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Certifying core competencies

John Venator, CEO of CompTIA, takes time out from plotting the next training tracks to talk about the organization, how it develops its certification programs, and why the new CompTIA certifications are so hot.

Look at any of the training ads in the issue you hold in your hands and you will see the familiar A+ logo. A+ was the first certification offered by the Computing Technology Industry Association, or CompTIA, but it was certainly not the last. Since it first offered A+ in 1994, it has added 10 other certifications, all testing core competencies in important areas of IT.

I sat down with John Venator, CEO of CompTIA, to talk about how the organization develops its certification programs and why new CompTIA certifications are so hot.

You have been with the organization since the late ’80s, so you’ve been instrumental in how all of CompTIA’s certifications were conceived and developed. How did these certifications come about?

The A+ certification was the first, of course. It was originally developed at the request of the industry. We’re an organization with thousands of member companies. Many of the members came to us with a need to eliminate redundancy of what they do and improve their cost structures in the process.

Back in the days when margins were much fatter, everyone had their own training program, but they all did pretty much the same thing. The idea was, if there was an industry third party organization to create a standard certification that they all could use to test core competencies, we could all get out of the duplicity. That’s why A+ was developed. Since its inception, it has become the basic determiner of employment for help-desk positions. We don’t compete against companies that create vendor-specific certification. Our certifications are the bottom base of the pyramid that other company-specific products can be built upon.

Besides cost savings, what other benefits have CompTIA certifications brought your member companies?

Certification is a means to an end. We see our role as improving workforce development. Even in this soft economy, we know there are hundreds of thousands of jobs that companies can’t find qualified talent for. Executives of member companies tell us all the time that they have to continually downscale their profitability projections because they can’t get the work done that they need to develop competitive advantage through technology. In fact, check out our new Career Compass on our Web site >< to get an idea of how we don't just certify talent, we advise candidates on emerging career opportunities.

Of course, A+ was only the beginning. Since you started offering A+ exams, you have added 10 other certifications. How did these new certs come about?

As the industry evolved, development followed the same pattern as A+. Companies came to us with needs to ensure that candidates have the core skills they claim to have. If there is enough interest in a particular skill set, we develop a certification with the help of the participating companies. For example, clusters of companies that specialize in document processing recently came to us and said, “We love what you’ve done with A+ and Network+, we need something for document servers.” So we came up with the Certified Document Imaging Architect (CDIA+) certification.

We now have 11 certifications. Most recently, many of our certifications are in the soft-skills area. For example, our new project management certification–IT Project+–was the result of overwhelming interest from industry. As validation of this, I was in Sydney, Australia, to give a talk at an event entitled “Double Standards: A Vendor Celebration by the IT & ITAB” [Information Technology and Telecommunications Industry Training Advisory Body]. The president of IBM Australia was explaining in the keynote that, in this tighter job market, as companies are looking for further determinations between candidates in hiring, one of the biggest things he sees missing now is project management skills. As I was listing to him and preparing to give my talk on our new IT Project+ and HTI+ [Home Technology Integrator+] certifications right after him, I thought to myself, “This is great timing.”

How do you test for soft skills? Presumably, you can’t simply use computer-based testing as you do with most of your other certs.

With soft-skills certification, it can’t be as simple as how do you test people for quantifiable results. We use scenario-based testing, which is still conducted on computers. One of my biggest concerns is being responsible for the people who pass our tests. The U.S. government didn’t listen, so we have to make sure our exams provide verifiable results for the lawyers and the insurance industry. That’s true whether we’re testing for A+ technicians or project managers.

Then the training leading up to the IT Project+ certification would also be scenario based? It seems to me IT Project+ would be a natural fit for simulation-based training, which of course is scenario-based.

As you know, we don’t create training. We measure the curriculum of member training companies vis-a-vis success rates for the exams. Otherwise, we make no value judgements on the delivery of training methods leading up to the IT Project+ certification. As I indicated, most of our exams are computer-based. One notable exception is Certified Technical Trainer+ [CTT+]. It does include a computer-based exam, but it includes a mandatory video testing program as well. Candidates must send in an unedited video tape. You tell me how that’s psychometrically valid and legally defensible! Still, the CTT+ has been very successful at building that video testing component in across several cultures and languages. Our other exams are straight computer-based exams.

Would you ever consider using game play or simulation in your exams? It seems a logical extension of scenario-based testing.

These are not on our radar screen right now. That’s not to say that some time in the future, we won’t do some of those razzle-dazzle types of things. Things may eventually move there. But we’re not doing that now. We contract with VUE and Prometric, which offer fairly garden-variety testing now. This suits our mission to test for core competencies. I’m not really aware of those who do those kinds of certifications.

What we will do is more and more apprenticeship programs. Right now, our A+ certification requires 500 hours of technician apprenticeship. I can see that becoming a part of more of our programs.

Take me through the process of developing the IT Project+ certification program.

We started by doing a lot of background research with the U.S. Department of Labor, which indicated a strong need. Then we developed a pilot program with McDonald’s Corp., which doesn’t just hire people to flip burgers, but has a very sophisticated IT department. A number of our certifications, including IT Project+, we develop in conjunction with our apprenticeship program. Companies that provide apprenticeship opportunities also offer pilot programs for new certifications.

Approximately how many IT professionals have been certified through CompTIA?

We have certified over a million people. Of course, since A+ is the longest running program, and the mother of all core competencies, the vast majority of those folks are A+ certified. And, a lot of those folks have multiple certifications. For example, about 60 percent with our Network+ certifications have the A+ certification.

What other new programs are your member companies asking for?

The biggest one is workforce development. In that context, we developed the Tech Career Compass, an informational Web site on tech skills. Companies came to use with the desire to develop uniform sets of job definitions and skill sets. The site maps the skills that are needed to do each particular IT job. Proven skills may include CompTIA certifications and all vendor-specific certification as well.

There’s no business reason why one company should develop a massive grid that will tell you the skill gap difference and the things that you will need to learn to get there. There’s really no money-making opportunity in this, which is why our member companies came to us to fill this need. We’re spending our own money to update it yearly and keep it current. Companies and workforce development programs are using this system to help their career advisors do their jobs.

How do you deal with the range of competing companies in your organization to develop truly vendor-neutral training?

We’ve always prided ourselves on not being the ivory tower. Everything that we’ve developed, companies come to us and say we have a problem and not just a company problem but an industry problem. When we meet to discuss the industry problem, they check their guns at the door and sit down at the same table and solve an industry problem. The Tech Career Compass is an excellent example of this.

What other new projects have met member needs?

One newer thing we’ve developed is in the data security area. Security+ was in development a year before 9/11. We were in the right place at the right time with this core competency. It’s the first program we’ve had with representatives of federal agencies sitting as cornerstone participants helping to develop it. We’re looking forward to government agencies using this certification as a central part of their skills assessment.

Another new program relates to the smart house trend. We worked with the Internet Home Alliance to develop the HTI+ certification. For the first time, a free-standing industry organization came to CompTIA and brought in companies that we have never played with, such as Sears. They wanted to make sure that earlier ad opters–the people that are going to use the ihouse concept first–have good experiences. They came to us and said, “We need you to develop a certification program that we can use for our own service and support people to give our customers the confidence in the networked home concept.” Best Buy has already made the announcement [that its service and support personnel will be HTI+ certified] and other household names will be making this announcement.

The big challenge was in the exam creation. The test combines network, heating and air conditioning, home entertainment, and security systems. HTI+ certification adapts the Network+ certification to those systems. We think that market is going to explode. I was recently at the 2003 International Home and Housewares Show. All the products at the show had to do with the smart house concept–smart refrigerators, smart lighting, etc. It’s technologically possible now. When the economies of scale make it economically feasible, it’s going to be a huge opportunity for our member companies.

What new certifications are in the offing?

We have segments of our industry that come to us regularly, but the industries themselves are not ready for a CompTIA-style certification. The reason is that new technologies usually have a lot of fragmentation. For example, wireless technology is highly fragmented right now. How soon will there be standardization? Until there are unified standards, it is economically unfeasible to develop core competency technology.

We conservatively get a couple dozen people or subsets of organization per year asking us for certifications. One example is Printer+, for pressmen. While there certainly are some printer standards, a lot of it is product specific versus core competency. So there won’t be a Printer+ certification any time soon.

We take each request and examine it one at a time. The criteria are that proposed certifications have to be not for profit and fill voids. We are always responsive to voids; we don’t want to replicate what others are doing. If this was a for-profit business, we could consider going head to head and trying to create something that’s better and cheaper. But we stay in vendor-neutral products and core competencies. If someone is already doing it, we don’t do it. An example of this is webmaster training.

One possible exception to that is Linux+. Linux Professional Institute (LPI) had the core competency and hierarchy of Linux skills certification space to itself. We were asked by all the parties involved to create a core competency certification that would avoid the fragmentation creeping into the industry. If we did it, all the parties could benefit because we could push people towards Linux with our brand and reputation. We didn’t go in unwanted or unasked. Once Linux+ was created, LPI basically stopped pushing core competencies and moved into the more advanced certifications.

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