Certification: The Year In Review: Page 2

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Certification Popularity and Salaries
In 2001, several new studies came out supporting the value of certification. Most came from or were sponsored by certification vendors, who obviously have a vested interest in promoting the value of certification. As you might expect, the vendor sponsored studies paint a very positive picture of certification. For example, the 2001 Global Training and Certification Study , jointly released by CompTIA and Prometric, found that 66% of certified professionals received an increase in salary after becoming certified and 83% said it helped them gain a new position. The same study said that IT managers cite a higher level of service, competitive advantage, and increased productivity as key benefits of having certified staff.

But there is independent evidence as well. For example, a recent edition of the Hot Technical Skills and Certifications Pay Index compiled by Foote Partners LLC, found that overall premium bonus pay for 53 certifications has risen 8% since the end of last year.

Although computer-related certifications continue to show strong value overall, there is evidence that the hottest certifications of years past will give way to new stars. For example, for the first time, MCP Magazine's annual salary survey found that the average MCSE salary dropped slightly from the year before, and that individuals holding a Microsoft certification didn't necessarily earn more than their non-certified counterparts.

The Foote Partners research provided similar findings, stating that bonuses paid for systems/network operating system certifications have leveled off, even as bonuses for other certification areas, particularly security and database certification, continue to grow.

Uncle Sam Takes Notice
2001 wasn't the first year that the U.S. Government took notice of computer professional certification; they've been supporting it through their America's Learning eXchange Web site for several years. But this year, certifications gained more credence when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs began reimbursing veterans for the cost of certification exams (up to $2,000 each) taken after March 1, 2001. Eligible exams include those from Cisco, CompTIA, Microsoft, Oracle, The International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium, and The Project Management Institute.

IT Professional certifications continue to gain recognition as legitimate career credentials.

Signs of a Serious Crackdown on Cheaters
Shortly after certification became popular, cheating reared its ugly head. For almost as long as certification exams have been around, before taking an exam test takers have had to agree that they wouldn't disclose its contents. Occasionally a vendor will threaten to decertify anyone caught cheating, as Microsoft did a few years ago. But that hasn't proved a sufficient deterrent. It's become apparent that more serious steps are needed.

The most prevalent form of cheating is rote memorization of illicitly acquired exam questions in place of studying the material to be tested. Repositories (often called braindumps) of purported exam questions exist on the Internet, both for sale and for free. Given the difficulty and often arcane nature of many certification exams, and the increasing importance of certification in the IT job market, the temptation to take shortcuts can be strong.

But of course such cheating provides an ephemeral form of success. If the cheater does manage to get certified, their lack of actual knowledge will quickly become apparent on the job. And when there are certified individuals who lack the competence that should accompany their certified status, the status of certification as a credential is damaged. This is harmful for the certified as well as the certifying authorities.

But not all certification candidates have recognized the use of braindumps as significantly unethical. While some cheaters know exactly what they are doing from the outset, others may use such resources inadvertently without realizing the consequences. Or confuse them with legitimate practice questions that are created to help test or reinforce knowledge. Two significant events this year show that the industry is gearing up to put the kibosh on the use of braindumps.

First, CompTIA settled a lawsuit with Keen Interactive, owners of Cheet-Sheets.com. The suit charged that Cheet-Sheets.com violated CompTIA's copyrights by selling questions that appear on CompTIA exams. As of this writing the Cheet-Sheets.com Web site is gone. As part of the settlement the customer list was provided to CompTIA, who, it has been reported, sent everyone on it notice that they were in possession of materials that violated copyright law and asking them to destroy all materials they had purchased from the Cheet-Sheets site. However CompTIA stopped short of decertifying anyone. Action was taken against another alleged braindump site as well.

Second, an Information Technology Certification Security Council (ITCSC) has recently been formed to promote and protect the integrity and value of information technology certifications for test takers, employers, and the industry through enhanced security, standards, and public awareness. Current membership includes The Chauncey Group, CompTIA, Microsoft, Novell, Prometric, ProsoftTraining, Sun Microsystems, and VUE. The Association of Test Publishers (ATP) is also a participating allied organization and one of the group's founders. Many additional corporations are in the process of joining. The ITCSC vision is to eliminate practices or unethical activities that result in the granting of certifications to unqualified candidates.

Clearly, certification vendors are girding themselves for the not very pleasant, but very necessary, task of cracking down on cheaters. In addition, there are now literally millions of certified IT professionals worldwide, each of them with a vested interested in protecting the value of their hard earned credentials. Expect the issue of cheating and other abuses of certification to become much more of an issue.

The Davids Wear Down Goliath
One of the most prominent certification stories of the year happened when Microsoft retracted its plan to decertify hundreds of thousands of MCSEs at the end of the year as part of the move to Windows 2000. IT professionals who spent substantial time, effort, and expense to earn the MCSE certification following the Windows NT track were outraged that their certification would essentially be nullified, even though many companies continue to operate on a Windows NT platform. At the eleventh hour Microsoft relented. Now those certified following the Windows NT requirements will retain their designations, and future MCSE titles will be version specific.

Certification has been so successful because it benefits both the certifying company and those getting certified. Inadequate attention to the second half of that equation can create a serious backlash against the perceived offender. Certification vendors must respect how certification fits into the individual's agenda, not just how it furthers the corporate vision.

What Didn't Happen (But Will...)
One thing that's glaringly absent from the IT certification arena is a set of standards that define a minimum quality level for certification programs. Right now, anyone can throw together a list of questions on any topic, call it a certification, and start selling it as a professional credential. This cheapens the value of certification for everyone.

A voluntary set of standards - which certification vendors can choose to follow - would go a long way toward assuring that a certification is a meaningful measurement rather than a fancy certificate quickly thrown together. The ideal standards would define a minimum level of quality, without adding unnecessary hurdles and expense to the certification development process.

New certification vendors could use standards as blueprints to follow when creating a new certification. Existing certification vendors would benefit by assuring that the value of certification isn't diminished by the presence of certification programs that are poorly developed or prove disappointing to employers.

A standards program would also protect the value of certification for the individuals who earn credentials. By choosing a standards-compliant program, a certification candidate could receive some level of assurance that the program they are considering is of reasonable quality. Employers would receive the same assurance.

Professional certification programs have proven valuable to those who create them and those who participate in them. Creation of voluntary, industry-wide standards would protect that value. Sooner or later standards will arrive. Perhaps 2002 will be the year.

Anne Martinez is the author of Cheap Web Tricks: Build and Promote a Successful Web Site Without Spending A Dime and Get Certified and Get Ahead: Millennium Edition. She is also the founder of GoCertify.com, a gathering place and resource center for people interested in computer professional certification .

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