Less than 10 years ago, I had no reservation about recommending a certification to a person interested in entering the IT sector. Certification and the training needed to "earn" an IT certification was a great way for a career changer, a displaced worker, or someone simply looking for a career to get a foot in the door on a growing field and land a good job with a lot of growth potential.
Certification no longer guarantees that you will be able to find that kind of job in IT. It still has its place, but the IT certification industry has faced some systemic problems that no one has addressed since its emergence.
Having jumped hook, line, and sinker into the certification world in 1995, I have a bit of historical perspective about where we have been and where we are and what the problems are.
The following are the topics I want to cover during the course of three articles:
- In this first article, I’ll examine the top 10 problems with IT certification in 2007–2008.
- Next, I’ll re-examine the first steps you should consider if you want to enter IT using the current certification paths.
- In the third article, I’ll present to InformIT readers an integrated networking program as a possible solution to the current problems with IT certification.
1. Certifications are Vendor-centric
IT certifications, as they are currently marketed, are vendor-centric. Their purpose is to quantify a person’s understanding of some of the functionality of a vendor’s product.
A vendor’s certification helps a potential client feel a sense of ownership when it comes to a product. Those who support a vendor’s IT products are encouraged to certify in the product(s) to validate their skill levels.
The problem is that every vendor has its own set of certification criteria; none of them match, and there is no uniformity. Whatever Vendor A says you should know is what you need to know in order to achieve validation.
If you have ever taken a Novell exam, a Microsoft exam, a Cisco exam, and/or a CompTIA exam, you probably have been told to answer the questions on the exam the way the given vendor wants you to answer the questions.
Don’t worry if the answer is ridiculous; if you want to get certified, give the Novell answer, or the Microsoft answer, or the Cisco answer, or the CompTIA answer. For the same question, each vendor could potentially have different correct responses. This is maddening at best.
2. Certification’s Life Cycle Is Short!
Because IT certifications are vendor-centric, a vendor can revise, revamp, or completely redo a certification as often as it wants. Much is based on the life cycle of a given product, such as an operating system. If you want to feel like you are simply chasing your tail, keep up your certifications based on a vendor’s whim and whimsy for how long they feel a product’s life cycle is.
Here’s a good example from my experience. In 1995–1996, I earned the Microsoft MCSE for NT 3.51 through a lot of hard work. Not six months later, however, Microsoft changed the MCSE requirements for the MCSE in NT 4.0. The seven exams I took for 3.51 no longer had legs. I had to take six or seven more. So I did.
Well, guess what happened in 1999–2000? Windows 2000 came out, along with a whole new series of exams—which almost killed me. Now in less than 4 years I had taken close to 21 exams to earn 3 Microsoft certifications that I needed to teach the most up-to-date Microsoft classes. Several years later, Windows 2003 came out with two more upgrade exams, which so far I have not taken/passed because of disgust with the process. I will probably have to take them before long because the Longhorn roadmap "encourages" MCSEs to be at least 2003 to avoid taking all exams again.
Now a sane person would say that I did not have to be MCSE-2003 if I did not have to teach those classes. I have supported Windows Server 2003 since it was in beta without a MCSE-2003 and never had a problem.
I would agree until recently, when I was talking to an HR recruiter who told me that a company that was interested in me would not consider any of my experience unless I had the latest-and-greatest MCSE. Three earlier MCSEs and 15 years of field experience made no difference. If I did not have the MCSE 2003 they would look elsewhere.
Guess what? They looked elsewhere.
3. Certifications Are Not Real-World Oriented
Because certifications are vendor-oriented, they do not prepare you for the real world. Every vendor would have you believe that every enterprise environment is made up of only their platform or application. In today’s market nothing is farther from the truth. Every environment is integrated.
No environment is made up of just Microsoft, or UNIX, or Novell, or Linux. The real-world enterprise is made up of at least two platforms, and tens if not hundreds of applications from a host of vendors. The real world is a fully integrated environment. If you are focused on one vendor’s platform/application, could you in practice manage a real-world enterprise comprised of numerous platforms, or do you have to outsource what you don’t know—thereby giving up ownership to someone else?
If you earn the MCSE from Microsoft, are you qualified to administer a Lotus Notes environment or a Cisco environment? If you are a certified Linux admin, are you qualified to manage a Windows 2003 environment running SQL 2005?
4. Certifications Have Been Devalued
This next problem is no secret. IT certifications have been devalued since their heyday in the mid- to late 1990s. The reasons for the devaluation could be the basis for a book. Some of the major reasons why many in the industry do not respect IT certs are the following:
- Brain dumps let you get all the questions on a live exam. You can then pass the exam without knowing the technology.
- Paper certs: those who have used brain dumps or so-called study guides that many sites sell to prep a person for the live test questions. People earn the certification without training and without experience, and advertise themselves as experts. This makes everyone look bad and devalues the certification process.
- Testing issues are legendary. There are some vendors, such as Microsoft and Cisco, which are trying to improve the value of the testing experience by incorporating simulations. But in my opinion it is a band-aid. Knowledge-based cognitive exams are awful. Many are poorly written, poorly edited, not real-world oriented, and not in tune with the needs of the industry.
- It is difficult to truly accept whether candidates know their stuff based on these exams. If you pay enough, a trained chimp could pass many of these exams.
- Practicums, which in my opinion are the best testing methodology currently available, are not widely used. When a practicum is done right, knowledge and experience are absolutely needed. Brain dumps are useless. What matters is skill.
- In short, testing has been inconsistent and all over the map devaluing certification.
Because certifications are vendor-centric, no one is overseeing the whole process.
6. Degree vs. Certification vs. Experience
There is still tension in the market over the value/need for a degree versus the need for a certification versus the need for experience. The battle rages on with absolutely no resolution.
Because certifications have been devalued, what is really needed when you want to apply for a job in IT? A degree? If so, which degree covering which disciplines?
Many universities offer the CIS or MIS degree. But when it comes to running an enterprise environment, don’t you need to know a bit more than what is offered in the CIS or MIS programs to administer a multi-platform/application environment?
Nevertheless, most advertisements require a degree. What about the folks like me who came up when the CIS or MIS were not even on the radar? How many Master’s degrees does a person need to get a job? Academics look down on certifications, yet they require numerous certifications when they are hiring staff to support their infrastructures.
I have several former students who have Master’s-level degrees and no certifications. They ask me which certs to get so that they can get a good job; they cannot find one with just an MIS.
So how do we assess a person’s skills and experience? Maybe there should be a balance between certifications, education, and experience. What about the person who has no degree, has no certs, but has 20 years’ experience and could write most of the books except s/he is too busy running the enterprise 24/7?
The answer is that the degree wins in 2007/08, which puts those with certifications and/or experience at a distinct disadvantage.
7. HR People Are Not In Touch with the Real World
HR people, including headhunters/recruiters, give no guidance and do nothing to help the situation in IT. In fact, most just muddy the waters by asking for a laundry list of certifications that are completely other-worldly.
I have met no one who meets a majority of the requirements that most HR folks list on IT jobs.
- Some want no part of certifications.
- Some "demand" the most up-to-date certifications.
- Others want it all.
8. Budget Cuts
Cuts have killed training dollars—and consequently the certification market—because it costs money to get certified. So unless you bypass the training with brain dumps, you will not entertain certification as a viable path because training is not available.
Additionally most employers will not train their folks toward certification because of the fear of losing their investment. When people get certified, they start looking for greener pastures. Employers are gun-shy, especially in times of budget cuts.
9. Glut of Certified People
This one should probably be higher in the list. But it is a major reason for the waning interest in certification. There are just too many certified IT folks—those that know what they are doing and the paper certs who have killed the market.
Simple supply and demand. When the supply goes up, the demand goes down. There has to be a way to weed out those who have killed the market.
If the supply were not as high, the demand and wages would improve.
10. No One Knows Which Certs Matter
No one really knows which certs you need to get a job, to get a foot in the door, and to prove that you know your stuff, while not scaring people off.
- No one knows how many certs you need.
- No one knows which certs have value today.
The best advice I can give you at this point is to assess what the environments are using in your geographical area and what the demand is. Then look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself whether that is what you want to do. If you have passion for it, get the needed certs.
more IT certification problems welcome to passcert