LPI: Restoring Confidence in IT Certification
A sobering mood is emerging among my colleagues in the IT certification business. They ask me if the Linux Professional Institute’s numbers are peaking or even dropping as theirs are and if we see the same mood among our candidates as they do.
This anxiety is hardly surprising. Consider for a moment the following subtitles from recent “Forecast U.S. and Worldwide IT Certification Market” publications by IDC:
- Growth continues to slow.
- Fewer new programs.
- Existing program growth slowing.
- 2003 proves to be a challenging year for certification.
- Impact of globalization shifts demand for certification offshore.
- Training vendors respond to a tough economy and are now in wait-and-see model.
- Impact of a down economy on certification training.
Offering its own perspective on the changing state of IT certification, Prometric, a major operator of exam centers worldwide, reported to the industry as follows:
- The top reason individuals pursued IT certification during 2002 was to enhance professional credibility and not to increase compensation, as has previously been the case.”
- “Achieving certification led some responding managers to dismiss certification as an employment criteria.”
- “70 percent of already-certified respondents felt that certifications lose value when everyone has them.”
These study results echo the increasing anecdotal evidence that shows HR managers are losing respect for IT certifications. And if the people who hire IT professionals stop respecting–and asking for–certifications, demand for the certification programs will drop correspondingly.
However, at the Linux Professional Institute (LPI) we are experiencing something else altogether: global growth and increased demand for our certification programs by individuals and employers alike.
What’s the Problem?
This funk in the industry isn’t easy to pinpoint. I’ve heard the complaints from those who do hands-on tests as well as those who did conventional computer-based testing (CBT) and paper exams, from vendors and from vendor groups alike.
The common thread among the complaints is the inability of the industry to determine the source of the problem. Since LPI is a relatively new program (we started as an organization in 1999 and did our first exams a year later), we don’t claim to have all the answers. However, from our own experiences–and the fact that LPI’s numbers continue to grow despite the stagnation elsewhere in the industry–perhaps the reasons for the downturn in certification numbers require an explanation that looks beyond an overall slowdown in IT itself or a perceived change of monetary value in IT certifications.
Perhaps the problem is a dropping respect for certifications throughout the IT industry. It is possible that the IT field in general is losing confidence that the training and certification programs currently available are meeting the needs of computer users.
From the LPI point of view, the issue points to an inevitable conclusion: Any certification that does not include its exam takers, the IT-using public and the general public as stakeholders cannot sustain the respect of that public.
Demand and Growth
LPI is indeed experiencing something quite different from the scary headlines noted above: continuing growth and demand for our services and for our certifications. Requests for partnerships from training organizations, national affiliates and even governments are coming in faster than we can deal with them.
We cannot fully explain why this is happening, but we can suggest how our differences from other, more traditional IT certifications may have something to do with it.
LPI originally took form as a grassroots organization aimed at removing obstacles to open-source adoption and increasing the skill level of its community. LPI has since delivered more than 45,000 exams and 12,000 certifications in almost every country and has gained support throughout and beyond the Linux community.
Such consistent success in the volatile world of information technology is notable.
But then again, just as Linux has disrupted the conventional software world, LPI has similarly “disrupted” the world of IT certification.
Unfortunately, many people have come to expect very low-quality education as it relates to computers and technology. Technology-related training has become such a vendor-driven commodity that it’s often nothing more than extensions of the software vendors’ marketing programs. Nobody is taught technique anymore—it has all come down to locking students into one particular supplier’s tools.
IT certification is generally taken for granted to be vendor-centric, a phenomenon unique to the IT field. Pharmacists, for example, are not trained to understand only one brand-name drug; they are expected to understand them all. Even in the case of some vendor-neutral programs, the suppliers (jointly rather than individually) influence the certification. The people getting certified, and those who would hire them, have no voice.
While LPI has welcomed vendor sponsorship and other forms of participation to further its goals, vendors alone do not dictate the organization’s future path. LPI is community-driven, beyond simple vendor-neutrality, to become vendor-independent. For instance, the community demanded desktop Linux certification, so LPI is working to make it a reality.
Worldwide Accessibility and Accountability
The community also called upon LPI to ensure that certification is accessible worldwide. As a result, as many IT certifications are increasing their prices, LPI has been holding steady or even lowering its prices.
Even that is often not enough. In some countries, the cost of an LPI exam is one month’s salary for an IT professional. To address this, LPI holds special “exam labs” around the world at which tests are offered for as little as $15. Just as significantly, as a community LPI is trying to bring the world of IT professional certification kicking and screaming toward a peer-review model that people have come to expect from other professions.
Because of this, LPI finds it has less in common with most other IT certifications and more in common with groups such as the National Organization of Competency Assurance—an organization whose goal is to set quality standards for organizations and whose membership is dominated by medical and vocational certifications rather than IT programs.
LPI champions standards within the field of Linux professional skills and, more broadly, within the field of Linux, open-source and free software. LPI bases its common software skills upon the Linux Standard Base, a common software core specification that is followed by almost every distribution.
LPI’s commitment to low-cost, accessible certification does not come easily, however. At the same time, the high quality demanded by a commitment to standards must be continued and even extended. In fact, a major initiative within LPI is research and development on ways to lower the cost of computer-delivered education while improving the technology needed to deliver hands-on testing in a scalable, cost-effective manner.
Accessibility is only one barrier LPI faces. Obviously, growth is also dependent on the progress of Linux and open-source, which has made some significant inroads in the enterprise and public sector space, particularly within global institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank, but more importantly in nation states around the world.
While there may be no doubt that Linux has global presence, LPI faces challenges when it comes to making sure that open-source education and certification are relevant and useful in many languages, cultures and governmental structures. From its central office