Wednesday, June 16, 2004



Ever since Novell came up with the bright idea of certifications in the early 90's, for the most part they've been the flavor of the month in the arena of corporate fools. The expression "paper CNE" was coined early on for people who could buy study guides off the shelf, memorize enough to pass the tests, and then the instant they were presented with a practical production problem, cried havoc. I well remember a harrumphing MCSE at a Large Asset Management firm who constantly crowed about his passing his exams on the first try, but was completely useless as a system administrator (he couldn't properly manage users in a mixed NT-NDS environment). The upshot of most of the Novell / Microsoft certification antics was that they only became useful to recruiters, human resources professionals and other such lower forms of life as a screening criterion.

The exception to this was Cisco's CCIE, a well-designed program that had not only a tough written exam that could only be passed by a person with hands-on experience, but also a devilishly complicated two day practical exam where the proctors devised all sorts of nasties that you had to solve under tight time pressure. It's a tough certification, and the people who pass it are worth everything they get paid and more. It also requires ongoing recertification, preventing skills from rusting out. But even Cisco saw the lure of the almighty training dollar, and created a bunch of lesser certifications, such that even mere mortals who just know the word "router" can buy themselves a cert. (One of the funnier aspects of this is that in a relative sense, network engineering is one of the easier disciplines, as opposed to say large package - think Peoplesoft or SAP - configuration. Networking is basically a binary solution set; it works or it doesn't. A junior person who understands subnet masking could easily configure a router running RIP or EIGRP, and probably could do a passable job with a small OSPF installation. Of course the rocket science comes in with BGP, IS-IS, route redistribution, multiple protocol instances, etc. But to most folk, networks are a black art)

The current flavor of the month of course is the PMP, created for Project Managers, a subspecies that is opposed to a professional who manages projects. I interacted very closely with a Project Manager who was very proud of his PMP trying to implement a Large Package for a Large Financial Institution. The only problem was that while he had great project plans (which I had to help him Immanentize!), checklists, daily, weekly, fortnightly status reports, Powerpoints and every freaking metric you could imagine, this guy was completely, and I mean completely clueless about technology. Not a particularly good idea if you have a complicated project than involves a three-tier architecture, huge batch jobs on the mainframe (we always asked what happens if something goes bump in the night?), really strong security, privacy and auditing requirements, and lots of separate streams that all had to synchronize (everything was on the critical path!) It's rather disheartening when the person who's in charge of a project that has a serious mainframe component has to ask what a CICS region is.

And then there is the internal certification, created by certain large firms as a means to further justify their Knowledge Management and Human Resources types as well as an additional stick to wield against people who are actually delivering services to their clients. The internal certification of course is completely irrelevant to any external party when presenting your qualifications (either to be engaged or for that matter when looking for another position), but it is presented as having a certain amount of internal prestige (the old "Your Permanent Record" routine). The real problem arises when the internal certification is made mandatory, requiring the consultant to double up on his already huge workload to present him or herself as appropriate to the powers-that-be to grant the certification grail (presumably the certificate will be printed on unobtanium). I guess that's OK, since these folks figure you're already sleep-deprived and your family is totally alienated, you might as well complete the package.

/spleen and bile


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