What is it about professional certifications that compels people to get certified in the technologies they work in or fields they want to get into? As many of us know, a certification doesn’t necessarily translate into someone’s mastery of topic. For a long time I resisted obtaining them because of too many disappointing experiences with highly-certified people who turned out to know very little.
So, has the certification ecosystem matured enough to warrant a second look and should we be investing our personal time and money in their acquisition?
In the late 90s, the professional certification industry was in its infancy. Anyone who obtained a certification would typically hold it for life, much like a university diploma, which in some fast-moving or technical fields might not have been such a great idea. Those days are gone and we are now in the midst of what can only be called a certification explosion.
Professional certification bodies have saturated the market with mediocre certifications that in most cases will never win mainstream acceptance nor provide students with the benefits they desired. On a positive note, however, there’s been some consolidation and contraction within the industry. A few organizations have taken the lead and carved out for themselves a reputable foundation. They continue displaying a good momentum with increased student numbers and wider industry support. This has been supported further by the introduction of ISO/IEC 17020 and the recently updated ISO/IEC 17020:2012 standards which contain “principles and requirements for a body certifying persons against specific requirements, and includes the development and maintenance of a certification scheme for persons.”
As the maturity and credibility improved so has the industry’s stance on certifications. Professional certifications that were once seen as useless pieces of paper have started to become real differentiators. Certifications can help choose the better candidate for a job, might assist in project selection staff and even discriminate between bidding (tendering) organizations based on their employees’ proficiencies rather than the face value of the bid. When we paint such a striking picture, it’s not at all surprising that their increasing acceptance has spearheaded a whole industry dedicated to acquiring them.
Needless to say, there is room for abuse in any certification process. Professional certifications that can be obtained by memorizing brain dumps (question and answer cheat sheets) and then parroting them during computer-based exams are hardly an achievement. However, certifications that can be obtained by way of brain dumps don’t tend to attract the same level of prestige compared to those acquired by more rigorous methods — such as interview panels or examination boards.
As mundane and labour-intensive interview panels may be for the organization running the certification, they do a good job at weeding out the opportunistic candidates who might otherwise sit the same computer-based exam over and over — until passed — without any mastery of the topic.
In spite of these shortcomings, the introduction of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) points on some certifications has meant that candidates need to prove and justify that they are still active within their field of expertise by providing corroborating evidence. The system isn’t perfect and is open to some abuse, but it does bring forward the concept of a Professional Certification Lifetime (PCL).
In simple terms, PCL can be compared to the statement: “use it or lose it”. If you were certified as a security specialist, let’s say ten years ago, should the certification still be valid if in the last decade you haven’t kept your knowledge current? Technology, threats and countermeasures would have changed immensely during this time and unless the person has been active in the field, the knowledge certified by the certification is now mostly obsolete.
Some skills do age much more gracefully than others and may not require CPEs or re-certification after the PCL expires. Generally speaking, however, the infusion of technology into previously inanimate objects has meant that many industries have had to re-skill to keep pace with technology. Just look at the humble internal combustion engine — I remember tinkering with my old car back when the newest technological breakthrough was mechanical fuel injection. No computers, no microprocessors and not much that could go wrong. Today, a mechanic might need to be in possession of a computer science degree — and that’s just to open the bonnet.
Similarly, many certification bodies are being lobbied by governments to develop certifications for things that would otherwise fall into the “common sense” category or should have been covered by trade apprenticeships or master training. This last point is perhaps an indication that society has put far too much emphasis on theoretical, in-class education instead of on-the-job, hands-on learning — bureaucracy gone mad.
Insurance companies have also become real drivers behind the explosion of professional certifications. Some refuse to underwrite operations unless participants are appropriately certified — have you ever tried to insure your car without a valid driving license (a certification of sorts). And look at what’s happened on construction sites or in hotels; staff must now be certified on health, safety and environmental (HSE) matters before the insurance company underwrites a public liability policy.
Some would argue that this type of control is needed to ensure public safety, but the reality is that much of the certification industry exists only to turn a quick profit. As they say: “make a law — make a business”.
My take on why people obtain professional certifications can be divided into the following main groups:
There is an almost unspoken expectation within the technical community that an expert should be certified in the fields in which they work. If your motivation for certifications falls into groups 1 through 3, then it can be understood that these should occur during personal time. If on the other hand your employer stipulates that you must obtain some certification (as in group 5) or it helps your employer win new business (as in group 4), then there should be some recourse for compensation when acquired during personal time.
When it comes to obtaining professional certifications, some employers are more supportive than others. However, most do little to assist in their acquisition other than covering the fees associated with sitting exams; study and preparation are usually left for the employee to complete during private time.
The software industry has shifted gears and product updates & refreshes are now occurring every three years (some every 18 months) instead of the five-year cycle to which we’ve become accustomed. The shorter cycle has brought with it increased pressure on professionals to stay current. Those who are unable to maintain the rapid pace of change slip through the cracks and continue without updating their skills.
In response to the changing conditions, companies with foresight have invested heavily in the creation of document repositories and knowledge bases (KB). Through the use of templates, they have been able to repeatedly use previously created intellectual property (IP) on new business opportunities. As far as return on investment (ROI) is concerned, the KB strategy has been a success and continues to bring in valuable revenue.
The reliance on templates, however, has had an unintended side effect: the dumbing down of the workforce. Why bother studying when there is a small group of subject matter experts (SME) who create templates which can easily be reused en masse?
Corporations that have large pools of IP within their KBs can probably get any mediocre person to download a template and “design” — I use the term very loosely — a moderately complex solution for any client Let’s be honest, unless a consultant screws up on an engagement, they are likely to remain a member of the team and be championed as an expert with very little hands-on experience or in-depth knowledge — standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak.
I’ve worked for and on behalf of various multi-national corporations, but despite their differences, philosophies and industry sectors, when it comes to certifications and skilling they all fall short of what’s required to keep employees current.
Professional Services companies may be more motivated to invest in their employees’ development, but ultimately there is an ongoing battle between billable utilization targets (the money the employee brings in while on project) and investment in the employee’s ongoing education. One brings in revenue while the other is a drain upon it. In a corporate setting, the former usually prevails and education is brushed aside in favour of short-term financial gains.
It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to think that it might be cheaper to hire a new consultant rather than reskill an existing one. Many corporations operate in exactly this manner. The common logic behind this type of thinking is that a new consultant with current skills can be engaged immediately so as to bring in revenue. But I don’t believe that the end result of this strategy is as straightforward and predictable as employers make it out to be. Let me explain.
The new hire, without any prior exposure to the hiring corporation’s clients, is likely to make “soft” mistakes irrespective of their track record. The new hire, despite being technically able, will also need time to acclimatize to the new organization’s culture. I would expect this takes anywhere between one and three months from time of joining. It would be foolish to release such an employee into the wild and in front of a client without some form of shadowing, a process by which the newcomer learns by observing a seasoned veteran perform their craft.
It takes time to find one’s footing within a large company. A large company is likely to have a complex, multi-layered structure and an equally complex culture that demands an additional period of adjustment. Furthermore, even though the newcomer possesses the required technical skills, it is unlikely that they will be put onto large or risky projects immediately after joining. Risky projects call for people who have a track record of delivering quality work in a crisis or under pressure. A new recruit would have neither the support of management nor their colleagues, least of all the client — the track record simply doesn’t exist yet.
Trust is earned over time, not with a spotless CV — a notion too frequently ignored by organizations.
The bottom line is that every employee needs to push as hard as they can to get employer support before their skills become obsolete. I agree, it shouldn’t have to be so hard and employers should recognize the limitations they place upon themselves by not proactively investing in their own people. A strategy that is based on short-term financial gains hurts the employees and tarnishes the organization’s reputation.
Then there is the question of how or if you should display your credentials and certifications. Certain regions, countries or cultures may place a high value on displaying them next to your name, while others see them as nothing more than an arrogant attempt at beating your own chest.
Doctors, lawyers and accountants love to not only showcase their credentials and degrees, but also the schools at which they were obtained. Their business cards or email signatures wouldn’t be complete without a long list of professional organizations and/or associations with which they are affiliated. However, knowing when to flaunt and when to be modest is of immense importance if you’re to be successful working in a global economy.
I’ve long dispensed with listing credentials after my name in email signatures, as these can be seen as inappropriate in some situations. Instead, I’ve given people the option to visit my LinkedIn profile for a fuller description. This allows the curious to be curious without stepping on people’s toes in official communications — there is nothing worse than dealing with a CxO who has an inferiority complex. Timing is everything.
The maturity of the certification ecosystem has brought about industry-wide support for professional certifications and, in turn, their use as knowledge baselines for many employment opportunities. It would be difficult to find a modern, technical job that doesn’t require some sort of a certification component. But there are a number of things you should consider before spending good money on certifications, particularly if it’s your own cash.
Firstly, pick reputable and mature organizations that feature prominently within industry sectors rather than obscure, fly-by-night operators that are likely to be out of business or vogue within a few short years. There is nothing more annoying than going through the process of studying, paying and eventually sitting the exam(s) towards a certification only to find out that the organization responsible for issuing it no longer exists.
Secondly, if possible, choose organizations that have had their certifications accredited by ANSI/ISO/IEC 17024. It’s likely that these certifications will have wider industry support because the issuing bodies have satisfied operational and business requirements. This ties into the last point — the certifying body going out of business because of poor management or cash-flow problems.
Thirdly, choose certifications that have a board examination component over those that don’t. Having your skills reviewed by a panel of peers sets a much higher bar than certifications that only test your ability to answer multiple choice questions. The Open Group Certified Architect and IASA CITA-P certifications are two examples of board examinations.
Lastly, if you’re sitting for certifications as a component of your existing employment, try to get employer assistance and buy in — not only for the costs associated with the exam but also for the time required to adequately prepare.