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What does certification achieve?

By Steve Jones,

This is part 2 of a 3 part series of thoughts on certification and Microsoft technologies.

The idea of certifying someone as having a skill is almost as old as the idea of teaching someone a skill. I'm sure as soon as a person had the idea of teaching someone for compensation, others wanted some assurance that the person had learned the skill. That was probably the first time that a test was developed, graded, and scores passed out.

We all know that a certificate or a test score doesn't imply any level of competence at a skill. If I had to weld two pieces of metal together as a test, successfully completeing this wouldn't imply that I could weld any two other pieces of the same metal together (size, scale, etc. matter). It wouldn't even imply that I'd do as good a job welding the 99th and 100th pieces together in a week as I'd done during the test. The same would hold true in almost any endeavor, but we still have tests, grades, certifications, diplomas, and awards in many different fields.

Is IT that different? In one sense it is. The technology field seems to change so often, and the bars for entry (and thus hiring) are so low that it's difficult to set up standardized tests, often because it's not cost effective. Medicine and law change constantly, but their tests slowly evolve, and they certainly don't change at the rate of SQL Server versions and tests. It's also more cost effective to create new revisions of tests in these other fields when the candidates have made a large investment in their education and regulatory agencies require licenses to practice in these other fields.

However I might argue that technology doesn't change that much. The idea of backing up a SQL Server database, rebuilding a clustered index, adding a login, querying for duplicates, and more haven't changed much in the two decades I've worked with the product. The actual syntax might be different, but are we hiring people that remember syntax or accomplish tasks?

I think that's the point of certification. It should be a method that gives others confidence that an individual can accomplish a task, or has some basic skill. I'd argue the current set of tests, questions, and even structure of the MCSE/MCITPro/MCSA whatever doesn't remotely do that. It doesn't test skills, tests knowledge at the base level of memorization, and fails to provide a basic bar that we can be sure everyone has met.

Perhaps those aren't Microsoft's goals. Perhaps they value their profits higher than the certification that individuals hold skills, perhaps they view these designations as a part of their marketing effort to sell software. Perhaps they have other goals. All I know is that as long as employers ask for these certifications in job postings, as long as employers pay for tests and candidates take them, why should Microsoft change?

If we all believe the emperor has clothes, does it matter if he really wears any?

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