Everybody Wins: The Value of Certification
The old saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” speaks to the subjective nature of value, and while few would suggest that professional certifications in information technology are refuse, there is no denying that credentialing programs mean different things to different people. They will likely view them through the lens of their own experience, knowledge and self-interest. For example, managers of certification programs probably will consider factors such as the subject-matter experts (SMEs) involved in development or the security and delivery methodologies for examinations in their assessment of a credential’s worth, whereas an IT practitioner might be more apt to judge a program based on the typical annual salary that holders of that certification receive. Of course, each individual may well consider the aspects of certification important to the other, but they are liable to reflect more on particular factors that impact them first and foremost. That said, IT credentialing programs hold substantial value for all parties involved—professionals, employers and those involved with certification operations—even if their significance might vary within each group.
Certifications have clearly been a boon for IT professionals’ career development. Certificants increase their odds of getting a job, a raise, a bonus, a promotion and other incentives by successfully completing a program. CertMag contributor and self-professed “cert junkie” Jonathan Thatcher can attest to this: In addition to an MBA, he holds CompTIA’s A+, Network+, Server+, e-Biz+, Project+ and i-Net+, as well as the Certified Novell Associate (CNA), Certified Novell Engineer (CNE), Master CNE and Certified Novell Instructor (CNI). To say that he has a lot in the way of professional education would be like saying the Pacific Ocean has a lot of water.
“To me, (the certifications) have been of huge assistance,” Thatcher said. “When I just finished college and got my (Novell) CNE, I wanted a way to get into the IT industry and to do a nice job right off the bat. I thought, ‘I’ll give certification a try.’ I crammed it all into one month and got all seven exams done. When I had CNE behind my name, suddenly I got a whole lot more interest in my résumé from hardware companies, software companies and networking companies. For me, it was really a brand name on my résumé. Nobody knew Jonathan Thatcher from Adam, but people knew Novell Network Engineer. That was a brand that really helped me get above the clutter of everyone else. I was able to have a much better pick of companies I wanted to interview with, where I wanted to live and so on. I know certification was new back then, when people talked about skill shortages, but roughly the same thing works if you have a certification that’s in demand now.”
Thatcher, director of skills development and business integration at CompTIA, the Computing Technology Industry Association, also had the distinctive advantage of seeing the inception of these programs. Prior to his current role within the IT trade organization, he worked in the early 1990s in program management at Novell’s education division. Over the years, he’s seen these credentialing programs evolve not only in terms of teaching and testing, but also in prestige among employers. “In the past, certifications were something you put on your shoulder, like a merit badge,” he said. “It was something that looked nice—not absolutely vital to do most jobs, but maybe a few jobs. It was a nice-to-have rather than a must-have.”
That has changed considerably, evidenced by employer mandates like that of the U.S. Department of Defense. “If you look at the Department of Defense directive 8570—this is the admirals and generals deciding who gets to have privileged access to IT equipment in the department, both civilian and military—they demand that you hold IT certifications,” Thatcher explained. “They want that proof. By their estimates, 150,000 people will be covered by this. That’s where I think all of this is going and what the industry is responding to right now.”
When it comes to the developers, SMEs, instructors, managers, psychometricians and other assorted experts who run the programs, some of the main issues to consider when dealing with certification are how the curriculum is put together, how the content aligns to the requisite skills and knowledge for a particular job role and what methods of examination are used.
“From my perspective, the questions that anyone would want to ask when seeking a certification are, ‘How is the thing built? How is it constructed? What is it based upon? How widely is it accepted? How globally transferable is it?’” said Denny Smith, manager of the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) certification program. “We build ours against a rigorous methodology. We based our examination development process in alignment with ISO 17024 and with the National Commission for Certifying Agencies’ (NCCA) standards. To create our exams, we have the questions written and validated by PMPs (Project Management Professionals) on a global basis. That, to me, speaks to value.”
Another way in which many credentialing programs provide value is through policies that require certificants to keep their skills and knowledge current. Unlike college degrees, which are good for life, several IT certification organizations demand that holders of their credentials obtain continuing education credits, retake exams or fulfill some other obligation to ensure their comprehension of the subject matter is up-to-date.
“If you earn a professional credential like the PMP, there’s a mandatory continuing education component to it that we call our continuing certification requirements program,” Smith said. “They have to demonstrate 60 professional development units within the arena of project management every three years in order to keep their credential. If they don’t demonstrate that, then they allow their credential to expire.”
Certificants receive both concrete and subtle benefits as a result of their efforts, Smith said. “If you get your PMP and your company gives you a pay raise because you got it, that’s tangible. The intangibles of that would be the emotional aspects of how you feel about having it and the respect that you would get from your peers. We know, both personally and professionally, that having a credential in their discipline elevates their status. Individuals who have project management certifications are increasingly being seen on leadership tracks within organizations. When someone has a credential and they’re able to talk with one another about project management lingo and what have you, they are looked upon differently. The personal sense of satisfaction that one achieves with certification, and the professional and financial recognition they get are of value.”
Of all the groups that are affected by IT certification, employers are the most likely to be skeptical of credentialing programs and the benefits they bring to the table. While most value certification to a significant degree, they tend to think of it as just one facet among many. Several factors are at the root of this. Certification in the information technology industry is barely in its second decade, so it’s still fairly novel. Another issue is the frequent disregard for formal education in the IT industry. Some of the most skilled techies simply don’t pursue higher education the way professionals in other fields do, and prefer practice to theory. Also, IT credentials have yet to shake off entirely the reputation derived from the lack of both solid criteria and secure tests that marked many early programs.
“If someone’s coming into a job and they have certification, that tells me that they took the time and the commitment to go through the coursework and the studies,” sai