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IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
09:06 AM

IT Certifications: 3 Ways To Judge Value

We've debated the worth of technical certifications for decades. Here's how to determine if a program is worth your time and money.

the skills and knowledge needed to do the work. Proxy test-taking is also a real problem. All these factors contribute to the number of individuals who have certifications but not skills.

Of course, boosting security increases the complexity and cost of getting candidates through the process, so vendors may respond by increasing participation to offset the cost of protecting program integrity. Here are three questions to ask:

  • Does the vendor use strict security procedures, such as limiting who can take exams and how often they can retest?
  • Does the vendor use tools such as biometrics to validate who is taking the exams?
  • Does the vendor view certification as an independent process, or is it simply a marketing tool that puts sales and market goals ahead of exam integrity?

3. Determining competence
Unfortunately, even the most stringent security efforts cannot address the final complaint: the inability of exams to measure competence.

Fundamentally, the problem is the perception that multiple-choice, standardized exams are incapable of measuring competence. In other words, they're designed to measure knowledge, while competence is the efficient and successful application of knowledge. A common perception is that only practical, lab-based exams are capable of determining a candidate's competence.

In reality, multiple-choice exams can measure a lot more than many people understand, and practical exams are much more limited than many realize. The degree to which multiple-choice exams can determine competence has to do with the way they're developed and the cognitive complexity of questions. Here are two questions to ask:

  • Is the exam written so a candidate can regurgitate a memorized response, or is it written at a level that requires her to analyze and evaluate information to arrive at the correct answer?
  • Do the exams cover real-world deficiencies or risks that require experienced application of the technology, or do they assume an "ideal" world that exists only in marketing brochures?

A well-designed exam can differentiate competent candidates from weak ones. Certainly anyone can guess a few correct answers, but the exam should take that into account and ensure that candidates cannot pass strictly on the basis of lucky guesses.

Many employers gravitate toward certifications that require practical, lab-based examinations that require candidates to demonstrate their capability, arguing that these determine competence more effectively than multiple-choice exams. While practical exams can be great for showing competence, their scope can be limited. They also have other limitations: They're more expensive to create and administer, measuring success can be subjective, and they often sacrifice breadth of knowledge for depth within a limited domain. In short, a certification that's based on only a practical exam remains subject to the other two validity issues and does not by itself guarantee that any given candidate will perform competently in the varied contexts of the real world.

Ideally, certification programs should use multiple-choice exams of escalating complexity to identify which candidates are most likely to have a good breadth of knowledge, and then subject them to a practical exam that lets them demonstrate their ability to apply that knowledge.

The takeaway
In an ideal world, certifications have value and provide the real-world, job-specific skills employers are looking for. When evaluating the validity of any certification, ask these questions:

  • Does it measure the skills we need in our organization?
  • Does the vendor have sufficient integrity that we can be sure candidates who have the certification actually earned it?
  • Finally, is the certification designed to promote the competent application of skills and knowledge in the real world?

To get the full value from certifications, CIOs and hiring managers must start asking the right questions.

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Ken Salchow has worked in the technology industry for over 25 years in a variety of positions from programming to independent consulting. He has been employed with F5 Networks for the last 14 years and is currently the Program Manager for Professional Certification. He holds ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Apprentice
7/28/2015 | 3:10:57 AM
Re: Seems extensible
Interesting concept and subject to many arguments. For example many certifications doesn't really measure the knowledge and competence of an individual who attended a boot camp and study well the questions that will be ask on the test. Sure they can pass the test and be certified but know nothing what to do in the real world. Education and experience is still important. That is the reason why there is a gap berween business leaders and IT people because most IT doesn't understand the business. IT people know how to keep the system running and follow best practices but thats not enough in the business world. I am IT prson myself for about 30 years and have several certifications but when vendors like Microsoft make certifications more like a business by selling expensive books and training and forcing candidates to re-exam or recertify every 3 years it changes my perception about certification. Many vendors do it as an additional income to them, and not the means to measure IT persons knowledge and competence and complete understanding of the product. If the test and training materials are reasonable and the exam itself includes practical or lab that includes real world problems that a candidate need to solve then it will make the certification really valuable.   
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
5/23/2014 | 9:19:28 AM
Re: Seems extensible
Lucius, Do you see employers willing to invest in keeping their employees' certs up to date, and in new certs? I was a bit surprised to see in our salary surveys how many IT people do get company-paid training. Maybe they do it on their own time, but at least it's not on their own dime. The downside from an employer's POV would be that these workers are then attractive to other employers, and job hopping is the best way to get a nice salary bump.
IW Pick
User Rank: Apprentice
5/23/2014 | 4:20:20 AM
Re: Seems extensible
I have a masters in computer science and have been doing these certifications for the last 30 years. I can tell you first hand that some of those certifications are way beyond what I went through in college - particularly the MCSD and MCSE. There are easy certs like A+ but the majority of them are not between HS and an associates degree in the technical arena. Employers want certifications more than general degrees. Technology changes every year - its the only way to keep up as fewer employers are willing to pay for in-house training and vendor classes.

I would hire a kid with a certification before I would ever hire someone with a business degree/MBA. The BA in business administration is the new high school diploma - everyone seems to have one. The MBA is now the equivalent of an associates degree. Without the technical training any general business degree is a worthless without the ability to understand the technology - it will get you a job at McDonalds but not Microsoft.
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
5/22/2014 | 11:51:57 AM
Seems extensible
As high school diplomas become increasingly worthless on their own, from a hiring perspective, employers have people coming in with certificates for everything from project management to HVAC -- this isn't just an IT issue. Seems like a standard way to rate extended ed that's in between HS and an Associate's is really valuable.
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