January 28

Should Certification Exams Change?

examBy Andrew Hay

In Beijing, China, Cisco is piloting a new component to their once coveted Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification exam – a 10 minute verbal interview. Once considered the “diamond certification” in the networking world, the CCIE has gone the way of the Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE) certification due to “exam passing boot camp” style certification tracks, freely available brain dumps, and “guns for hire” test writers. Do current certification methods require an overhaul or do we, as a society, just have to accept that there will be some people who will always find a way to cheat the system?

Back in the late 1990’s, numerous “boot camp” style certification course offerings sprung out of nowhere that would promise to provide you with the information you need to pass the exams (not necessarily do the job, but at least get in the door with your piece of paper). This is where the term “paper MCSE” originated. The derogatory term, applied to numerous technical certifications, has often been considered a badge of shame that must be shared by all certified professionals, regardless of how their certification was attained. This badge has created a stigma in the industry and has sullied the value of technical certifications and those who worked hard to understand the concepts associated with them.

Brain dumps have been around for as long as many of us can remember. Although there is value in reviewing questions that are similar to those asked in the certification exam, one should not simply memorize actual questions and answers obtained from other exam takers. The primary reason is that this practice, although easier, is unethical. Cheating may help you pass the examination but, in the end, you’re only cheating yourself out of the reward of knowledge. Anyone can memorize and regurgitate information but a truly honorable person doesn’t take short cuts. The secondary reason is, knowing that it’s unethical, how can you trust the source? If you’re cheating, what makes you think that the person providing you with the information isn’t simply out to provide you with false information? The only way to be 100% sure of what is on the exam is to put the time into studying the information yourself.

“Guns for hire” are supposed experts in passing certification exams. They might have prior knowledge of the exam or simply be experts in the topic. Think of these people as walking, talking, brain dumps and using them to take your exam for you is probably the most unethical things you could do (short of paying the organization to just give you the certification). You have to ask yourself – is it really worth being banned from future certifications offered by that company by having someone pretend to be you? Personally, that’s a big risk and our industry isn’t that big. The odds of someone finding out that you were banned from taking future exams because of cheating are quite good and it is something that could follow you for your entire career.

Boot camps, brain dumps, and hired guns are three of the most prevalent methods for faking your way to certification today. How can we combat this? Is a verbal interview the answer? A verbal interview is definitely a good start, and a novel idea, but it would be entirely subjective. This approach could result in numerous post-exam result challenges and cries of “unfair scoring”. Also, is 10 minutes long enough to get a good feel for ones knowledge? Most interviews for jobs are anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes long and those sometimes lead to follow-up interviews, potentially with different interviewers, before a general consensus is achieved. A positive change for certifications might be to introduce a 30 minute interview prior to allowing a candidate to sit for a technical exam. This would force the interviewee to know the subject matter before sitting for the exam and may help prevent against “hired guns”, by “authenticating” the interviewee with photo ID, and regurgitated brain dumps by asking free form questions about the subject matter. Giving the interviewer the authority to approve or deny access to the written certification attempt may finally allow certifications shake their tarnish.





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  1. I’m not sure the interview is a good idea. In today’s world we have a lot of IT people scattered all over the place and language barriers are going to exist. I can’t imagine conducting an interview in French even though I have taken certification exams there (written – in English).

    A timed interview doesn’t really make much sense either. I can conduct a job interview in a matter of minutes and gather all sorts of technical skills knowledge from someone. Stretching one out to 30 minutes doesn’t make a lot of sense, to me. Beside, we all know just how anti-social most IT types are anyway 😉

    Personally, I’m not convinced certifications are all they are cracked up to be. Perhaps for entry-level positions and consultants they can be of some use but, does average Joe the IT Guy really need the headache of plopping down thousands of dollars every few years to keep his credentials? Especially in these days of lighter budgets?


  2. If we’re serious, why not move to a certification regime that looks a lot more like other professional disciplines.

    Bar Exam
    Medical Practice
    Certified Engineer

    Are any of those certification regimes multiple-choice test?

  3. The idea is hardly novel. Didn’t MS do the oral part (mainly evaluation of teaching and presentation skills) back in the day for the certified trainer track ? It is a good idea but still it proves that the person in question knows what he is supposed to know at that specific moment in time. If he/she doesn’t use that knowledge for a few months or years, cobwebs start to grow and the value of the cert diminishes.

    Microsoft, Cisco and the like already require partners to submit projects to keep their partner status current. Why not require certified people (on a certain level, say MCSE but not MCP, CCSP or CCIE but not CCNA) to be named in these reports. If you don’t have enough relevant projects under your belt, your cert can get revoked.

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