Paper Certs, Brain Dumps and the Qualification Generation.

I and nearly all of my generation would have had the notion that having a university degree was the key to unlock a successful future. With around 63% of all Australians having enrolled for tertiary education at some stage in their lives we can easily assume that this a commonly held belief. It even got to the point where the trade industries were suffering due to the lack of people enrolling in apprenticeships, which lead the Howard government to attempt to sway people over to a trade in the 2007 budget. So for the most part you’re more likely to find a young Australian with a tertiary qualification of some sort than you’re not, and it appears that this qualification required mentality has spread to at least one other industry.

The IT industry overall is almost completely unregulated. There’s no formal body for qualifying someone as an IT professional nor are there any large established organisations which we can apply to, like the IEEE for engineers as an example. For the most part then when an employer is looking for someone they don’t have any standard guidelines for determining if someone who claims to have experience is the real deal, nor do they have a third party with which to verify a candidate’s story. This poses a significant problem for employers as resumes are easily faked, interviews can be coached to near perfection and you have to trust that their references aren’t just their mates doing them a favour. How then, apart from hiring them and throwing in the deep end to see them sink or swim, do you determine if a candidate is worth your time?

The answer, for many, lies in vendor certifications.

The world of IT is full of competing technologies and implementations. For every piece of equipment that makes up your computer there’s multiple companies who produce an almost identical part in form and function. As consumers this is a fantastic thing as it gives a variety of choice and low prices whilst the companies compete to ensure that their product is the one we buy. However diving into the dark world of corporate IT infrastructure shows that a companies desire to distinguish themselves from a competitor usually leads to products that are, for the most part, worlds apart from each other even if they strive to serve the same purpose. Therefore experience with one product does not readily translate to another, save for a few fundamental skills.

Coupling these 2 points of lacking formal accreditation processes and disparate technologies most companies create their own certification programs to verify that someone is competent with their brand of technology. For example Microsoft has their MCITP program (for demonstrated competence with their Windows line of products), VMware the VCP Program and so on. Any IT professional seeking to demonstrate their expertise with a product will probably undergo a program like these to formally certify their experience with a product. For those just beginning in the world of IT certifications can provide that foot in the door that many are seeking, much like those of us who got a degree for similar reasons. Still ask anyone who has a degree how much it has helped them with their professional career (put aside academia for the time being) and you’d be surprised how many retort with how it was their experienced that mattered, not the piece of paper they once held so highly.

Logically that makes sense, even outside the IT industry. It’s all well and good to have every accreditation under the sun but as many will tell you theory is usually only good in a perfect world with ideal conditions, which are quite rare in the real world. Previous experience in the field means that you at least understand the nuances of the real world implementations of theory and you should have developed your own set of algorithms to deal with the common problems that arise in your chosen field. Still if you cast your eye over the current job market you’ll see many positions requiring varying levels of qualifications in addition to industry experience and this has lead to a kind of grey market for qualifications.

I am, of course, referring to brain dumps.

Their name gives up almost all you need to know about them. Brain dumps are either straight copies of real world tests with questions and answers or study guides that are akin to the most incredible study guide ever created. You’d think that these kinds of things would be relegated to the dark recesses of some private BitTorrent tracker or secret FTP server hiding on a dark net somewhere but that’s far from the case, it’s actually quite a booming industry. Take any IT certification¹ and you can guarantee that at least part of the test or lab documents will be available online. What value can we then draw from people who have acquired these paper (I.E. nothing but paper backing them up) certifications?

The answer is rather complicated. For the most part we don’t really have anything else to fall back on, save for actually throwing someone in the job and seeing if their skills line up with their apparent qualifications. Many say that the qualifications help weed out those that would flood their inbox with useless applications, yet in my whole career I’ve only ever had 1 employer ask me for my academic record and exactly 0 have asked to verify any of my vendor certifications (I even had one who had to Google what one of them was, yet he still didn’t ask for proof it was real). Others cast their nets wide in order to scare off potential paper certs, who couldn’t hope to cover all their bases should an interview bring up every technology in question. Thus we end up in a world where the certs can be readily attained by those willing to shell out the dollars for them and employers use them only in a feeble attempt to weed those same people out.

For most employers the solution usually lies within good interviewing technique. There are certain things you can’t fake (like sound critical thinking) and using questions that have no definitive right answer is one way I’ve seen the paper certs separated from the real deal. Rote memorization or coaching won’t help you in these areas and for the most part those with experience will shine when presented with such questions (having been in such situations before).

It all seems to boil down to the fact that as a whole we’re becoming far more educated. With such a large number of people seeking higher education the value that was once granted by those pieces of paper from the hallowed halls has been diminished. In the world of IT the ease and availability of shortcuts (and, some would say, our generations entitlement mentality) to qualification heaven has, ironically, lead to the industries attempts at formal certification down the exact same path at a pace that matches the industry’s speed for innovation. They still hold some value of course, but they are far from the bastion of truth that is too often placed in them.

¹Apart from the CISCO certifications. They appear to be the only vendor who’s remained unblemished by the brain dump market. Their tests are also considered to be amongst the most difficult in the world with the lab component having an 80% first time failure rate.

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