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Certification

Last updated Mar 28, 2003.

At one time, it was tough to get a job in technology without some sort of certification. After the "boom" in technology hiring, however, hiring managers cared more for experience than whether or not someone had passed a test or two. As a matter of fact, I was told by one manager that he tended to ignore candidates with certifications.

What led from one extreme to the other? Is there still a value to certification? Was there ever?

To be "certified," in its simplest sense, is to say that someone else vouches for your knowledge or experience at some level. Certification traces its roots all the way back to the craft guilds of old. A young person would be sent to live or work with a "master." After working a number of years and passing a myriad of tests and experiences, the young person would be granted membership to the craft guild. Without this membership, some professions couldn't even be pursued.

Certain professions have continued this certification process. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, and other disciplines require a mixture of training, testing, and experience to gain their certification.

When affordable computer technology burst onto the scene in the mid 1980s, a hiring frenzy began. Businesses desperately wanted new talent, but many were ill-equipped in the new technology, and had no way to know if the candidates were qualified. With little experience, candidates had no way to demonstrate to employers they were competent.

To provide a solution, Novell, with Microsoft (and Sun and Oracle just behind) began an aggressive campaign among employers and prospective technology workers. In theory, the employer could trust the certifier to ensure the candidate's knowledge, and candidates used the certification to demonstrate their skill.

Problems, however, quickly began to develop. Employers became disenchanted with certifications. When they no longer saw their value, neither did the technical professionals. Certification fell out of vogue, where it largely stands today.

The certification process fell victim to a fate similar to one of the other guilds. There were actually four guilds: religious, social, merchant, and craft. Unlike the craft guilds, merchant guilds relied not on exclusivity but on inclusion. In fact, the more people that belonged to the merchant guild, the more power they exercised and the more they could control. It was quite a simple matter to join a merchant guild – just pay your fee and you're in. In fact, in some towns it was mandatory! The merchant guilds beefed up the power of the local shopkeepers.

Certification became a bit like that. Inclusion became the word of the day, sometimes at the cost of the certification's integrity. This probably wasn't the fault of the original design of the certifying firms, but the frenzy that surrounded the promise of high-paying jobs created an entire industry around the process. Whether intentional or not, stories emerged of 10- and 12-year-old children gaining vendor certifications. As you can imagine, this put the certification process in a pretty bad light.

So are certifications still useful? Yes, I believe they do have their place. It depends on the certifying authority and the integrity of the process, but a certification can help a DBA become a better technical professional. Going through the process of certification can help you focus your studies and make you a better DBA.

I also believe certification can be fixed – but before I tell you how, let's take a quick look at the current process for certification.

The Current Certification Process

For the moment, we'll limit the discussion to the Microsoft Database Administration certification. You should be aware that there are others, including Oracle and IBM's DB2 (or UDB).

To begin, you should check the Microsoft certification site for the MCDBA (Microsoft Certification for Database Administration) at http://www.microsoft.com/learning/mcp/mcdba/default.asp.

Once there, you'll notice that there are various "tracks." These tracks involve the versions of SQL Server in which you can be certified. You might wonder why anyone would want to be certified in an old version, but many companies made a significant investment in the version they have now, and have a lot of applications dependent on having DBA's familiar with it.

In addition to the database-specific subjects, you'll also notice various electives. Some DBAs have a problem with this, but personally I think it's a good idea. SQL Server runs on only one platform (Microsoft), so I think it's fair to require professionals to have an exposure to the platform issues.

You can get the training three basic ways: from classes, books, and computer-based training. There is a huge industry around certification, and many of the books you'll need are available right here at InformIT.

Once you've gotten your training, you book a test for that subject. You can find the testing locations at the Microsoft link I mentioned earlier. You'll pay around $100US to take the test; if you fail it, you can take it again.

All you have to do is gain the information somehow, take a test, and you're certified.

And there it is – what I feel is the problem with computer certifications. In my mind, that's just too simplistic. As long as you have good retention, you can pass a test. That certainly doesn't mean you know anything about databases, but you have a paper that says you do.

Fixing Certification

Oddly enough, it is the guilds that serve as an illustration of both the problem and the solution for certification.

Today's certification follows the merchant guild model: inclusion is the word of the day. Pay your fee, take your test, and you're certified. It makes perfect sense on the part of Microsoft and the other certifying vendors. After all, the more technical professionals that are certified on a product, the more businesses will buy those products. Unfortunately, this view dilutes the worthiness of the certification. Testing alone doesn't really prove to the employer that the candidate is ready to support the software.

I believe the fix could be taken from the craft guilds. Their model involves three basic concepts: experience, management and testing. If we were to apply that to the technical industry, the new certification process might look like this:

First, the candidate would study the product for a period of time, with a process put in place to vet the study through testing. This isn't too different than what happens today.

Second, the candidate would work with the product as an apprentice. Each month, the candidate's boss would submit a simple report that explains what the candidate did with the product, and how well he did it.

After a few months (perhaps six or more), a practical exam would be given, consisting of a real-world application test of the product. In this test, the candidate would be required to complete a project using the product.

At the end of this process, an independent certification board (not the vendors) would review the information gathered from the earlier steps and grant the certification.

If you examine a few of the other industry certifications, you'll notice they had the same issues as technology – and solved it in just this way.

So does certification matter? I think it does, even with all its problems, and I think it can matter more if we in the industry take the lead to fix it.

Online Resources

Want to learn more about all kinds of technical certifications? Check out about.com's site on the subject.

InformIT Tutorials and Sample Chapters

We have hundreds of books on certification here at InformIT on the Safari site. Rather than list just one, here's a pointer to a search on certification on Safari.