A crazy question about certifications: Is the IT industry certifiably insane?

Over the past few decades, the IT industry has tried to self-regulate itself by creating and promoting various kinds of certifications. For example, my own entry into the working world of IT drones more than two decades ago started with my achieving a Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) certification on Windows 3.1, a platform we all grew to hate to love. Having come from a physics background with experience programming on both mainframe and minicomputers, the so-called “microcomputer” was something still pretty new to me when I started pursuing this certification. I achieved it through self-study of available books and manuals together with hands-on fooling around. And sure enough, my certification did seem to have some value for I quickly snared a job in the profession.

Later on when I started going for an MCSE certification — which at that time stood for Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, something that the Canadian Professional Engineers Association (P.Eng) quickly got up in arms about — I prepared for the several exams required for this certification by taking in-classroom Microsoft Office Curriculum (MOC) courses taught by an “expert” who in actual reality was little more advanced in the subjects involved than I was myself. Eventually, I also became a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT), which was a lot more fun than administering the LAN for the company I worked for.

At that point I began looking into other certifications I might pursue (both from Microsoft and from other vendors) to increase my chances of employability, but around that time I started my own business and it took off so fast that I basically had no time to waste on adding more letters after my name on my business card. Those were golden years during the latter end of the first dot-com boom.

IT certifications: The racket game

When I next looked into the certification game some years later as I was developing some training materials for Microsoft Press, I was astonished to find out how much of a racket it seemed to have become. Many businesses that were looking for qualified IT people to hire seemed to view certifications as something negative, as a false indicator of technical competence. Some even began calling for the IT industry to be regulated in a fashion similar to how the professional engineering field is regulated — a subject I’ve written about previously here on TechGenix. However, given the rapid evolution of the IT profession, it’s unlikely that anything like this will ever happen.

And so we come to what is still the current state of the affairs in the IT industry. Namely, that the industry as a whole is “self-regulated” through various certification programs even though the very idea of IT certifications is a shaky one in many respects. Why? Well, let me list a few of the many problems with self-regulating IT through certification programs.

Expiration date

IT certifications
First off, certifications grow stale over time as the platforms, products, and processes they certify expertise in are retired or replaced with newer ones. For example, if I suddenly found I needed to find a job in IT because of some circumstance, I very much doubt whether my Windows NT 4.0 MCSE catch the eye of many headhunters! So if you obtain your MCSE and want to keep it, you need to get recertified with each new version of Microsoft software you’ve become certified in. By contrast, obtaining an engineering degree from a university is more of a one-time effort and expenditure, though engineers are still required by their Code of Ethics to keep themselves informed in order to maintain their competence by complying with regulations set down by their territorial engineering regulatory body. So while an engineering degree is essentially a license to practice engineering, an IT certification may really be no more than success in having passed a few exams.

Certification exams can also include a lot of topics that may have little or no benefit to any actual work you may end up doing as an IT professional. For example, a colleague once told me that “way back when I took my Microsoft tests, one test had lots of questions on DEC LAT connectivity, and I almost blew the test because I’d never needed to integrate Windows NT into a DEC environment.” By and large, real IT work tends to be very different in its day-to-day expression than the kinds of things you need to know in order to pass certification exams. That’s probably true of course to some degree for a university degree in engineering, but it’s likely more of an issue when it comes to the IT profession.

Vendor-specific vs. vendor-independent

Most certifications are also vendor-specific in nature. This means, for example, that being certified for Windows Server won’t guarantee your competence as a Linux admin. On the other hand, if you’re certified for working with Cisco switches and routers, you probably wouldn’t have that much difficulty learning how to configure and use hardware from another networking vendor. That’s because achieving Cisco competency requires a fundamental understanding of network theory and operations. Getting certified in Linux or Windows Server administration, however, is more of a task-centric kind of thing. There are, of course, some IT certifications that attempt to be vendor-independent. Those from CompTIA come to mind in this area, and they’re fine but tend to be limited to the entry level of the IT profession. The reason for this is because it can be a challenge to make a general IT certification test hard enough to provide real value if the participant should pass it and you can’t make it overly difficult or have it cover material that is too esoteric in nature or the likely result is that everyone will fail. So the main direction of the certification game is likely to remain vendor-specific for the foreseeable future, and not just because it’s the only practical solution in a rapidly evolving industry. For as another colleague once said to me, “Some certifications are no more than sales tools for the vendor, ensuring that users have a certain comfort level with their products.”

And selling, of course, is what the IT industry is really all about.

Featured image: Shutterstock

2 thoughts on “A crazy question about certifications: Is the IT industry certifiably insane?”

  1. A few things to say.

    1) Past a Bachelor’s and a few certs, I don’t see much value in something on paper. I’ve seen people with a Master’s and 20(!) certs who can’t do their job, so it makes one wonder…Who has time for all this?

    2) Certifications are less about testing basic competency and more about BS scenarios, or knowledge about more obscure aspects of the subject(s) in question–not the core. Some of this can be blamed on ‘brain dumps’ being used out in the wild in order to get the cert in the first place, but it’s gotten to the point where cert vendors play word games with their questions. (Test takers often look at brain dumps as a way to get a feel for the exam, since how many people are good at remembering verbatim?) At the end of the day, both the test taker and the prospective employer want to know that cert X or Y is a good measure of competence.

    3) Yes, it’s a racket. Look at DoD, requiring Security+ CE certification as a base level requirement for most IT jobs including entry-level. That both makes it more wanted and yet devalues the certification. So we put in the money for maintenance certifications while we try to learn that which applies directly to our positions.

    As things currently stand, certifications are a good way to get your foot in the door because recruiters and employers are looking for certain acronym certs. But…they don’t say much other than “I remembered enough to pass this exam.”

    1. Thanks for your feedback. I agree certs can help people get through the door but what happens afterwards depends upon their brains and determination.

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