Avoiding Shady or Questionable Certifications

Shady behavior

Since I first got involved with the certification business in the early 1990s, I've seen several boom and bust cycles. Today, the GoCertify database encompasses nearly 800 credentials from more then 130 sponsors, and there are many new credentials popping up all the time. So many certs pop up in fact, that it can sometimes seem like "mushrooms after a rain," particularly in subject areas where track records have yet to be established, demand is high, and a "gold rush" mentality often prevails.


In some cases, it can be pretty simple to determine whether a certification is legit. When it pops up on multiple surveys on IT salaries, employer demands, hot topic areas, or most sought-after by cert hunters, it will be a pretty safe bet more often than not. Otherwise, you'll want to ask — and find answers to — some or all of the following questions:


1. How long has the certification provider been around? How transparent are they about their certified population? These metrics help to set the level of continuity for a certification sponsor, and give you a sense of how open and forthcoming the sponsor is about the number of people it certifies or trains.


2. Is the certification available to those who wish to self-study for the exam (or exams) involved? Too many so-called "certfications" are nothing more or less than calculated money grabs, where the sponsor's real goal is to rack up dollars for filling seats in real or virtual classrooms, or by selling cert prep materials and exams. It's not invariably a bad sign when a sponsor usually or always requires classroom or online training before qualifying to take an exam — VMware and Oracle both fall into this camp, for example. But it can and should raise concerns to be addressed in pursuing answers to other questions voiced here.


3. What happens when you call the certification sponsor on the phone? If you get to talk to a live person right away, that's usually a sign that the sponsor is open for (and interested in) your business. If you get an answering machine, and call-backs are slow in coming, that's not the kind of reception you're really after. Here again, it's not necessarily a bad sign, but the more times you must call to make voice contact with a cert sponsor, the more concerned you should be. For example, I've chased some organizations for as long as a month to six weeks on occasion, only to learn that the sponsor recommended a third party cert instead of their own credential! I'd already started wondering if that organization was for real, and started to believe it wasn't before obtaining evidence to support that supposition.


4. How often does the certification receive mention on job posting sites like Monster.com, Dice.com, or Indeed.com? (Indeed is my personal favorite because it provides excellent summary info for the whole country, whereas the other two tend to force more regionalized or localized job searches and thus don't provide a big picture.) If other more popular or well-known credentials also play in the same technology area or specialty, it can also be instructive to compare them against your target cert. Low numbers mean that employers are either unaware of or indifferent to the cert in question, and is almost always a bad sign (or at least a sign that delaying pursuit of the cert might be a good idea).


5. What kind of buzz has the certification collected on the Internet? Who's talking about it, and what kinds of things are they saying? No news is not good news in this case either, and bad news is even worse. If you can't find stories, reviews, or ratings about your chosen cert, ask around proactively to see what kinds of responses others are getting.


6. Who offers training for the target certification? If the only player in the game is the cert sponsor itself this can be a sign that other training companies either don't know or don't care about the credential enough to build third-party course offerings to support it. On the other hand, if one or more national or global training companies (Global Knowledge, SkillSoft, New Horizons, and so forth) does offer a course, this is usually a good sign that their corporate clients are at least mildly interested in getting their employees certified on this credential. These companies research demand very carefully, because developing a course can cost $250,000 or more, and they don't want to invest that kind of money without a good expectation of generating a return on that investment.


7. Does the certification sponsor talk about its exam design methodology? Can you find mention of terms like "job task analysis" or "psychometrics" in their Web pages or brochures? Do they cite a relationship with a psychometrics company, organization, or university faculty? All of these things show a good and deep understanding of the way certification programs should be built and maintained. Their absence isn't always a bad sign, but their presence is almost always a good one.


8. Does the certification sponsor talk about ANSI/ISO/IEC certification 17024? This is an international standard for personnel certification programs that requires great effort and expense to obtain. Only a sponsor who's already certain that their certification is valid, popular, and has a bright enough future to keep "blowin' and goin' " for some time to come is likely to sign up for and pursue this formal accreditation. Because adherence to such standards is often required for certs that governments (like those in the United States, both at the Federal level and in many states) will accept or provide to their employees, this can be considered one of the best signs of all. Be aware, of course, that it generally applies to certs that are already known to be interesting, useful, and valuable in their own right.


By asking the right questions, and getting them answered, you can separate the good certs from those that might involve a degree or risk, or fail to deliver a desirable return on your investment of time, money and effort in pursuing them. Please take the time to work through the process, and you'll be much less likely to be disappointed because your dream cert turns out to be a dud — or perhaps even a nightmare.


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran who's worked as a software developer, technical marketer, consultant, author, and researcher. Author of many books and articles, Ed also writes on certification topics for Tech Target, ComputerWorld and Win10.Guru. Check out his website at www.edtittel.com, where he also blogs daily on Windows 10 and 11 topics.