The story of the majority of IT workers is eerily similar. Most get their beginnings in a call centre, slaving away behind a headset troubleshooting various issues for either their end users or as part of a bigger help desk that services dozens of clients. Some are a little more lucky, landing a job as the sole IT guy at a small company which grants them all the creative freedom they could wish for but also being shouldered with the weight of being the be all and end all of their company’s IT infrastructure. No matter how us IT employees got our start all of us eventually look towards getting certified in the technologies we deal with every day and, almost instantly after getting our first, become incredibly cynical about what they actually represent.
For many the first certification they will pursue will be something from Microsoft since it’s almost guaranteed that every IT job you’ll come across will utilize it in some fashion. Whilst the value of the online/eLearning packages is debatable there’s little question that you’ll likely learn something that you didn’t already know, even if it’s completely esoteric and has no application in the real world. For anyone who’s spent a moderate amount of time with the product in question these exams aren’t particularly challenging as most of them focus on regurgitating the Microsoft way of doing things. This, in turn, feeds into their greatest weakness as they favour rote memorization over higher order concepts and critical thinking (at least at the introductory/intermediate levels).
This has led to a gray market which is solely focused on passing the exams for these tests. Whilst there are some great resources which fall into this area (Like CBT Nuggets) there are many, many more which skirt the boundaries of what’s appropriate. For anyone with a modicum of Google skills it’s not hard to track down copies of the exams themselves, many with the correct answers highlighted for your convenience. In the past this meant that you could go in knowing all the answers in advance and whilst there’s been a lot of work done to combat this there are still many, many people carrying certifications thanks to these resources.
The industry term for such people is “paper certs”.
People with qualifications gained in this way are usually quite easy to spot as rote memorization of the answers does not readily translate into real world knowledge of the product. However for those looking to hire someone this often comes too late as interview questions can only go so far to root these kinds of people out. Ultimately this makes those entry level certifications relatively worthless as having one of them is no guarantee that you’ll be an effective employee. Strangely however employers still look to them as a positive sign and, stranger still, companies looking to hire on talent from outsourcers again look for these qualifications in the hopes that they will get someone with the skills they require.
I say this as someone who’s managed to skate through the majority of his career without the backing of certs to get me through. Initially I thought this was due to my degree, which whilst being tangentially related to IT is strictly speaking an engineering one, but the surprise I’m met with when I mention that I’m an engineer by training has led me to believe that most of my former employers had no idea. Indeed what usually ended up sealing the position for me was my past experiences, even in positions where they stated certain certs were a requirement of the position. Asking my new employers about it afterwards had them telling me that those position descriptions are usually a wish list of things they’d like but it’s rare that anyone will actually have them all.
So we have this really weird situation where the majority of certifications are worthless, which is known by all parties involved, but are still used as a barrier to entry for some positions/opportunities but that can be wholly overwritten if you have enough experience in that area. If that’s sounding like the whole process is, for want of a better word, worthless than you’d be of the same opinion of most of the IT workers that I know.
There are some exceptions to this rule, CISCO’s CCIE exams being chief among them, but the fact that the training and certification programs are run by the companies who develop the products are the main reason why the majority of them are like this. Whilst I’m not entirely sure that having an independent certification body would solve all the issues (indeed some of those non-vendor specific certs are just as bad) it would at least remove the financial driver to churn as many people through the courses/exams as they currently do. Whilst I abhor artificial scarcity one of the places it actually helps is in qualifications, but that’d only be the first few tentative steps to solving this issue.