Certification Evolution: Job-Role Certifications
The certification industry has evolved dramatically over the years. From vendor-driven programs designed to ensure a large and ready supply of trained and prepared technicians to support their products and services, certifications have rapidly shifted to industry- and customer-driven programs designed to solve large gaps in the ability to provide services across a number of technologies, disciplines and vendors.
As is the case with most forms of professional accreditation in other fields, in order for certifications to grow and gain the level of acceptance we’d all like to see, broadly accepted industry standards of knowledge, skill and performance must be easily portable from job to job, industry to industry, based on the ability to support a job role or job function.
In the Beginning
The fundamental driver behind the creation of a job-role certification is a perceived unmet need, which goes beyond a given technology or vendor to cause general disruption in the industry. Such was the case more than 20 years ago when I first entered the IT industry, first as a help-desk analyst, then as a hardware and software technician. As anyone in the industry could see, there was an incredibly broad array of different people out there who called themselves computer technicians (or in the now-quaint term, PC professionals). People looking to hire individuals or companies to provide even basic computer-support services were in a quandary—how do I know that the people I’m hiring have basic computer-support skills? Other than calling references (and hopefully I’m not getting their bar buddy, neighbor or cousin), how do I have an independent validation that this person has a certain level of basic skills?
Ultimately, the different leading companies in our industry at the time, including such notables as Novell, Microsoft, Compaq and others, came together with industry association CompTIA to form the first vendor-independent job-role certification, A+. Still one of the most successful certification programs in the industry after almost 15 years, A+ solved the most fundamental certification requirement of all. What’s the baseline? How does one establish basic proficiency in PC hardware and operating systems? Not surprisingly, given the combination of strong market demand and broad support from the vendor community, A+ has grown to be an enormous success around the globe. In fact, the best measure of the growing maturity of a country’s IT infrastructure and service capabilities is still the growth rate of their A+-certified professionals.
Beyond A+: Building New Baselines
Once A+ had become clearly established as the industry baseline, we certainly couldn’t stop there and declare victory. Ours is an extremely broad and diverse industry, with dozens of different job functions that come together to form baskets of IT services. This includes an enormous array of different vendor-independent and job-role certifications.
CompTIA, faced with the almost impossible task of following up A+ (imagine Michael Jackson following up the “Thriller” album, which sold 40-million-plus copies), chose the burgeoning field of PC networking for its next certification program, the widely respected Network+. Again, the industry lacked a good core set of skills for people who would be responsible for installing and configuring PC network hardware and configuring systems to use the now-ubiquitous TCP/IP client to support access to this new-at-the-time thing called the World Wide Web. Network+ came to the rescue, providing core skills to ensure that a new networking technician understood the core concepts of PC networking and could not only set up a PC (a la A+), but set up network connectivity for it as well. As PC use shifted from predominantly local toolkits (productivity applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint) to network-based applications (like e-mail and the Web), this was a mission-critical need and one that Network+ still meets today. To people thinking of entering the industry for the first time, A+ and Network+ are still the baseline certifications I recommend to create a broad proficiency in computers and networking.
The Great Divide
Once we pass the core PC certifications of A+ and Network+, certification families split widely according to the IT jobs and job functions they support. This includes certifications for Web designers and developers, application developers, security professionals, storage professionals, project managers and business analysts.
Web Design and Development
The CIW certification covers job roles in network administration, security, application development, programming, Web site design and e-commerce. It’s best known as the vendor-independent certification of choice for Web designers and developers. Their menu of certification options includes:
- CIW Associate – basic knowledge of Internet technologies, Web authoring with XHTML, project management as well as network infrastructure and troubleshooting.
- CIW Professional – skills related to a particular discipline such as Web site design, security, server administration, application development or database management.
- Master CIW Designer – cutting-edge design concepts and tools, industry-standard design tools such as Dreamweaver and Flash, site maintenance, authoring and scripting languages, content and digital media creation, and B2B and B2C e-commerce Web site standards.
- Master CIW Administrator – identification of network architecture, infrastructure and server administration, network administration and network security implementation.
- Master CIW Web Site Manager – basic networking, Web site design techniques, Web authoring and scripting languages and server administration.
- Master CIW Enterprise Developer – Web-enabled enterprise application development, e-business solution implementation, database management, distributed object computing, scripting and programming languages and language theory.
- CIW Security Analyst – protecting an organization’s assets and operations.
- CIW Web Developer – assembly and maintenance of Java-based Web applications.
Given how this segment of the industry has developed, the .NET vs. Java/J2EE wars have not left a whole lot of room for vendor-independent certifications. J2EE certifications are offered by Sun, IBM, BEA, Oracle and others, while Microsoft certifies .NET developers.
Where we will likely see the emergence of vendor-independent job-role certifications is in the function of enterprise-application architects. As we move to a development environment defined by the application flexibility of Web services and component-assembled applications, having people with a broad array of skills to help architect these types of hybrid applications will be essential. Most of the key players on the J2EE side and Microsoft on the .NET side have a vendor-focused certification in this area. For the good of the industry, they should set these aside and come together to produce a Web Services Architect certification that would allow us to credentialize these critical people properly.
The security-certification space has grown dramatically in the past few years, and with the U.S. government’s widespread backing of security certification for Department of Defense personnel, we can expect even more dramatic growth over the next four years. Although some demand will exist for baseline-level security certifications such as CompTIA’s Security+, the larger growth will be in the higher-end certifications for career security professionals, especially (ISC)2’s CISSP, ISACA’s CISA and the SANS Institute’s GIAC certifications. There also will be specialized demand for security certification in a number of sub-areas, such as wireless networking, where certifications such as the Planet3W