Has IT certification become nothing more than a racket?

I’ve a funny relationship with ‘authorized training’ and certification. In one way, it is great that I know that within a reasonable period of time, I’ll be able to attend a course which will give me a good grounding on ‘how to drive’ a particular technology. In Cisco land, the breadth of subjects that they cover is very impressive, they’ve made a real effort here. the certification process (especially the CCIE level exams in my opinion) drive us to better knowledge and to be better engineers. I’ve been well enough convinced that it’s a good thing to make me go through CCNA, CCNP, CCIE, checkpoint CCSE and RSA certification processes.

On the other side – the training is generally just an intro. My personal experience of these courses has generally been underwhelming, and I’ve hoped to come out with a lot better understanding than I actually did. Certification (with the exception of CCIE) is generally about memorizing the theory of how these things should work rather than a test of how well you can actually do it.

Who goes down the route of official training?

Speaking to people on courses, there are typically three kinds of people who attend them :

1) End users of the equipment, who are buying an and as part of the budget are going on the training. They generally don’t care about doing the exam.
2) People doing certifications for their own career (more applicable to the CCNA/CCNP/CCIE specific courses). Often very dedicated to get as much out of the experience as they can – although you can get braindump-bunnies too..
3) Partner employee’s who have to get the certification asap as their employer is going to be audited by Cisco soon.

Audit time

Let’s ignore the first two for the moment. Anyone who’s ever worked for a Cisco partner knows audit time. It’s when senior management work out that if they get two people with certification X, they’ll get an extra percentage point or two from Cisco on everything they buy. It’s big money actually, and can be the difference between winning and losing business, so is important. So if you make the mistake of walking near them at the time they have this revelation, you will volunteer to go and do the certification.

This unfortunatly leads to a lot of cheating. You see nobody cares how well the engineer knows the technology. That’s another days problem. The key is to make sure that the certifications are in place by audit day. Quick is better than good. I don’t like this (and let’s be clear, it’s not the way I do things!), but it’s the way it is. It’s a rotten part of the certification business, always has been and probably always will be.

How bad is it?

This week I heard a story that made me realize how bad things have actually got. And I have to say, after all these years, it still shocked me. A friend of mine has recently attended an official Cisco course, provided by one of the big UK authorized providers. The instructor started by handing out the official course guide, and a photocopy of the testking for the exam, and told the attendees to start reading through the questions during the evenings and come to him with any questions. Then he started going through the course notes.

Now as I’ve said before, I don’t approve of the whole braindump thing. It’s pointless, it devalues the work of those who make the effort to actually go and learn the technology, but mostly it turns the whole certification business into nothing more than a racket. But I didn’t think we’d got to the point where there was such acceptance of the fact that most people on the course are just going to then just going to braindump the exam. Surely most of us want to do it properly right?


We have to decide what we want from a certification process. The problem is the partners who need certified staff, the training company, the testing firms, and Cisco themselves all do just fine out of the current system. It’s us as engineers who are devalued and cheapened by a process which is meant to make us better at what we do, but actually just makes us rats in a process. If we don’t approve, then expose the cheats, do it properly ourselves, and lets take the high ground and be better people as well as better engineers..

  • http://pl.atyp.us Jeff Darcy

    The title of this article confuses me. When were these certifications *ever* anything but a racket?

    • http://etherealmind.com Greg Ferro

      You could say the same things about university degrees and college education. However, when the engineer is designing a nuclear power plant, I want to be confident he has some level of validated skill. So you, they were not supposed to be a “racket”. Human nature looks for lazy solutions. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, blame the people not the solution. It’s the students that make it look bad, not the education.

      • Dan

        And this seems to be more the case in the last 4 to 5 years. I can’t count on both hands the people I work with who are getting degrees ‘online’ – which to them means ‘cheat, plagiarize, do whatever with the homework worth 80% of the course grade (none seem to get caught); get a 20% to 30% on the final proctored exam (if it even is proctored); pass with a C; lather, rinse, repeat’. In a few years, they have a nice Bx or Mx degree from the online Uni of choice. It seems no one checks the work or questions the repeated failures on the final exams (must just be test anxiety, right?)

        The difference between that and a braindumped cert? A few more years or work and a few thousand dollars. Degrees were once a gold standard for IT – if you had a BS in Comp Sci, you were golden. After braindumps became common and (some) certs started to become a joke, degrees and experience were solid measures. After the dotcom bust when there were so many ‘IT’ folk (good, bad and ugly) with half a dozen previous titles of Director, VP or the like competing against you, experience took more of a back burner and degrees were the main measure. Now it seems degrees are suffering the same fate but…what will take their place? And what will higher education do to try and fix the devaluation of degrees? As far as I can tell, most are just jumping on the online degress bandwagon without having any processes in place to ensure integrity.

    • Michael P

      I would nuance that a tiny bit: when were purely multiple-choice based certifications anything but a racket?

      While the Red Hat certifications (for example) aren’t perfect, at least they do attest that the holder has been able to perform a set of tasks and solve a set of problems on a real system in a reasonable time frame… not that he was able to SRS “correct” answers to arbitrary questions on obscure parameters.

      • Omar Baceski

        the old question about multiple-choice cert validity.

        I hold a number of multiple-choice-certs from several vendors plus two CCIE certs. After twelve years in networking i can tell you the only cert i consider worth something is the CCIE. And the value of the CCIE cert doesn’t even come from it’s technical content… let me explain.

        I recently interviewed a candidate for a position holding a CCIE cert.

        What the cert told me about this candidate, even before meeting him was:

        -he has developed a work/troubleshooting methodology
        -he sticks to an objective until he reacehes it
        -he can work under stress
        -he can learn a lot of unrelated stuff and put it all together in his head and make it work in a unified fashion

        plus, he has some amount of technical knowledge (most of it irrelevant, i know, but handy in some situations)

        that was enough for the guy to land the job!


  • http://www.google.com/profiles/philashman Phil Ashman

    Personally I thrive off of practice assessments. After working hard through the notes and lab training, assessment is the best way to find the holes in your knowledge. Obviously testking isn’t exactly a reputable assessment option, but I always find the transcender exams, which also provide explanations on why answers are correct and where to reference the information on the soln, invaluable.

    I don’t get too wound up about people skimming the certs, drinking from the firehose and braindumping the questions. They are definitely not doing themselves any favors and to be honest most people in the industry are able to weed these guys out quickly enough. The cert is a tool that allows you to take out of it what you put in in a well designed framework. Experience and references still speak for themselves, so the cert is simply a supplement to assist in rounding out the knowledge.

    I can see your point, but I’m not sure it’s worth the insane oversight that would be required in order to put the controls in place to ensure this doesn’t happen. It would probably end up punishing the legitimate learners, as do many DRM measures.

  • arandomdude

    Hi Dan
    The training center your friend described, was this one that guaranteed their training would produce a pass for the exam?

  • Darby Weaver

    $1000.00 CCIE Lab –


  • Andre Gironda

    I agree with Jeff Darcy.

    Greg Ferro: PhD’s don’t design nuclear power plants. Engineers with 40 years of experience design nuclear power plants, and their predecessors had 40 experience of experience building coal, hydro, etc power plants combined with nuclear engineering experience. They were hired to build the plants because they have a history of building plants. Not because they had a PhD or not.

    Similarly, if you want to build a network — you hire someone with the requisite experience. If BGP-4 is necessary, and BGP-4 came out in 1993, then you hire someone with 27 years of experience with it. If you need spanning-tree, you hire someone with even more experience. If you can’t find anyone with that much experience to hire, then you hire a strategy consulting company to find the people who have the most experience (even if they work in new industries or are retired) and then ask them who to hire or what to do.

    You don’t hire a kid with a cert aka epic fail guy.