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Point-Counterpoint - Why you Should be Certified.

By Steve Jones,

Certification Should Be Required

I believe certification should be required for most everyone in the IT industry. In fact, I firmly believe that some time in the next 5-10 years, many of us, system administrators, DBAs, and professional developers will be bonded, insured, or some other backing that will both limit and quantify the liabilities for what we do. I believe IT professionals will and should be responsible and, to some extent, liable for their actions. As computers become more and more integrated into every facet of business, those who maintain and support computer systems must incorporate the “best practices” and adhere to standards for doing so. The days of building computer applications and networks by the seat of your pants are numbered.

Will certification build quality applications and networks? Perhaps. Will certification ensure that an employer is hiring a competent employee? Not necessarily. An IT certification is like a college degree. It assumes that there is a minimum amount of knowledge. It ensures that some measurable level of understanding of the material for a position. An employer ought to be able to expect that a candidate who has passed the SQL Server 2000 Administration exam can perform certain functions, like add a login and user, backup a database, restore a server, etc.

Is the MCSE the answer?

Does this mean that I believe that the MCSE, MCSD, MCDBA, or other certification should be required by all IT professionals? No. I think these certifications are fundamentally flawed and must be redesigned. It would take an entire article to examine the status of these certifications, but the highlights are as follows.

The certifications are not granular enough. I hold an MCSE so would an employer expect that I can setup an Exchange Server? Should one assume that I can configure your IIS web server? Not necessarily. The only thing one can assume is that I know something about Windows NT 4.0. I should be competent in administering a network based on NT 4.0. However, the MCSE does not address this. It places all MCSEs are equivilent in experience (from the courses). However, very few MCSEs that I know have the same electives. The certifications need to be expanded to more accurately reflect the different type of certification that one has achieved. In line with this, a certified individual should only be certified on a particular version of the software.

These MS certifications also do not incorporate any tiers to which one can aspire. An MCDBA who has passed the design and administrator tests has nothing to else to achieve. There is not specialty in data warehousing, DTS, database design, etc. The lack of additional levels or types of certifications both induces complacency in certified DBAs. Just like Cisco has implemented the CCNA, CCNP, CCIE tracks, there should be a track for MCDBAs. By providing additional levels of knowledge to aspire to, the certifications will continue to attract students as well as continue to push existing DBAs to expand their knowledge. I would hope the highest levels would also require oral exams in front of MCTs or even other MCDBAs who could assess one’s ability to react to situations.

The Exams

The third major complaint, and by far the most important one, that must be addressed by Microsoft (and other vendors). The exams themselves need to be rebuilt, reengineered, redesigned, pick your re- process. As of September 2001, as I write this, the exams, in my opinion, are entirely to easy and not that representative of the skills and knowledge needed to perform the functions they are testing. There are quite a few problems with the exams, but my main complaints are the pools of questions are too small (3 or 4 people who have taken the exam can probably clue another into most all of the questions), the questions do not measure real world skills, and the format is not representative of the real world.

Instead of 100-200 questions, there should be over 1000 for an exam. When I took that SQL 2000 Design Beta exam, I saw 93 questions. When I took the real exam a few months later, there were 52 questions, all of which I had previously seen. I would have hoped that the Beta would have only included 50% or so of the total pool, so I would have a low chance of seeing many of the questions during any re-takes of the exams.

The questions also do not, in my humble opinion, really measure real world skills. I thought the SQL 2000 Design exam was the best at forcing one to think, but most of the other exams I have taken do not really force one to think about how this would work on a real computer. I would hope that with all the Phds at Microsoft, they would be able to generate scenarios or questions, which would force one to have some experience with the product. I hate “memorization” questions, like “what is the correct syntax” for something.

My third biggest complaint about the exams is that they are not presented in a good format. Rarely does one have to actually use the tool in an exam. A better format would include the real tools, or mockups of them, that would force one to actually perform the function. An examinee might be asked to give Jim access to the Sales database. The user would have to create the login and user and assign rights using the tool. Along these lines, I think the exam should include the same tools that an examinee would have in the real world. For SQL, I would expect to have TechNet and BOL available. If the exam is long enough and the time limits short enough, an examinee would not be able to look up every answer. But a professional would be able to use BOL to quickly find what they needed for a question or two.

Conclusions

I do believe that IT professionals will become liable for their actions. I suspect that as insurance companies start to insure more ASPs as well as other businesses; they will require that the system administrators be certified or at least insurable themselves. This will lead to standards and certifications, much like the accounting industry. This will also lead to liabilities for the code you write or the systems you maintain. I firmly believe if I remain in this industry until I retire, I will have to be bonded at some point.

I believe all these things will come true, but only if the problems I have outlined above are remedied. Vendors must build a worthwhile product, which applies to the certification as well. Once this occurs, then an IT certification will really start to mean something, and employers will see the value in requiring them.

Please join the debate and tell us what you think.

Read the anti-certification article Certification Should be Required


Steve Jones
©dkRanch.net October 2001


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