Common Misconceptions

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Visiting Web certification discussion forums is a good way to get current and relevant topics for this column. I recently followed a discussion begun by an individual obviously concerned about the value of IT certification, even though he had not yet begun a program. He was concerned:



  • About people who cheat and ruin things for the rest of them.
  • About companies with certification programs that give the questions to their employees.
  • About the amount of money organizations with certification programs make off of people like him.
  • About the reduced value of certification programs.


He found some support for a few of his comments—I personally agreed with his point about cheaters. However, this person is approaching his IT career on the wrong foot and has a few misconceptions that would be worth clearing up.

IT certification programs, for the most part, are not money-makers; they are money-drainers. Sure, there are a few large programs that have developed mass appeal, but these are the exceptions, and even these programs are only responding to basic economic principles of supply and demand. But back to my point: Most IT certifying organizations pay a lot more to create and maintain their certification programs than they get back in testing or other fees. So why do they operate their programs at a loss? The answer is what it has always been: to create an army of individuals who can support products, who can increase sales and reduce costs and who are loyal to a brand. While the program itself loses money, the organization benefits financially in many ways.

People are usually surprised to learn that good questions cost from $250 to $500 to create and that a single test may cost between $50,000 and $100,000. Tests with more unique performance-testing designs or that need localizing cost even more. IT certifications have the additional requirement that they be revised (usually completely re-created) often. Some of these tests are “popular,” and the testing fee probably pays for their development, but most organizations have a set of tests that cover strategic but less well-known hardware and software products. The tests cost the same to build, but come nowhere near paying for themselves.

No company with an IT certification willingly and knowingly gives its questions to its employees who must get certified. That doesn’t make sense from any business perspective, and from my experience, it doesn’t happen except in unauthorized instances. I don’t doubt that well-meaning but misguided managers have tried to help their staff get certified on their own programs in inappropriate ways (sharing questions, if they have them, or taking the test for them), but these instances are not supported by the organizations themselves. I recall a sad incident at Novell where a long-term customer-service person was let go because he was unable to pass the test, even though several attempts were allowed, additional training was provided and alternate methods for giving him the test were tried. No attempt was made to coach him on specific questions or to provide him questions and answers. Those solutions made no sense then and make no sense today.

This individual on the discussion forum also implied that because a company makes “billions of dollars,” it shouldn’t charge so much for its tests. Or because it did charge for its tests, it was doing something unethical or wrong. I can’t see the connection. That’s like asking Wal-Mart, because it is so successful, to give merchandise away for free. Companies are obligated to produce a profit, or at least to recover as much of their costs as possible.

Most people don’t cheat. And programs today are having more success in dealing with those who do, whether they are their own employees or someone else. There is heightened sensitivity to methods of cheating, to brain-dump sites and to services that will take the tests for you. Efforts are being stepped up to find such fraud and put an end to it. CompTIA’s recent successful and publicized effort to shut down and punish a notorious brain-dump site is a good example.

I didn’t respond specifically to the individual on the forum, but I have some advice for him, and for others like him. Don’t start your certification journey by looking for excuses and reasons to fail. From my experience of 13 years associated with IT certifications, it is clear that the majority of programs and the individuals who administer them are ethical and are trying hard to create the best programs possible. They have made strong improvements over the years in the quality of the exams, the convenience and professionalism of testing center locations and test security. You can expect these improvements to continue.

David Foster, Ph.D., is president of Caveon ( and is a member of the International Test Commission, as well as several measurement industry boards.


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