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The real value of certification

By   |  January 25, 2005

This is a hot topic, and like religion and sport there seems to be as many opinions as there are people.

But we can all agree on the real purpose of certification. It is a way to measure something — competence. It turns out that this is very very hard to do properly. Firstly because competence is an ability, not an object, so you have to measure the end result instead of the thing itself. And secondly because of the human factor and all the variables involved.

Measurement is an exact science. Speed, distance, time can be measured with a high degree of accuracy. True, the meter used can be inaccurate, or the wrong kind of meter can be used. And this holds true for certification as well. But because people\’s lives are involved, you tend to get bitten harder if the methodology is faulty than if you measure the width of a desk with a bent ruler.

In a job interview, the employer wants to know: \”Can I trust this applicant to work on a paying customer\’s machine and not break it?\” The applicant wants to be able to show that he knows his stuff with a reasonable degree of certainty. You have probably been in one or both of those positions yourself, and you know that they are the most important questions of all in an interview. And usually the hardest to answer.

References and number of years experience are part of this but good judgement is needed to evaluate them properly. It would be nice if we had a reliable standard to compare candidates to and be reasonably sure that it was accurate.

It is possible to do this. Certification programs do exist that have been thoroughly examined, tested and validated. There is a whole branch of science called psychometrics that does this, it makes fascinating reading if you are into things like that. Again, judgement is needed. For a certificate to have any value at all, you have to closely examine the method used to award the certificate.

It might sound strange for me to say this, because I do Linux training for a living, but a training course that \”guarantees international certification\” is probably not worth the paper it\’s printed on. A one- or two-week course doesn\’t make a Linux guru, no matter how much spin you put on it. And how are they going to guarantee that result? Probably by cheating, and handing out brain dumps. I regularly see students in my course room that have been awarded a certain very well known IT certification. The strange part is that every single one of those students tell me they were given brain dumps by their lecturers shortly before the exam, and that\’s why they passed.

When training institutions do this, that entire certification program takes a serious credibility knock. The exam is still measuring something, but we can\’t be certain it\’s still measuring the candidates ability to do the job. So you see how easy it is for even a very good certification program to be undermined from the outside, and how important it is to prevent that from happening.

Employers, trainers and students need to be aware of these pitfalls and choose a certification that is real, is meaningful and has truly tested the candidate\’s knowledge. Then, and only then, is it worth the effort. As a trainer, I see the pride students feel when they put in the effort, do the work and ace an exam. They know, and I know, that they aced it because they are good enough, and made the grade. No-one can ever take that achievement away from them.

In the Linux world we are very fortunate to have at least two excellent certification programs with high credibility, and I\’ll be telling you more about them in two weeks time.

Alan McKinnon is head trainer at Afribiz. This column will be published every two weeks.

Previous columns by Alan McKinnon:
Why Linux and OSS training


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