Certifiably Mad?

Whoa. You just never know what's going to touch a nerve. My "Certifiably Concerned" editorial, in which I argued against a de-emphasis of IT certifications created quite a stir. A lot of IT pros think I'm mad (in the crazy sense) for suggesting that certifications have any real bearing on career advancement and compensation. And they're mad (in the angry sense) that people like me are perpetuating what they believe to be the myth that "certs" deliver any real value to an IT organization.

A sampling of reader comments makes clear how strongly some feel about the issue:

  • "The more important IT becomes, the more the nontechnical managers will want to have authority over it, so the problem of determining who is really good at IT will only get worse. For organizations in which the nontechie overreachers are already in control, certification is a crutch, a poor but politically defensible substitute for knowing what and how well one's subordinates are doing."
  • "Those who have built their reputations the hard way are constantly in demand and probably don't have time to pursue outside certifications because they are constantly digging into the literature and on the phone gaining the knowledge necessary to handle their current project load. Any certification quickly becomes outdated and will not impress anybody in a busy shop except the human resources manager."
  • "I think there is very little correlation between certified IT skills and quality IT work. The difficulty is that testable knowledge of any IT discipline is only a small subset of the skills that a practitioner needs. These untestable (or difficult to test) skills include perseverance (which the author mentions), communication skills and problem-analysis skills."
  • "I've worked with way too many certified people who couldn't cut it. From my point of view from 34 years in the trenches, I'll take the experience any day. I've had a number of certs over the years and don't feel they had any real value other than using them to try to sound impressive to someone who doesn't know any better."
  • "I've seen too many MCSEs who don't have a clue in the real world. (Not to mention the total misuse of the word engineer in that certification. Of course, I'll admit I'm biased, as I graduated as an electrical engineer.)"
  • "Technology certifications ... mostly serve as marketing hype for a vendor and (gasp) even provide a revenue stream to that vendor and its training partners. If a company is relying heavily on certifications, as you advocate, that just means that management is not exercising appropriate oversight of their staff regarding ongoing professional development. In effect, such oversight and coaching has been delegated to the certification."

OK, I get it. You don't have to hit me with a brick. Possessing a technical certification doesn't necessarily equate with possessing a technical skill. Certs aren't a substitute for real-world experience. I couldn't agree more with either point. But there needs to be a consistent, quantifiable means of documenting the skills assets of your IT organization. Otherwise, expanding and improving that institutional skill set will be an ad hoc activity, and efforts to optimize the quality and productivity of your workforce will suffer.

One reader called technical certification "an insurance policy that protects our essential systems and infrastructure." Yes, it's that important. If available certifications and the processes that yield them aren't good enough, demand better. Abandoning them is acquiescing. And acquiescence has no place in the IT profession.

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld US. You can contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

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