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Field certification: proving you can

The new trend in certification will help you avoid the ‘paper tiger’ label. Training Advisor hed: dek: by Molly Joss

We interrupt the normal routine of this column to bring you a special word to the wise about a growing trend in IT certification: field certification (also known as performance-based certification). It’s a trend that is likely to grow quickly into a standard, at least for some IT certifications. Field certification is worth knowing about if you are interested in acquiring any IT certification.

Most of the IT certifications involve a few hours of multiple-choice tests, usually administered by computer at a testing center. The computer usually grades the tests when you’re done, too. If you answered enough questions correctly, you get the certification.

Companies like to administer certification tests this way because any testing center with a copy of the test and a human being acting as proctor can administer it. It’s relatively inexpensive and the tests can be given anywhere there’s a computer equipped with testing software. No computer? No problem. Give the subject a sheet of paper with ovals on it and ask them to use a No. 2 pencil to mark their answer. Afterwards, a human being or a computer can calculate the score.

The need to test skills

Multiple-choice certification testing has brought the computer industry a long way by giving many people a standard of knowledge to live up to. As the IT world matures, though, we’re realizing that knowledge does not necessarily equal capability. Many of the boot camps and other training programs teach candidates how to pass the tests rather than how to perform in the real world. As a result, certification has become devalued in the workforce; IT managers are leery that certified candidates are mere paper tigers.

In response to the growing skepticism towards test-based certification, some IT vendors have taken certification testing up a notch or two by including performance-based testing in their certification programs.

Three major IT vendors: Cisco, Red Hat, and Novell, have had performance-based certification programs for years. Other IT vendors may soon join them if a new trade association called the Field Certified Professional Association (FCPA) has its way.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see 10 or more major companies with performance-based certification programs within the next four years,” says Peter Childers, Red Hat’s vice president of Global Learning Services.

Jay McCrensky, executive director of FCPA, agrees with Childers that performance-based certification is a hot topic. McCrensky says other major industry vendors such as Oracle, Lotus, IBM, and Microsoft are evaluating the concept of performance-based testing. “Every certification manager in the country is thinking about field certification.”

Although performance-based tests are more complicated to administer than multiple-choice, they do solve a major problem that has emerged in IT certification: how to measure someone’s skill level. Companies can easily create multiple-choice tests that reflect your knowledge of a subject, but creating one that accurately reflects how well you can put that knowledge into practice is much more difficult.

The proof is in the doing in performance-based testing, and that’s what IT vendors like about it. Their thinking goes something like this: Would you hand the keys to your brand-new Mercedes convertible to a valet attendant who got his license by answering a set of multiple-choice questions? Why should you hand your network, the backbone of your company, to someone who got his certification that way?

How it works

To get your driver’s license, you have to make your way through a test course to demonstrate your driving acumen; all the while a stern-looking DMV official is seated next to you. IT field certification works in much the same way, except that you’re piloting a computer rather than a car. The proctor is someone certified as an examiner, and he or she probably doesn’t look any less stern.

The Red Hat Certified Engineer exam involves five hours of performance-based testing and one hour answering multiple-choice questions. During the Certification Lab Exam (the five hours of performance testing) a candidate sits in front a network server attached to a live network and “is actually doing the job role,” as Childers describes it. The candidate must successfully complete such network administration tasks as installing and configuring Red Hat Linux, troubleshooting, administering security, and other administration tasks.

The Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) exam includes a two-hour, 100-question multiple-choice component and a two-day lab exam. During the two-day lab exam, the candidate must correctly implement aspects of the network system. Then, the candidate gets to move on to the troubleshooting section of the lab and spot and correct problems inserted into the system by the lab engineer.

To become a Novell Certified Directory Engineer, you must pass the Novell Practicum, a rigorous exam designed to tax, and test, skills in identifying and fixing problems that can pop up in Novell directories. You have two hours to jump through all the hoops and clear all the hurdles.

If you get the feeling that all this hands-on testing must involve some significant investments in training time and test fees, you’re right. You can spend months prepping for one of these exams by taking intensive, hands-on training classes with live instructors. The test fees for the certification exam can exceed $1,000. Still, when you compare it with the cost of getting a MCSE without ever touching a computer, a field certification can be a bargain. When you get one of these certifications, you know you’ve also got a solid IT education–and so does a potential employer.

FCPA’s role

Trade associations can play a valuable role in helping companies within an industry rally around an idea larger than any single company. A trade association is an independent third party that is financially underwritten by participating organizations. So it can research, advise, and establish standards in a way no company or coalition of companies can. That, in a nutshell, is the kind of work the FCPA hopes to play in advancing the development, promotion, and implementation of performance-based IT testing.

Instituted earlier this year, the FCPA has already completed work on an accreditation standard for field certification exams. It is working to establish testing centers for hands-on testing. It estimates that 21 such testing centers will be up and running around the country by the time you read this. The organization is also working with several major IT vendors to help the companies create performance-based tests and appropriate training courses for the tests. Red Hat, Cisco, and Novell are all founding companies of the FCPA.

Dr. Amir Elanhi, president of Computer Analytics Inc. is chairman of the FCPA Board of Directors. He feels the FCPA can help the computer industry improve its education and training practices. “Something is broken in the IT certification process when the individual feels compelled to cram for an exam rather than learn actual technology and product skills,” Elanhi says. “We can take any candidate off the street, teach them the exam questions, and enable them to pass a test with a weekend’s worth of study. The result is a lot of unqualified candidates with certifications in hand. Performance-based testing resolves that contradiction by testing real-world skills.”

Get ready for IT

Performance-based certification for the IT industry is an idea whose time has come. It’s necessary and it’s happening already. Right now only a few companies are doing it, but more than a few companies are considering it. You should keep an eye out for these kinds of certifications and be prepared to pay for and take them if you want a way to really learn the skills it takes to get a particular IT job done.

I like the idea of hands-on testing and have advocated for years that companies looking to hire people with good IT skills make up their own tests based on the kind of work they do every day. A set of standardized performance tests related to different IT jobs makes a lot of sense and will help companies find and hire the best.

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