The rise of role-based credentials is reshaping certification programs

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This feature first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

A new approach to certification is catching on. So what, exactly, is a "role-based" credential?How do you define your job role in information technology (IT)? Are you in the role that brings you greatest happiness, or are you planning a move in that direction? Over the past months we’ve seen a gradual yet seismic shift away from “one size fits all” IT credentials to more discrete, job role-specific titles. Let’s look at historical context first, and then dive into the emerging world of role-based certifications.

Then: Traditional IT certifications

Let’s face it: the majority of traditional IT certification programs are vendor-supplied. You have Microsoft, IBM, Amazon, Cisco, Oracle — the list goes on. The purpose of these credentials is to validate your knowledge and, in some cases, hands-on expertise with that vendor’s products and technologies.

Then we have the vendor-neutral certifications from consortiums like CompTIA, Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC), EC-Council, (ISC)², or Project Management Institute (PMI). These credentials attempt to validate your IT expertise more generally. For instance, the CompTIA Network+ credential certifies you in basic Ethernet network setup and troubleshooting.

Perhaps the biggest problem with these all-purpose vendor-specific and vendor-neutral credentials is that they do a poor job of defining your IT interests and aptitudes. Take, for example, the now-retired Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) in Cloud Platform and Infrastructure.

The MCSE Cloud Platform credential validates you as an expert in the Microsoft Azure public cloud, but to what end? You may know that the Azure ecosystem spans many job roles and/or specializations, including administration, development, architecture, business intelligence, and machine learning.

Cisco offers the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) credential to those who seek validation of their Cisco routing and switching skills. Even there, however, the number of specializations possible with Cisco gear led Cisco to further branch out the CCNA credential. Nowadays you can earn your CCNA in any of the following areas:

● Routing and Switching
● Cloud
● Collaboration
● Cyber Ops
● Data Center
● Industrial
● Security
● Service Provider
● Wireless

That said, I submit that even those second-level CCNA titles are too broad. For instance, you may specialize in wireless security, or cloudbased collaboration. You see what I mean?

The bottom line is that IT certifications generally require a significant amount of time, money, and effort to achieve. The certification candidate rightly wants to get as much return on investment (ROI) as possible from their cert prep work. And hiring managers want validation that they are hiring IT professionals whose credentials actually back their real-world skill sets.

Now: Role-based IT certifications

A new approach to certification is catching on. So what, exactly, is a "role-based" credential?A role-based IT certification is a credential that is mapped to a specialized job role. What normally happens is the certification vendor performs an in-depth job task analysis (JTA) by interviewing several subject matter experts to discretely define what skills make up a particular job role.

For instance, imagine you and I wanted to design a certification for help desk personnel. We would create a blueprint containing specific tasks the SMEs agree comprise the majority of that job role: customer service skills, general technical proficiency, and so forth.

We then can link our new job role-specific certification to a digital credential vendor like Credly. Taking that step provides employers with instant verification of a job candidate’s certification status. What I just described here is more than a hypothetical exercise — at least two IT certification vendors, one vendor-specific and one vendor-neutral — are doing just that. Let’s take a closer look.

Microsoft’s role-based certifications

Do you remember that earlier example I gave you of Microsoft’s retired MCSE Cloud Platform credential? Late in 2018, Microsoft unveiled a total revamp of their Azure certification program. The new Azure role-based certifications center on what Microsoft considers to be the most granular specializations in the Azure public cloud:

● Administrator
● Developer
● Solution Architect
● Artificial Intelligence (AI) Engineer
● Data Scientist
● Data Engineer
● DevOps Engineer

Each of the above titles requires that a certification candidate pass one or two individual computer-based exams. The resulting certification is valid for two years. (As of this writing in early 2019, Microsoft Learning hasn’t announced precisely how recertification works.)

What’s more, some of the new exams include performance-based testing. These are hands-on labs that put you into the Azure portal (the real thing, not a simulation) and require you to complete a series of Azure-related job tasks.

The performance-based items truly validate that you know your stuff — there is no guesswork involved, either you know or don’t know how to do the work. In addition to the performance-based labs, you can also expect to see more traditional IT certification item types:

● Single answer multiple choice
● Multiple answer multiple choice
● Select and place
● Build list and reorder
● Fill-in-the-blank
● Case study

Microsoft Learning also told me that they refresh the Azure exam content every two months. This is an impressively rapid rate of change, but perfectly understandable given the Azure ecosystem’s daily rate of change. If you’ve worked with Azure before, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Microsoft partnered with Credly to use digital badges for their new role-based certification program. When you earn a badge, the certification is listed on your Microsoft Certified Professional transcript as usual, and Credly, working in conjunction with their Acclaim division, prompts you to accept the associated digital badge.

These digital badges are fantastic! Acclaim makes it simple to share a link to your badge on your social media feed, your online resume, even on business cards. This means anyone can validate that you do in fact hold a particular certification by inspecting your badge web page.

In my view, there is an appealing gamification aspect to these badges. Because I’ve been a videogamer since I was a little boy, working hard to achieve additional badges for my collection naturally engages my self-competitive spirit. It’s good marketing on Microsoft’s part to use these digital badge credentials.

CompTIA’s “stackable” certifications

CompTIA has been in the vendor-neutral IT certification game for a long time. Many IT newcomers consider earning CompTIA’s A+ (computer hardware and software support) and Network+ (general Ethernet network support) certifications as a necessary rite of passage to entering the industry.

Capitalizing on this multi-credential preference of their user base, CompTIA now offers what they call “stackable” certifications. As of this writing, there are two career pathways:

● CompTIA Infrastructure Career Pathway
● CompTIA Cybersecurity Career Pathway

Within each pathway there are Specialist and Professional levels. For example, to earn the CompTIA IT Operations Specialist badge, you must hold both the A+ and Network+ certifications. To earn the CompTIA Cloud Admin Professional badge, you must hold the Network+ and Cloud+ titles. To earn the CompTIA Secure Infrastructure Specialist badge, you must pass the A+, Network+, and Security+ exams.

My use of “badge” here is intentional. As it happens, CompTIA has also partnered with Credly to distribute and validate their own shareable, social media-friendly digital badges.

CompTIA certifications normally expire three years after you attain them. To keep your certifications active, you must complete applicable Continuing Education Units (CEUs). Certified individuals should check the CompTIA website for cert-specific CEU approved activities, but CEUs can normally be earned by attending technical webcasts, earning additional certifications, or publishing technical content.

Downsides

What are the cons, if any, of role-based IT certification programs? Well, recertification requirements aren’t exclusive to role-based certs, but they are typically a time- and cost-intensive operation. A cynic might consider recertification a money grab on the part of the certification vendor. An altruist might consider recertification the necessary price of remaining current in information technology.

Another, less impactful downside to the role-based badges is their electronic nature. Old salts like me felt great pride lining our walls with framed paper certifications; the Credly badges do not lend themselves to physical printout particularly well.

That said, both Microsoft and CompTIA do allow you to download Portable Document Format (PDF) representations of your actual certificates. For an additional fee, you can ask the vendor to send you a good old-fashioned physical copy.

Looking ahead

A new approach to certification is catching on. So what, exactly, is a "role-based" credential?As I see it, the combination of role-based IT certification programs with digital badges represents a positive attempt for IT certification to keep pace with rapidly evolving 21st-century IT.

Common IT buzzwords like “agile” and “continuous deployment” remind us that technology has never moved faster. Therefore, it makes sense that IT certification programs need to dynamically adapt to this daily rate of change.

I often tell my students that, if nothing else, IT certification represents a perfect “excuse” to deep-dive into a job role and IT technologies that fire your passion. What an excellent side benefit to have it be so easy to validate and share your job role with prospective employers, customers, friends, and family members!

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Timothy Warner

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Timothy L. Warner is an IT professional and technical trainer based in Nashville, Tenn. A computer enthusiast who authored his first BASIC program in 1981 on the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III, Tim has worked in nearly every facet of IT, from systems administration and software architecture to technical writing and training. He can be reached via LinkedIn.

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