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Hiding Behind Certification

Hiding Behind Certification

The truth &#8212 as we all so bitterly know &#8212 is that the IT world is filled with certified, credentialled and accredited idiots. I bet you've hired a few. I know I have

An overreliance on IT sheepskins is a recipe for disaster.

Professional circumstances have twice required me to become an "instant expert" on certification. The first time involved grasping the byzantine ins and outs of health-care plan accreditation. The second time required understanding the politics (and economics) of how different universities granted diplomas and certificates for their business, technical and professional extension courses. I learned far more than I bargained for.

Both experiences recalled Bismarck's famous epigram that one should never see either laws or sausage being made. I was shocked. Professional certification and accreditation turned out to be processes as messy, political, misleading and dysfunctional as most enterprise software development and implementation initiatives. The critical difference, of course, is that testing software quality is easier and less ambiguous than testing the quality of a certification.

That's why I've been struck by the seemingly pathological need so many CIOs have for the certification of skills and accreditation of organizational performance. I find this craving misguided and pathetic. What does it really say when someone is Microsoft certified? Or has a certificate in "network engineering" from a quality university? Or if a development organization has a Capability Maturity Model Level 3 rating? Or is ISO 9000 compliant?

In many respects, these questions are as pointless and silly as asking, what does it mean to graduate summa cum laude from Harvard in English? Or, how good a lawyer will you be if you performed brilliantly on the multi-state bar exam? Or, to be a total jerk about it, how superior an executive would you be if you had an MBA from one of the top business schools?

Unfortunately, these silly and pointless questions are templates for the questions so many CIOs ask themselves when they seek to outsource development or weigh the quality of their own human capital investments. For reasons I fully understand but totally reject, many CIOs increasingly look to certification and accreditation standards as "market signals" indicative of professional quality and reliability. This represents the laziest and most dangerous kind of cover-your-ass thinking by C-level executives.

The truth — as we all so bitterly know — is that the IT world is filled with certified, credentialled and accredited idiots. I bet you've hired a few. I know I have. The fact that someone has an aptly named BS from Harvard topped off with a misleadingly named master's from MIT does not a good developer (or employee) make. We have to ask ourselves why we make the assumptions we do about individuals with "elite" credentials. The answer says far more about our personal biases than their professional attitudes, aptitudes and skills. Shame on us.

Similarly, the fact that an organization is CMM Level 3 or even CMM Level 5 may be far less revealing about its development capabilities than the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) had in mind. (For more on this, read "Bursting the CMM Hype", CIO, March.)

What does this have to do with the challenges of IT implementation? Everything. To put it politely, we look at credentials and certifications as brands and risk management investments. After all, how incompetent could a Harvard or MIT graduate be? How incompetent could a CMM Level 4-rated Bangalorean development shop be?

But regular readers of this column know I'm not polite: The business reality is that credentialled brand names are little more than shortcuts for executives who are either too busy or too lazy to do their homework. Don't get me wrong - I have nothing against shortcuts. The question should be, is this a good shortcut or a bad shortcut?

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