Looking to the Future: Standardized Certifications

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Different theories have abounded for years about why certifications are important. They provide a measure of a candidate’s knowledge and skills in a particular technology or toolset. They provide benchmarks for hiring qualified workers. They provide a means of investing in your career and a vehicle for potential increases in compensation or job promotion.


But in the end, it’s all about the work. Can the credential demonstrate that this individual can do the work that needs to be done? The current generation of certifications could do a better job of providing tools that an organization can quickly use to align its people to its work, and the single biggest change coming to certification over the next 10 years will be an insistence on job-role alignment, so that organizations can get the right people in the right places…to get the job done.


The Evolution of Vendor Certifications
In the beginning, the purpose of vendor certifications was to extend the market reach of their solutions. By ensuring a large pool of available technical talent, companies like Novell and later Microsoft saw certification as a central way to help promote their solutions, while offering their customers access to a measurement tool to assess the qualifications of a candidate. Following the standard hype cycle, there was an enormous proliferation of “paper” CNEs and MCSEs as the vendors struggled to control the testing platforms, stomp out cheaters and solidify the delivery and support channels for training and testing. Over time and through experience, the major players strengthened their tests, the channels were whittled down to a manageable size by the dot-com bust, and the exams have now taken a central place in the career plans of most IT professionals.


Yet it is clear to many in the job market that a vendor certification alone is no longer a strong positive indicator of prospects for employment. Customers ask for your certification, of course, and indeed, you may not even get the interview without it, especially if you’re leveraging job boards. That said, the organizations that use certifications to hire are looking for something different now: business alignment, or the ability to clearly align the projects they do, and therefore the people they hire, to the overall business requirements at hand. The next generation of certifications must go beyond a single vendor or technology to deliver the results they need.


What About Vendor-Independent Certifications?
Vendor-independent certifications are popular in technology segments lacking a dominant vendor or to provide common baselines for people looking to demonstrate a broad capability in a given technology. Popular examples include entry-level certifications such as CompTIA’s A+ and Network+, management-level certifications like the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional (PMP) or (ISC)2 Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). They provide an excellent measure of a candidate’s knowledge in a given area of technology (for example, the 10 security domains in the CISSP). Yet the certifications themselves are only a means of determining someone’s ability to perform in a key job role. Next-generation certifications must do a better job of assessing the candidate’s ability to complete “the whole job.”


What Makes a Good Employee Anyway?
Bill Gates wrote an insightful article a number of years ago detailing some of the characteristics he looks for in a great employee. He identified 10 key traits, briefly paraphrased below. These are the characteristics employees want a certification to tell them:



  • Curiosity: Have a fundamental curiosity about the product or services of your company.
  • Willingness to ask for feedback: Ask your customers what they like and don’t like. Be realistic about where your company’s products are falling short and could be better.
  • Creativity: “How can this product make work more interesting? How can it make learning more interesting? How can it be used in the home in more interesting ways?”
  • Develop your skills continuously: Employees need to focus on lifelong goals, such as developing their own skills and those of the people they work with.
  • Be an expert: You need to have specialized knowledge or skills while maintaining a broad perspective. Big companies in particular need employees who can learn specialties quickly.
  • Be flexible: You have to be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities that can give you perspective. Try working in different customer units, with different products and services, even if it means moving laterally within your organization.
  • Learn the business: Why does the company do what it does? What are its business models? How does it make money?
  • Compete to win: Think about what’s going on in the marketplace. What can we learn from competitors? How can we avoid their mistakes?
  • Use your head: Analyze problems, but don’t fall prey to “analysis paralysis.” Understand the implications of potential tradeoffs of all kinds, including the tradeoff between acting sooner with less information and acting later with more.
  • Honesty, Ethics and Hard Work: There’s no substitute for the basics.


Job-Role Certifications: Searching for the Right Person, Not the Right Technology
Let’s look at a real-world example of the type of job-matching project that would befall a typical enterprise. You’re with Brand X, a provider of software applications for billing and customer care for telecommunications vendors. You keep up with all of the cell phone minutes, roaming charges and customer inquiries. A new telecommunications customer of yours is based in central Africa and wants to purchase your solution. You need to put together a team to go over and install, configure and deploy the product and get it up and running. What skills do you need?


The certification world puts a lot of emphasis on the technical skills. For example:



  • The application is deployed on a Sun Solaris cluster, so I should have a Sun-certified systems and network administrator to install servers and the cluster and to ensure the application runs well.
  • The application uses an Oracle database back-end to capture and query all the data. Therefore I should have an Oracle-certified DBA to install, configure and performance-tune the Oracle back-end.
  • The application’s performance will be queried and managed by a team of network managers running Windows 2000 clients on a Windows 2000 Server network. Since access through this front end to the networks is mission-critical, I should have a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) to install, configure, manage and monitor the network.
  • The telephony application itself needs to be installed, configured and managed. I’ll send over people who have been trained in the tool, though I have no certification to validate their knowledge.
  • The network is powered by Cisco routers and switches. I’ll have to send my Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP) to ensure the network configurations are correct.
  • If I had people with the corresponding certifications, would that be enough for me to have confidence the project would be successful?


People who manage vendor-neutral certifications would rightly ask some additional questions:



  • There are a lot of heterogeneous networking platforms being integrated here. I need to send a Network+ professional to ensure the platforms are interconnected correctly, the IP infrastructure is correct, and the network platforms have redundancy.
  • There’s a lot of mission-critical equipment here. What about security? Who’s responsible for ensuring access controls, protecting the
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