

But then there are the certification collectors.  You know who I mean.  The people who try to take every certification exam that is ever created, not just for the main product they use, but for every other related product.  We may all know someone who has certifications in one or more Windows products, SQL Server, Office, Exchange, DotNet programming language, and SharePoint.  The questions I have for them is, ‘How much do you really know about each of those areas?  Did you just visit a ‘braindump’ site to obtain the training materials you needed to pass the test (let’s not debate the ethics of such sites this time)?’

If you use certifications as a qualification for those you hire, may I remind you that there is more to a good employee than whether they were able to study a bunch of facts and remember them long enough to take an hour or so exam.  Can they work well with teams?  Can they explain how a system works to an end-user with the end-user’s eyes glazing over?  Can they write documentation for a system that someone else can read a year later and make changes to the system without pulling all of their hair out?

My point is that there are a lot of other considerations as to what makes a good employee than whether they can pass a test.  Technology changes.   A certification test taken today may not have much value in two or three years.  Unless your company or organization is willing to continue to invest in the employee to maintain their certifications as new products come and go, using certifications for a hiring criteria is a false requirement.  If you hire an employee that previously held several certifications and your organization does not support continued training, they will likely leave on their own to pursue other opportunities that not only recognize the certifications they have, but will help them maintain a reasonable level of certifications in the future.

For now, certifications are the only way to measure any technical competency.  However, I still go back to wondering whether you could begin with a general exam to get ‘admitted’ into the IT profession which shows a basic understanding of generic concepts.  Then after a defined period of time ‘apprenticing’ under a professional, a group of the person’s peers could bestow on them a master’s certificate for that particular set of skills.

In full disclosure, many years ago I obtained the designation of Microsoft MSDE.  However most of those exams have since expired or become unimportant in today’s market.  So recently I’ve been looking at taking the BI certification exams for SQL Server, not SharePoint, because of my interest in business intelligence and the fact that only the SQL Server side of certification has a BI track.  However, for me, the journey is of more value than the destination.  Do you have thoughts on certification?  Comment back to me.

C’ya next time.


One comment on “Certifiable

  1. Mike,
    You bring up a lot of valid points. The IT industry has struggled with these issues for decades without really addressing the base problem. That problem is the lack of standardized methods of recruitment. With over 29 years in the industry, I have been exposed to some of the best and certainly a lot of the worst of these processes.

    The individuals who load up on certs, hoping to find a job where they do not get a true technical screening, are multiplying. Most organizations, whether using internal or external recruiters, do not have the resources or the time to do a proper technical screening of individuals. Frequently, just the listing of the certs on the resume can get them the job.

    As a Microsoft Certified Technical Specialist and Trainer (along with a couple others), I have never been asked to supply my transcript verification code so that my claims of certification could be verified. I think others have realized this and load their resumes with these massive listings of certs, confident no one will call them on it.

    So that situation, combined with a lack of proper technical screenings has resulted in a lot of complaining by orgnizations that they cannot find qualified candidates. Yet these same organziations do not take the time to have a proper vetting process in place. Is it the sheer number of resumes or just plain laziness?

    I recently was invited to particiapte in a focus group here in the Tampa area, run by the Tampa EDC (Economic Development Council. The main topic was:

    The focus group is a critical part of the IT Gap Analysis, as we seek to better understand staffing methods and gather your feedback on possible actionable steps that might be taken to close the IT workforce gap. The IT Gap Analysis was initiated by the area’s leading economic development organizations, when they heard from several local employers that they were facing challenges hiring for their IT-based jobs. The analysis has three parts: interviews with local business and education leaders, a business survey, and focus groups. The results from the analysis will be used by educational institutions and elected officials to help increase the supply of qualified talent for these valued jobs

    So I have not received the results of this Gap Analysis yet, but from particpating in the group discussion, it is clear that companies in the Tampa area have a lot of open job reqs that are not getting filled. I think this emphasizes the disconnect between those looking for jobs and the people doing the hiring.

    So when I get asked by individuals about certifications and their worth, I hesitate to firmly endorse them. I personally did not get my first certification until 2 years ago. So for 27 years, I managed to have a successful career without a single certification.

    On the other hand, as a Trainer, I have executed hundreds of hours of training for people, hoping to use that knowledge to pass a cert exam. While I tend to focus more on real world examples than teaching to an exam, many of my past students have gone on to pass the certs they were studying for and secure the type of jon they were seeking.

    I am sure there are others who have had different experiences, I would like to hear from them as well.

    Gary Blatt
    SharePoint Resources

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