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The Top 10 Problems with IT Certification in 2008

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Less than 10 years ago, certification was a surefire way to enter the growing IT sector. But certification no longer guarantees that you will be able to find a high quality 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. Warren Wyrostek calls on personal and real-world experience to share the top 10 problems with IT certification in 2007/2008.

Since the early part of this decade, when I wrote several certification articles for InformIT, IT certifications have changed a great deal, and the industry’s perception of certifications has waned. IT certifications have fallen out of favor in the eyes of many.

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.

But before we can fix the problems, we have to define those problems. On to the problems.

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.

5. No Oversight Body

Because certifications are vendor-centric, no one is overseeing the whole process.

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