I drop in on CertCities.com pretty regularly, to catch up on IT certification news, reviews, and opinions. Of the last variety, my old coopetitor, Emmett Dulaney, often has some pretty good ones. Today is no exception as he digs into an interesting and wistful illustration of the old principle probably best known as “wishing don’t make it so.” This occurs in a column he wrote called Certification Synergy, dated 9/17/08.
Let me restate his basic observations and assertions, and then indulge myself likewise. Basically, Emmett related that good IT certification study materials derive from a substantial and readily available body of work on the subject matter and coverage involved. What makes it easy to build some cert materials, and a slam-dunk to justify from a sales and marketing perspective, in fact, is the “killer combination” of lots of raw material, relevant research, user and trainer experience, and so forth, plus a large, motivated, and interested population of prospective certification candidates. To me, this describes the world as I knew it in the late 90s when I developed the Exam Cram series and rode that monster wave right up to the shattered remains of the World Trade Centers on 9/11, after which the already-faltering IT economy pancaked into a shuddering stop.
Dulaney goes on to relate how he and his publishers got hornswoggled into crafting a similar series of such materials for an unnamed vendor, based on that party’s argument that their certifications were as good as Novell’s and Microsoft’s except that they didn’t enjoy the level of third-party support they were seeking to “hire done” by talking to Emmett and his publisher in the first place. To make the deal work, however, the unnamed vendor had to agree to a big buy of the resulting books–an entirely typical maneuver that enables deep-pocketed outfits to foist all kinds of books on the public when simple economics isn’t inducement enough for the publisher and author to shoulder that risk on their own. Alas, however, this meant that the producers of the work ultimately couldn’t be frank with readers about BS in the certs that people would need to learn but would never actually use in the real world. Comes under the heading of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you!”
Alas, some of the best value in certification materials comes from classifying and identifying subject matter and coverage from that very standpoint. If you tell people they can memorize something and forget it afterward, they’ll often swallow such arbitrary requirements as a cost of earning the certification. But if you fail to tell them when materials are basically irrelevant, they’ll never forgive you for not telling them the whole truth about what they must study and learn. In fact, the converse is also true: when you can tell your readers “Hey! This stuff is important: you’ll use it every day at work.” you can also really count on them to pay attention. I’ve had plenty of people tell me, as I’m sure is also true for Emmett Dulaney, that they continued to use our cert prep books after earning their credentials, because of this phenomenon.
Dulaney doesn’t say whether the unnamed vendor’s cert program took off or continued to sputter along after the materials he described were published. I don’t think he has to, because if the writers and publisher can do anything and everything possible to add value to the certification prep materials, both their value and the value of the certification they cover are diminished thereby. And believe me, there are enough bogus or questionable certs out there already, and nobody wants one that’s even tarnished, let alone diminished.
Ultimately what makes cert programs succeed is that they not only result in a piece of paper and another splotch of alphabet soup to add to business cards, resumes, and so forth. What makes them fly is that they genuinely do impart skills, knowlege and wisdom, along with exposure to tools and techniques that prove at least useful or interesting, if not downright essential to getting the job done. That leads to their recognition as possessing value, appearance in job postings and advertisements, and proud recitations of “I’m a ” when IT geeks get together to assert and celebrate their geekhood.