How to Pick the Right IT Certifications

By Rex Black  |  Posted 2010-08-28

How to Pick the Right IT Certifications

In a previous Knowledge Center article, I talked a lot about how to build quality applications, ones that work together using various techniques and processes. Another key to quality applications is the quality of the teams involved in creating and maintaining them.

One tool for increasing the quality of teams is through the training of existing employees, which I'll address in a future article. In this article, though, I want to focus on something that is often confused with training but actually is something entirely different: certification.

As IT managers, we want to hire qualified people. Certainly, IT certification can be part of the qualification puzzle in many IT fields. IT professionals often use certification in key skill areas to demonstrate their qualifications. However, with all of the certification programs floating around out there, how do IT managers and IT professionals distinguish the useful certifications from pointless wallpaper? In this article, I'll examine how you can pick the right IT certifications for yourself (as an individual) or for your team and the people you hire (as a manager).

Evaluate the certification's syllabus

Any certification worth considering will have, at its basis, a body of knowledge or syllabus. This document should describe the skills and abilities that the certification measures. Those people who have mastered most of these skills and abilities (sometimes called "learning objectives" in the syllabus) will be able to earn the certification, usually through some kind of exam.

So, the first and most important step is to determine whether the skills and abilities listed in the syllabus are useful. Does the syllabus relate to your day-to-day work? Will the benefits of achieving the certification (that is, increased effectiveness, efficiency and credibility of the team, etc.) justify the cost?

Of course, it's possible that your day-to-day work should more closely resemble what is described in the syllabus. This can happen when your organization is not following industry best practices. So you should also evaluate the source of the syllabus. If the syllabus was written by a broad, international team of recognized, published industry experts, perhaps you should consider moving your practices towards those required for certification. Adopting the certification as a guideline for your practices-and hiring people with the certification-can be a good way to move in this direction.

Select Only Certifications Developed by Experts

Select Only Certifications Developed by Experts

Selecting a certification developed by a broad team of recognized, published industry experts is important because, in general, such certifications enjoy increased acceptance over certifications developed by a small clique of like-minded people. People in the industry will recognize the names of the authors and developers of the syllabus. To some extent, the credibility, and thus the value, of all certifications rests upon the reputation and credibility of the people who stand behind those certifications.

I also mentioned that the team of experts should be international because so often now we are engaged in globally distributed work. If you are not working in a globally distributed fashion today, you probably will be soon. So you need certifications that have a global reach. If you want to hire (or be part of) a global team of certified professionals, a single common certification is key. This way, the whole team speaks the same language and knows the same concepts.

Of course, if you plan to hire people who hold a certification because you believe the syllabus has value, you want to be confident that those people have indeed mastered the topics in the syllabus. This brings us to the matter of certification exams.

Certification exams are a complicated issue, and some ill-informed polemics about exams occur on a few Internet Websites. Proper creation of exams is the province of a profession called psychometrics. Psychometrics applies the fields of psychology, education and statistics to the process of qualifying people through exams. Any legitimate certification body (that is, the organization developing and administering an exam against a syllabus) will employ professional psychometricians to ensure proper exams.

Evaluate Exams Quality and Integrity

Evaluate exam's quality and integrity

When evaluating whether or not an exam properly assesses someone's qualifications, you need the answers to the following four questions:

1. Is the exam statistically valid and can the certification body prove validity?

2. Is the exam a quality instrument free from grammatical and spelling errors, formatting problems and other glitches that might distract exam takers? What process does the certification body use to ensure quality?

3. Is the exam of uniform difficulty and quality whenever and wherever it is administered? How does the certification body accomplish uniformity?

4. Since exam questions are developed by people, what steps does the certification body use to ensure the integrity of the exams? In other words, what steps does it use to ensure that the questions are not leaked to candidates, onto the Internet or to accredited training providers?

This last point of accredited training providers brings us to an important consideration. It is certainly valuable to have training available to support certification programs. Accrediting training-whereby the certification body checks the content of the training to ensure compliance with and coverage of the syllabus-can help busy IT professionals and IT managers to narrow their search for quality training.

However, you are not looking at a real certification when the accreditation process is opaque, when only members of the certification body offer accredited training or, worse yet, when accredited training is required to take an exam. In these cases, what you are looking at is a marketing vehicle for some company's or cartel's training programs. You should pick certification programs that have open, transparent processes for accreditation. They should have a diverse, competitive field of training providers and should not require any training at all to take their exams.

Improve Team Effectiveness and Efficiency

Improve Team Effectiveness and Efficiency

Certifications can help IT managers and IT professionals to grow their teams and their skills, if chosen carefully. If you select the right bodies of knowledge, developed by the right people and which deliver the right skills for your work, then certification can lead to improvements in effectiveness, efficiency and communication within teams.

It's also essential that the certification body follow best practices in the creation and delivery of the exams. And, if you decide to use training to help achieve certification, you need to make sure to pick a program where the training supports the certification-not vice versa.

If you follow the basic concepts described here, you can obtain good value from IT certification programs, both as an IT professional and as a IT hiring manager.

Rex Black is President of RBCS. Rex is also the immediate past president of the International Software Testing Qualifications Board and the American Software Testing Qualifications Board. Rex has published six books, which have sold over 50,000 copies, including Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Hebrew and Russian editions. Rex has written over thirty articles, presented hundreds of papers, workshops and seminars, and given over fifty speeches at conferences and events around the world. Rex may be reached at

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