On Certifications

Earlier today, the owner of a recruitment company asked me, “What’s wrong with dumps?” I’ve seen many blog posts over the years asking about the usefulness of qualifications, usually written by IT veterans with years of experience looking back on a career that, in some cases, was made on the back of good certifications, and in others was made despite the lack. In all cases, though, there is an assumption that the certifications are properly come by. There is never mention of cheating. There is sometimes an issue of impartiality (just how much use can a qualification be if the adjudicator has a bias towards people passing?), but that is as far as discussion goes. But of course there are cheats. Every system can be circumvented; every system at some point is circumvented.

Qualifications, whether government or industry ones, are designed to prove one of two things: firstly, a minimum level of experience in a specific subject; secondly, the ability to learn. As we move through the education system, the second increases in importance. In public education, be that GCSE, high school diploma, or bachelor’s or master’s degree, great care is taken to ensure that qualification exams are impartial. In the UK, below degree level, the exams are set by national bodies that are not part of the schools. At degree level, the universities work together to ensure that degrees from each are the same across the different institutions. I know this very well personally, as my degree was marked right on a grade boundary, and I had an interview with professors from both my university and the marking body in which they quick-fired questions at me.

With regard to industrial qualifications, we have to trust the providers that they are marking fairly and working ethically. Opinions differ on how well they do this. In public education, the numbers of students mean that a new exam can be released for each cohort of students. For industrial qualifications, where the exams are taken year-round and in relatively small numbers, this simply isn’t possible. This means that the exams have a very limited question set. Some people take pains to memorise (or even photograph or otherwise record) these question sets to build up a full set of questions and correct answers. These question sets, known as “dumps,” are the cheat’s dream. The exam providers take great pains to implement systems to stop this, from not allowing recording devices into exams to video recording each participant. Still, the dump files appear.

On the one hand, we have exams that are designed to show a candidate’s skill with a specific technology, usually to help with career progression. On the other, we have the relativity easy availability of dump files containing all of the answers, allowing the unscrupulous to pass with no real understanding. With employers wanting candidates for roles to prove their experience, having the certification is a bonus; however, when employers realise that many exams can be “dumped,” the value of the certification drops, and those who put in genuine effort are devalued in the process. The question “Are certifications worthwhile?” is a valid one in a world where many who possess a certification got it by cheating. This is not helped by vendor partnership programs that require partners to have staff with certain qualifications. Unscrupulous employers require staff to get the certifications “by whatever means possible,” fuelling the dump industry.

We are now in a position in which certifications can be very useful indicators, but are no longer proof of anything. Despite the letters and acronyms on paper, we still need to test potential staff to ensure they have the skills the certifications imply. We effectively have to test that we can trust we are not being lied to!

So, when a recruiter who specialises in IT doesn’t doesn’t realise this, sells its candidates based on their certifications while also devaluing those candidates by sharing dump information, and at the same time asks, “What’s wrong with dumps?,” I despair a little inside.