Branching Out: Creating Global IT Communities
We hear a lot about the ways certification can benefit an IT professional’s career and salary prospects. We don’t hear as much about the benefits of certification communities, though there are many in existence—some with an extremely visible online presence. Many popular certification and technology vendors have communities set up—both online and with coinciding in-person events—for their audiences. Certification Magazine has a significant presence with 14 communities on a wide range of areas of interest to IT professionals at all stages of their careers. Although the offerings vary, if you haven’t considered the benefits of participating in discussion forums on these online families or taking advantage of the free tutorials and practice exams, news and product reviews typically offered, pay close attention. We’re about to offer a few more reasons you might want to join in.
Connection to Colleagues and Peers
“Not all certification communities are created equal,” said Jason Sprague, CEO of 7 Second Resources Inc., which produces MCMCSE.com. “A good one can offer a place where people can get answers to questions where it’s a professional atmosphere. It also gives people an opportunity to connect with people in their local area. Some people from our sites have wound up forming study groups. It allows people an easier way to find answers that are hard to find.”
Passing knowledge and experience along via communities has tangible benefits for the individuals giving and receiving the information. For instance, information sharing can help you pass a certification exam or improve your performance on the job. Most of the information on certification communities is offered for free or at a discount—not just as a reward for earning a certification, but also to foster the intangible benefits of certification community life such as camaraderie and support. The number of IT staff is small at most companies, and this can lead to feelings of isolation because technical workers might be viewed as people to go to only in times of trouble or when there is a need for a technical solution. Certification communities offer IT professionals the opportunity to interact with their peers, often on a global scale.
“It’s like any professional organization,” said MaryJo Swenson, director of certification and skills assessment, Novell Inc. “You take pride in the organization, in your contributions, and you also feel good if you’ve launched something, an issue you found or you hear something back, and they say, ‘Thanks, we got this resolved,’ and you feel like you’re contributing to a team larger than yourself or beyond your role at your company.”
Furthermore, the dialogue that exists between IT professionals in certification community discussion forums often makes its way into the certification tests themselves. Swenson said that she and her team work closely with the Novell communities, looking at the chats and conversing back and forth. Often that dialogue is motivation for the certification program managers to make changes or improvements to exam content.
Al Valvano, director of certification programs for Microsoft Learning, explained that Microsoft has used this strategy as well. “We heard that one of our tests was probably a little too hard, and we actually got that information first from the newsgroups where people were saying, ‘Hey, you know what? This test seems much, much more difficult than the other MCP (Microsoft Certified Professional) tests I’ve taken. What’s up?’ We probed around a little bit and determined that yeah, in fact we were scoring it a little bit too aggressively,” he said. “So we went back into the design process and looked at revising that to make a more reasonable approximation of what a passing score should look like.”
Microsoft has public and private online communities for its MCPs and MCTs (Microsoft Certified Trainers), and the newsgroups are a place where the internal and external certification communities can intersect. “You join a community to get access to a pool of information and knowledge that you don’t have, and you can find each other,” said Ken Rosen, worldwide program manager, Microsoft Certified Trainer, Microsoft Learning. “There’s networking opportunities, professional development opportunities. Some of that happens online, some of that happens face-to-face at events.”
“We see people communing within their area of certification, talking about the path to certify or, in many cases, talking about new technologies or ideas for more successfully deploying or utilizing technology,” Valvano said.
A Support System With Give-and-Take
In addition to a wealth of information and experienced advice, certification communities also can offer an online shoulder to cry on for someone who is struggling. You can easily find friends who share your same worries and concerns, and collaborating can make the pressure and stress of coveted exam success easier to bear.
According to Paul Wheaton, trail boss and creator of JavaRanch.com, people who study for the Java certifications from Sun and other vendors typically take two to three weeks minimum to learn what they need to know to pass the test. “Most people go a month or two. It’s a long, long hard process to prepare,” he said. “There are psychological benefits of visiting with people, saying, ‘I’m frustrated and having a hell of a time. I keep taking the mock exams and doing horribly.’ Other people say, ‘Hang in there, bud. I feel your pain.’ Or you could find someone who is effectively a study partner. Someone who’s at the same level as you, and you help each other out.”
Certification communities can be very different in content, structure and offerings, but if you find a good one, you can expect a certain level of professionalism. Wheaton said that JavaRanch.com has taken some heat because there is a moose with a fly going up its nose prominently featured on the home page of the site, but it pays not to judge a book by its cover or a certification community by its graphics. JavaRanch.com is one of the largest Java communities online and despite the relative silliness of the moose, Wheaton said that he takes the community very seriously, insisting on a high level of moderation and real names, or at least names that appear to be real names, in order to build trust and encourage healthy discussions. Furthermore, community life can offer an IT professional an opportunity to give something back to the industry in some small way by offering their services or insight.
“We get a lot of help from our members,” Sprague said. “Often they’ll author tutorials or other helpful things just because they want to help others. A lot of people feel that’s important because they’ve been helped out a lot in their career, and they want to give back. That’s how we end up with moderators for our forums.”
Resources for Continuous Learning
Certification communities offer IT professionals more than just a place to go to get answers to problems or to get a peer’s opinion on a certain type of study aid. They offer a forum in which to create a kind of continuous learning environment where information is shared, expanded and sometimes corrected. The most common purpose of certification is to prove to your current or potential employer that you have a certain skill set. Essentially, a certification says that you can do a certain job competently. Certifications also offer IT professionals the opportunity to enhance their skills or learn new ones. Given the fast pace of the technology industry, learning is par for the course if you wish to remain a viable player in the IT game, and certification communities offer resources for learning, career development and tools to help you study for and successfully pass certification exams.
“A certification community is a place where you can not only get your questions answered, but when they are an