A short history of IT certification, Part 1: From medieval master to modern professional
This feature first appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
IT training and certification is a global phenomenon that spans the length and breadth of the information technology industry. There are IT certifications available for nearly every type of information system that’s built with hardware and software.
The certification of trained professionals, however, began long before the high-tech revolution arrived to change the world. Professional certification has served an important role in human affairs for generations. The structure and significance of modern IT certification comes out of this longstanding tradition.
For those who enjoy reflecting on the past, and even those who are just curious about the deep roots of IT, it’s worthwhile and interesting to examine the history of IT certification. Let’s take a brief look at how the IT industry took an old idea and made it relevant to a new generation of professionals.
What is a certification?
The English word “certification” comes from the 15th century and is derived from the French word certificat and the Latin word certificatum. In the 1540s, documents of certification were issued by respected organizations “attesting to someone’s authorization to practice or do certain things,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
A certification is a statement of recognition bestowed by an organization to a product, service, person, or group. To act as a certifying body, an organization must have a well-established reputation in, and/or tight control over, the industry where it operates. The physical document that shows proof of the organization’s recognition (a signed document is often used) is generally called a certificate.
The earliest certifying bodies were the trade guilds of the Middle Ages. Every significant occupation had an associated guild, and guild membership gave you the benefit of the guild’s reputation, as well as of its economic and political clout. Also, a craftsman who didn’t belong to a guild often couldn’t sell goods or services in the city where he or she lived.
The concept of certification has evolved through the ages. In addition to people, standards and guidelines have been drawn up to certify products, services, processes, designs, and more. Across the centuries, however, the basic principle of establishing trust inside a given industry, or across various social and political boundaries, has remained the same.
Today, there are thousands of professional certifications issued across industries around the world. From construction to engineering, from finance to law enforcement, there isn’t a significant field of professional activity that doesn’t have one or more certifying bodies involved.
Certificates vs. degrees
There are varying opinions concerning the value of professional certifications versus the degrees earned through colleges and universities. The basic function of a degree and a certificate, however, is the same: to confirm the skills and qualifications of the person who earned it.
In effect, a college or university is the certifying body that issues the degree. While the topic of what meaningful differences exist between a school and an industry association or product vendor has many facets, a college degree is essentially a signed official document — a certificate, in other words.
One fair and obvious distinction can be made: A certification is typically more specialized than an academic degree. And an average college degree covers a broader range of skills and information than a certification. This is by design, as degree programs focus on a certain knowledge domain, but are bundled within a larger and more well-rounded curriculum.
Certifications are more finely tuned to a specific discipline in a given industry. While there are several IT industry certifications that cover the broader foundations of technology — CompTIA’s A+ is one example of such a certification — they are still more specialized than a typical associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree.
And just as degrees become more specialized the higher you climb up the ladder of formal education, as with a master’s degree, professional degree, or doctorate, so too do certifications. College degrees and IT certifications use the same educational model — build increasingly more specialized expertise on top of a broader foundation of basic learning.
Earning a certification
In the trade guilds of the Middle Ages, craftsmen often had to serve as apprentices to more senior guild members until they achieved a level of proficiency making them eligible for full membership and a working title. This process could include the creation of a “masterwork” item that served as proof of an artisan’s skills.
Getting certified in the modern world still requires providing proof of mastery, commonly in the form of a passing score on an exam. It’s worth noting that the word “exam” is a little misleading, however, particularly when we’re talking about IT certifications.
The word exam, especially the more formal “examination,” denotes a detailed inspection consisting of careful scrutiny and investigation. There are several industries where people must submit their products or open their facilities to inspectors in order to earn a desired certification.
Consider, for example, an inspector or team of inspectors verifying that a certain restaurant meets the standards required by law to prepare and serve food. A similarly detailed and carefully executed inspection might be required to verify that a new vehicle is in compliance with various safety and operational standards.
For the most part, IT professionals looking to get certified must take a test and get a passing mark. Splitting hairs over the difference between a “test” and an “exam” might seem pedantic, but it’s actually an important distinction depending on the IT certification under discussion. Many tests have a passing score considerably lower than perfect, and sometimes passing the test is all that’s required.
For example, to earn CompTIA’s Security+ certification, a candidate is required to pass the Security+ test. That’s it. Pay the appropriate fees, pass the test, and you’re in. Not only that, but the threshold for “passing” is to score 750 or better on a scale from 100 to 900.
Now consider what’s required to earn the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification offered the Project Management Institute (PMI). Of course, as expected, you must pass the PMP test. Oh, and you must also provide proof that you meet the following requirements:
• Completion of a four-year college or university degree
• Completion of 36 months leading projects
• Completion of 35 hours of project management education or training
This is the difference between an “exam” and a “test.” Not every IT certification is based on a “one-and-done” test process. This comparison also illustrates another important aspect of certification: different certificates have different values in their given industry. The value of a given certification is based on numerous factors, including (but not limited to):
• The complexity of the certification’s knowledge domains
• The industry standing of the certifying body
• The requirements for earning the certification
• The industry demand for workers with the certified knowledge
• The timeliness of the certification’s content
You now know more about the history of professional certifications, how they compare to college and university degree programs, and the varying degrees of difficulty for earning a certification. We also looked at some of the factors that determine a certification’s value in its related industry.
In the next installment of this series we’ll bring our historical focus forward in time to revisit the origins of certification for information technology (IT) professionals. We’ll also look at how certification grew from a cozy niche inside IT into its own global industry.