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Re: Certification or College degrees?

  • From: Stephen Kowalchuk
  • Date: Wed May 22 17:53:55 2002

Speaking as someone who is currently in a degree program in information science
for a major university -- 

Certification in the IT industry has become a nightmare because people who are
less than clueful have abused it in the hiring and compensation processes. 
While it would be absurd to hire a professional engineer (say, to build a
skyscraper or a bridge) without verifiable professional credentials, and there
are significant social penalties for people attempting to pass themselves off as
professional engineers (or doctors, or lawyers, etc.), there are no such
penalities for IT personnel.

And industry certification is the worst of these offenders.  Cisco, Microsoft
and Novell (among others) have effectively created long-standing revenue streams
out of the ridiculous complexity of their products.  Some of that complexity is
justified, without question.  And some of it is deliberate to drive the need for
"certified" professionals.  A vicious cycle -- these "professionals" pay
exhorbitant fees for 3-day or 5-day drench sessions where they come away with 1%
retention and must be hired shortly thereafter to actually use anything they
retained.  Their expectation:  high pay rates and a career track.

In reality, the people who pay for these certifications are the end users of the
products.  The companies who send people to be trained, or expend more money for
salaries.  However, they are typically buying a pig in a poke.  They could no
better evaluate what certifications are necessary, and in what contexts, than I
could evaluate the quality of an engineer to build my bridge or skyscraper.

Thus, the IT industry is incentized to produce more certification programs which
produce marginally less utility; the smart business is less incentized to pay
for it, and the less-smart business is apt to pay for it a couple times, til
they get stung enough that they decide it's not worth it and outsource; and the
certificate-holder is less-inclined to pad his or her resume with useless paper.

The system is broken.  Like a drunk bobbing down a blind alley, businesses will
bounce back and forth between outsourcing the kitchen sink and bringing it back
in-house, all in an effort to cut the cost of IT as a corporate resource and
maximize its "value" which (contrary to the folks that like to assign metrics to
everything) is foggy at best.  

The smart will get smarter, and the not-so-smart will get the shaft.  Either
way, the IT industry will milk it til there is no money in it, then move on. 
The cerificate-holder will be left with a lot of paper and marginally less
social legitimacy out of it.  

I mean, I was a Merit Scholar Finalist in high school.  Who the hell cares. 
Unlike a university education, which has a certain amount of staying power, the
value of industry certifications is fleeting.

Unfortunately, there are two forces at work that will keep industry
certification in this state:

(1) the tendency for private companies to create their products in ways that
bastardize open standards and create complex, proprietary systems in order to
keep up barriers to competition;

(2) the tendency for proprietary systems to have relatively short lifecycles,
and for standards and practices to consolidate as time progresses.

The value afforded a university education is in its universality.  A bridge
engineer can build bridges out of concrete or cable, depending on what's called
for.  If I were a Microsoft bridge builder, I know how to build bridges using
Microsoft concrete and Microsoft cable, but unless it's all the same stuff I
cannot apply my bridge-building skills to non-Microsoft venues.  

The narrow scope of industry certification will be its undoing, unless one can
create industry certifications that exemplify industry-wide best practices. 
>From my extremely limited perspective, it looks like Cisco does this, but I have
never taken a Cisco class so I cannot comment with authority.  Anyone?

Richard A Steenbergen wrote:
> Certifications exist to help those without the knowledge ...