Time For a Shakeout in IT Certifications

Welcome to my first post in the Blog Idol competition. I’m a little slower out of the gate than some of my colleagues due to a very recent (and unexpected) gallstone attack. I do have to say that living in Canada I am very glad that it was easy for me to see a qualified doctor. He ordered tests to be done by certified ultrasound and laboratory technicians, and then referred me to another doctor who is certified as a general surgeon. Undoubtedly when I head to hospital for surgery next month, I’ll be well taken care of by, among others, nurses with certification in operating room and recovery room procedures. In all cases the medical professionals I am dealing with have standardized qualifications that are recognized throughout most of the world.Certifications

Many areas of IT experience considerable growth, particularly newer technologies, but few can match the growth of the one sector everybody seems to have an opinion about: IT certifications. From a few early offerings in the 1980s, IT certifications have proliferated to the point that many seriously question their value. An industry has sprung up whose sole purpose is to improve its students’ skills at certification exam writing, resulting in MCSE holders who have no idea how to develop an application and network “engineers” who cannot explain what the SYN flag does in TCP/IP (hint: sequence numbers).

This prompts some very valid questions. What value do certifications offer to IT workers and to industry, especially when (unlike the medical professions) there are so many different certifications available for any given specialty? Each different certification often requires the learning of completely different technical material, standards and procedures. Prior to writing this post, I did a little research and in just a short period of time, I counted over 40 different networking certifications – this without including ones that specialize in less common technologies and hardware. Things that seem to be sorely lacking are standardization, and pre-certification evaluation of the degree to which the IT skillset has actually been learned outside of a written examination setting.

Perhaps in response to the perceived shortcomings of the IT certification process, in 1997 the Canadian Information Processing Society first achieved legislative recognition of their ISP professional designation. It is unfortunate that the ISP (Information Systems Professional) certification has not yet achieved “critical mass”, because in many ways it addresses issues that few other certification programs do. Among other requirements, the holder of an ISP must have two sponsors and 1,000 hours of relevant industry experience before being awarded the qualification. The Body of Knowledge [PDF] that must be learned to gain this designation is considerable, and touches on most areas of IT. Even though it might not be necessary for, say, a software developer to have detailed knowledge of systems architecture, it certainly does not hurt to have a good overview of the topic.

I hope that the IT certification industry undergoes a bit of a consolidation over the next few years. The ISP designation is a good example of a comprehensive professional qualification, but it does not cover everything and due to its nature, is unable to go into detail within any particular area of IT. But the ISP could become one of a few standardized qualifications that become as widely recognized and respected as those held by the medical professionals I mentioned at the start of this post.

It is the health of IT that is at stake.

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