Incorporating Experience into Certification Programs

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When the IT certification industry really began to grow in the 1990s, the focus almost exclusively was on technology, and in most cases, a specific vendor’s technology.

At issue was being able to demonstrate the usual abilities in that technology: How do I install it? How do I set up basic configurations? How do I troubleshoot it when it breaks? How do I design systems with it?

The universality of the paradigm shift is remarkable. Regardless of whether you’re discussing operating systems, databases, Web servers, routers, switches or storage devices, there are just so many things you can actually learn to do with the device.

Unfortunately, that’s where we stopped. When the certification market began to retreat after the dot-com bomb went off, many of us knew something wasn’t quite right. All the mumblings about “paper” Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers (hardly the case now) had an undeniable air of truth.

We might know how to install, configure, manage, monitor, troubleshoot and design it, but did we know when to do it? Where to do it? Why to do it? How would deploying a particular solution deliver impact to the business or organization we were supporting?

Certification must continue beyond the scope of merely demonstrating technical acumen to delivering business impact. One of the more effective and challenging ways to begin this endeavor is by leveraging experience as a fundamental part of the certification process.

Context is King
When vendors or other groups develop certification programs, they usually begin by developing a job-task analysis — take an area of expertise and break it down to the specific knowledge and skill components someone would need to perform that job. So, for example, to set up the configuration for a network client in Windows XP, they would start with the control panel, look at the particular network connections and, from there, break down to installing and configuring transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP).

This type of detailed knowledge is necessary to the work of a competent technician, but it isn’t sufficient. The bigger question is: When would I want to come in and look at my TCP/IP network setup? Of course, there could be many answers, from initial setup and configuration of a new laptop being issued to customer connectivity problems of many kinds.

The missing link in certification has been business context — when, where and why will I use this skill to deliver results for the business? Incorporating experience more specifically into the certification process will help address this issue.

Many private organizations and a few public certifications have figured this out and are beginning to implement certification models that go well beyond the traditional ones. One of the major IT integrators, for example, has established its own skills-development boot camp that provides a two-week, real-world assessment of the developed business skills of a team.

Interestingly, the team (not the individual) is what becomes certified because intact teams complete most project work. These types of certification models cover broad arrays of mission-critical business skills in context with the technical skills needed for that type of project. A sample might include:

  • Assembling a team, understanding the different skills and resources on the team and identifying team roles and leadership.
  • Meeting with a customer to capture requirements. Emphasis here is on effective process, professional management of the interview, customer-relationship-management skills and understanding of the business objectives.
  • Working as a team to translate the customer’s business requirements into technically achievable services. Note that this approach, at this stage, gets us out of thinking in terms of servers and routers and more in terms of customer services — the end customer’s goals and objectives for the systems and services built. This encourages different organizations and technicians with different skill sets to collaborate more effectively, and it helps them see the end service and their role in achieving it.
  • Prototyping a solution and asking for feedback from the client before investing large amounts of resources to build a solution.
  • Technical design and implementation of the projected solution (usually, just this part is certified).
  • Testing and end-to-end documentation and ensuring the project meets the original business objectives, not just a subset of technical specifications.
  • Rework as needed until the objective is met.
  • Relationship management among the members of the team. Project managers and business analysts are graded on project scope and control. Technicians are graded on the technical accuracy of their system and their collaborative efforts to ensure the result is achieved.

Consider the implications of this type of model.

First, it is much more expensive than a traditional certification, and it’s not nearly as scalable. Team certifications are hard to keep relevant, as turnover and restructuring prevent teams from staying intact. And in this model, there are two weeks of downtime associated with the certification process.

Given the disadvantages, why are many organizations doing this anyway?
Fundamentally, it comes down to the true value of certification — business results.

These organizations recognize the costs of certification truly are dwarfed by the benefits: improved customer satisfaction, repeat purchases, more efficient project delivery and higher profits. But the costs of not having people certified on the right skills can be enormously expensive.

The rework cost of missing a key requirement for a project can be as much as 600 times more expensive than getting the requirement correct in the first place. The loss of one customer because of poor customer relationship management can cost hundreds of thousands or even many millions of dollars.

In this context, investing in the right mix of business, process and technical skills certifications can be the best investment an organization makes, with a high rate of return.

Some Experience Required

So, how do traditional certification programs evolve to stay relevant for you and the companies that require your services?

Incorporating experience into the certification program rapidly is becoming a fundamental part of the certification itself. These come in different levels.

  • Level 1: Recommend experience. Many Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) exams identify a recommended level of experience. For A+, it’s six months. For Network+, it’s 18 months to two years. Although this gives us some expectation that the candidates have at least seen a computer before, we don’t have a good feel of their ability to do the work. It does provide a good guideline for hiring managers about the relative level of background of the certified individual and can be helpful in establishing job roles and salary ranges.
  • Level 2: Certify you have experience. Other exams, including the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional (PMP), require you sign and attest to having a certain level of practical experience. Although doing this protects the certifying body — to a certain extent — from certifying people who turn out to be unqualified, it doesn’t really tell us much about the level of experience. Even if they do have a certain number of years, what have they been doing? Have they served as project leaders or done cost control, estimation, resource allocation and delivered projects on time? The certification won’t tell you that. Your background interviews and resume will help.
  • Level 3: Produce work to get the certification. Some exams take a very practical approach to experience. Performance-based testing adherents typically cite the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) and Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) exams as the best-known examples of exams for which you must demonstrate your technical competencies in a physical, real-world context. It’s not surprising these are considered among the best certifications to have — there’s no hiding or test-prep software that’s going to disguise a candidate’s lack of real, practical skills. Other exams that take this approach include Information Systems Examinations Board/Examination Institute for Information Science’s ITIL Practitioner certifications, which require in-class assessments that demonstrate the candidate’s ability to oversee change management processes or technical support services. Together, these types of exams test a candidate’s specific knowledge and skills in a particular technology or other discipline.
  • Level 4: Produce business results with technology. The example from the major integrator of the two-week team certification program is a great example of a Level 4 certification. The certification exam itself is training, testing and validation of a business process, and it demonstrates the team’s ability to produce the desired business — not just technical — outcome. There are many other private in-house certifications that take this approach, and there definitely is a role for the other certifications to play in designing Level 4 scenarios.


We have seen a great deal of increased emphasis on business skills and process frameworks in recent years, and you should expect to see even more going forward. IT exists to serve the business, and certifications will continue to evolve to ensure mission-critical IT services will be available. Ultimately, the more mission-critical IT becomes, the more value IT certification will have for you.

Patrick von Schlag is president of Deep Creek Center, an enterprise training and skills development company. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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