Published: July 11th, 2002

Have you noticed that we now have a spin-off industry in the IT community? It’s called certification.

We used to have certified professional IT designations in the vague hope that having a designation meant we could all perform our duties with a recognized and respected measure of skill and knowledge.

The original programs were also aimed at being self-governing associations using the same models as engineers, accountants and lawyers. That didn’t work out very well since there were competing organizations, each with a different emphasis. Recognition of data processing as a legitimate profession was also difficult. At best it was a trade, and not a particularly respected one.

Since those heady days of punched cards, wire board programming and mathematical computer languages, the industry has evolved. There are computers in every household – if not on your tabletop, then installed in your fridge and stove.

Now we’ve reached the stage where we have certification for specific products created by specific vendors. Oracle and Microsoft were early into the game and we automatically look for the certification levels of people we hire. That certainly seems logical for software developers, programmers and database administrators. I have no difficulty with that approach because it tells me something about the person with the qualification. If nothing else, it tells me the person wants to expand his or her knowledge and skill and is prepared to work at it.

On the other hand, I do have difficulty understanding software vendors who use certification as a lever to reduce competition from client IT departments or third-party consulting firms or to create a large new source of income. This is particularly puzzling when the certification is based on specific versions of the product.

Before you rush to your keyboard to tell me all the reasons why it’s necessary because the clients want it, or it raises the bar of professionalism, tell me why a young IT professional should spend approximately $1,000 (usually eagles, not loons) per year to maintain certification in a specific product rather than a professional designation? If it’s more than one application, it’s more than a thousand dollars.

Now usually the person’s employer pays at least part of the updating course and exam costs, but even so, it’s a stiff cost in the current market. This is like a lawyer having to rewrite the bar exams every year to ensure currency. It might be a good idea, but it’s not likely to happen.

Let’s look at another example. For large dollars and considerable personal effort you can take a course and write exams to become a certified project manager in the IT world. One assumes you can do a similar thing in various other industries. Then, providing you attend regular meetings, write an upgrade exam yearly and do a certain number of project management jobs in a given time frame, you can retain your certification. Each of these activities (except the jobs) costs money. Hopefully, the jobs make money, but not always. Somehow this sounds less like education and standards, and more like a union or employee association.

Let me play the devil’s advocate for a few moments: what does vendor certification for an ERP suite really mean? What advantage does it give me as a young professional? Does certification for someone with two years experience mean they are better than someone with 10 years experience in the same software without certification?

As a business, am I now going to pay more for software certification or business knowledge? If my business uses a variety of software from different vendors, does my staff need to be certified in them all to do their jobs? What does certification of my staff mean in terms of my business profit or loss? Will we end up with specialization so fragmented that it becomes meaningless? One last question: if I’m certified by XYZ company which is taken over by ABC company, and then in turn by MNO company, what’s the value of my XYZ certification to me or to my company?

I’m not going to answer any of these questions. Instead, I’m going to treat them as a mini-survey that you can respond to as you wish. I’m interested in your thoughts on the subject.

One point about the last question is that it is exactly what happened in the late 1970s, early 1980s to a company that was a leader in its niche. It just happened again last year to another leading company. None of the companies exist today, but I keep running into people who I worked with when we were all certified. Our feeling now is that we were just certifiable.

Horner is an independent consultant and owner of Blue Seal Arts. He can be contacted at ahorner@shaw.ca.

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