One Issue We Can All Agree On

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Is the glass half-empty or half-full? The way you answer this rhetorical question depends on your point of view. In the IT world, if we ask the question, “Does vendor-neutral certification offer value?” we are likely to see a split in the opinions offered. Some feel they do have value, and some feel the opposite.

Value is a hard thing to pin down. Nearly every year, CompTIA offers research indicating the demonstrated benefits of vendor-neutral certification. But, like the half-empty/half-full question, the perception of value still seems to come down to a personal judgment made regardless of statistics. Read the message boards, and you will see the two views side by side, never changing and always using the same arguments.

Different perceptions of vendor-neutral certification may be caused, not as in the case of the drinking-glass riddle by a pessimistic or optimistic outlook, but by a fundamental difference in career goals, motivations, the approach to acquiring knowledge and the incidents of good and bad experience.

Talk to any conscientious teacher and he will say, “We want our students to succeed, and that means giving them a firm foundation upon which to build a career.” Reputable educational and training organizations emphasize that students learn broad concepts first, before jumping into specifics. They want their students to become fully grounded so that when the technology climate changes, as it always does, they will have the insights and the knowledge to adapt successfully to a new environment. Vendor-neutral certifications are developed and maintained from this need to set standards at the foundation level.

A second group that definitely wants to see well-grounded people is comprised of employers. Employers know that IT professionals who are well versed in the basics respond quite effectively to additional training and are more flexible in handling a variety of situations.

You might think that technology suppliers—the companies that are developing certifications around their proprietary technologies—would be opposed to vendor-neutral certification. Yet the majority support them because suppliers no longer want to have to cover the basics in their own certification programs. Time and cost are issues for them.

They know the basics are important. That is why we are seeing an increasing number of vendor-neutral certifications integrated as prerequisites and electives into vendor-specific programs. For example, CompTIA A+, Network+ and Server+ are electives for the Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator (MCSA). IT Project+ is required for Novell’s Master Certified Novell Engineer (Master CNE).

In the fourth quarter of 2001, CompTIA talked with suppliers, employers and government agencies about the need for foundation-level training and certification in IT security. There was a number of high-level security certifications available, but no knowledge standard that the industry could point to and say that this person has mastered the basics of IT security and is ready for more advanced training. There wasn’t even consensus on what constituted the basics.

None of the leading suppliers stepped forward to propose that they had the answer for providing a foundation standard. None of the major employers said they had the magic bullet. Instead, in a unified effort to solve the problem, suppliers and public and private organizations joined together to create consensus. This group provided seed money, devoted untold hours of volunteer time and guided the development of CompTIA’s vendor-neutral Security+ certification, which was released in December 2002.

Security+ demonstrates why we have vendor-neutral certification—foundation knowledge underpins a wide range of proprietary products and solutions. It leads naturally and fittingly to further training and development. Vendor-neutral certification ensures a person’s competitiveness and helps open doors to new opportunities for employee and employer alike.

Do vendor-neutral certifications offer value? Of course they do. Are they for everyone in all situations? No, of course not. The issue is one of determining thoughtful learning milestones that stretch during a lifetime from the earliest days of study to the summit of a career. That is an issue I think we can all agree on.

John A. Venator is president and CEO of CompTIA, the Computing Technology Industry Association, the largest global trade association supporting the IT industry. CompTIA has 9,600 corporate members and 10,500 individual professional members.

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