Why IT certification is a really, really bad idea

IT isn't much like the professions where certification works

The IT certification issue is raising its head again and, at first blush, it seems a good idea. Anybody who has worked in IT has come across the self-proclaimed expert who has an uncanny ability to screw things up. Usually, sometimes within a few days, everyone in the shop knows that this individual does not have a clue when it comes to the job. If certification can solve this problem, then it is surely worth the effort and cost. And certification has worked well in other industries such as engineering and accounting.

Take engineering for example. The profession has been successfully compartmentalized into a number of different and distinct disciplines such as civil, electrical and aeronautical engineering. And it seems to be working. Civil engineers build good bridges, and aeronautical engineers have had great success designing airplanes. Crossing disciplines could be dangerous. For example, you probably do not want to traverse a bridge built by an electrical engineer or fly in a plane designed by a civil engineer. Then again, there are probably few electrical engineers who want to build bridges. So there are no real problems having different certifications for different types of engineers. But perhaps what is right for accountants and engineers might not be right for IT.

Visit a few IT shops and you will have little difficulty finding systems programmers working on the network team or managers who came up through the data center ranks overseeing the help desk. In fact, in IT, experience in multiple areas is a plus. Very few CIOs have skills in only one area. I'm not sure I would hire a CIO who was not experienced in multiple IT-related disciplines. What might appear to some as a problem is actually a strength. For IT, diversity is an asset that has kept the organization fresh, engaged and ready to accommodate the rapid pace of change.

This last point deserves a little more attention. Keeping people within intellectual borders might work for accounting, which hasn't changed much in more than 400 years. But what will systems programmers be doing five years from now? Or network designers? Even the CIO's role is in a constant state of flux. What IT needs now are people with quick minds and nimble fingers to work in a volatile field. They need to pick up new skills and use them long before they appear in any test booklet. And let's remember, it only takes a short time to figure out that some self-proclaimed IT expert doesn't know what he is talking about. Maybe that's because the rest of the staff is versed in many aspects of IT.

George Tillmann is a former CIO, management consultant, and the author of The Business-Oriented CIO (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). He can be reached at georgetillmann@optonline.net.

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