Cheating—What Is It, Really?

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I’ve been casually following the Enron trial under way in Houston and trying to figure out what it all means, if anything. The company’s founder and CEO Ken Lay and chief operations officer Jeff Skilling were both indicted back in 2001 for basically playing fast and loose with the organization’s financial figures. Both have pled not guilty to charges that they were involved in corporate shenanigans that transformed a legitimate—but somewhat minor—energy logistics company into a out-of-control speculative giant. (In fact, Enron once ranked in the top five U.S. companies in terms of overall value, along with companies like Wal-Mart and ExxonMobil.) And while their respective defense attorneys have acknowledged that something was indeed rotten in the state of Texas, they’ve laid the blame at the feet of Enron executives like Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow (who, incidentally, has agreed to testify against their clients in exchange for a reduced sentence). As the old saying goes, “In a play set in hell, you can’t expect to have angels as actors.”


So what did Enron, as a company, do exactly? Well, for one thing, it was never straightforward about where its money came from. Even as it raked in unprecedented profits from highly unpredictable energy trading, the company’s leaders continued to insist that it was a logistics firm that earned steady, stable revenues from steady, stable clients. It also concealed capital and financial shortfalls in shell companies that were nothing more than names and files in a drawer. (Talk about your paper tigers!) Additionally, Enron’s bean counters somehow managed to be simultaneously devious and incompetent, no mean feat: For instance, they occasionally “forgot” to calculate currency exchange rates in overseas transactions.


What Enron did can be summed up in a word: cheating. They aspired to contend in the marketplace with the big boys, but wanted to give themselves a competitive advantage by playing outside of the rules that keep commerce clean and fair under the law, inasmuch as that’s possible. Aside from the immediate, unequivocal problems that arose when the company’s schemes unraveled—such as many innocent Enron employees losing their pensions—one of the major consequences was a severe loss of the public’s trust in corporations generally, which had always been somewhat tenuous.


Similarly, information technology certifications are affected by a cheating trend that seems to be rising on all fronts in our society. The oft-unspoken (though sometimes codified) contract between IT pros and credentialing programs is that if the former works diligently to master a set of skills and knowledge, pays a fee and passes an exam or set of exams, then the certifying body will formally recognize them as having a certain level of proficiency in that area, which in turn will lead to desired jobs, promotions, raises and other professional perks. However, some IT pros—most of whom probably wouldn’t appreciate being swindled by corporate shysters like Ken Lay or Andrew Fastow—have opted to play outside the rules within their own industry when it comes to credentialing. They use brain dumps, proxy test-takers and other forms of cheating to get a certification they didn’t really earn.


Thus, many employers look askance at certifications. If anyone can get a credential yet know little to nothing about the subject matter, then what good does it do for people who have to make hiring decisions? As with the Enron case, this damages both innocent and guilty parties by undermining the view of IT certifications, ill-gotten and otherwise. Here are a few steps that can be taken to reduce instances of cheating, thus boosting the value of IT credentials:



  • Build in Performance-Based Components: If a person actually has to demonstrate hands-on skill with a particular product or technology, then this makes cheating much more problematic. It would be much more difficult to virtually disseminate a step-by-step, comprehensive explanation on how to set up a server manually than to just post answers to a few questions. Plus, performance-based measures generally carry more weight with employers, cheating or no cheating.
  • Offer Sensible Explanations of What Cheating Is: I’ve seen experts on certification testing pull all kinds of things under the cheating umbrella, some of which didn’t really belong there. For example, one commentator said that destruction of property at a testing center counts as cheating. No, it doesn’t: Regardless of the reason, it’s wrong to intentionally damage the equipment and resources of the certification exam provider, but it’s not cheating. Describing it as such helps no one.
    Also, others have claimed that discussing any of the contents of any test with anyone constitutes cheating. They might have intended to say that going over specific questions and answers with someone is iniquitous. Yet if taken at face value, this assertion indicates that any coverage of a test topic in conversation prior to the exam is unethical. Of course, candidates have to know what to study and how to study for it, and the idea that they shouldn’t consult with someone knowledgeable for even a modicum of advice and guidance is ludicrous. To avoid confusion on what or what does not constitute cheating, certification programs should be as explicit as possible on what they consider cheating to be and offer specific examples if necessary.
  • Be Clear on the Consequences: This includes the direct penalties for cheating, such as expulsion without a refund as well as ineligibility for any other certifications. But it also ought to be a marketing campaign of sorts. The IT certification industry should be very clear about how cheating is counterproductive in the long run because it damages the worth of certification. After all, cheating requires time and energy too, and if people realize that the efforts they invest in fraudulent means of passing an exam will ultimately devalue the very objective they’re after, they’ll be less inclined to do it.
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