May 2, 2007

Certification on the upswing again

Author: Bruce Byfield

After several years of decline, the demand for certification and training in GNU/Linux and other free software areas is stronger than ever. That's the general opinion of experts in the field, as they discuss where certification has been, current course offerings, customer services, and trends for the future.

GNU/Linux certification emerged in the late 1990s as recognition of the operating system first became widespread. However, Jim Lacey, CEO of the Linux Professional Institute (LPI), notes that certification was "overmarketed and oversold," and its demand declined in the first years of the millennium. Part of the reason for the decline as the dot-com crash, in which free software schemes were heavily involved, but, according to Lacey, there were also widespread doubts about "whether certification truly measured someone's skills." In addition, companies' claims that certification would help students' job and salary prospects proved exaggerated. "I think the hype preceded the demand," says Carol Balkcom, product manager at CompTIA. Nor did the GNU/Linux desktop market grow as quickly as people anticipated, which reduced the anticipated demand for administrators and technical support experts.

Now, all certification programs are seeing a new demand for their services. Steve King, director of training services at Novell, notes that "quarter over quarter, we're seeing a 20-30% growth in the demand for certification over the last year." Randy Russell, director of certification and curriculum at Red Hat, sees similar growth, especially in more advanced programs. Scott Gray, director of the O'Reilly School of Technology, claims an even larger growth of 50% in 2006 and projects a 60-70% increase for 2007.

World-wide, trends are harder to discern. King sees interest as "pretty consistent across the globe," reflecting the increased interest in free and open source software. Since GNU/Linux is still at an early stage of adoption, King suggests, it is only natural for the demand to be rising more sharply than for Microsoft operating systems, whose certification programs are more mature.

However, Lacey sees distinct differences in various markets. In Japan, certification has been growing steadily since 2000 for LPI. Europe, especially Germany, is another rapidly growing market, while China, India, and Brazil are areas where Lacey sees growth just beginning.

Course diversification

When GNU/Linux certification started, courses were designed to be largely basic overviews for administrators and, to some extent, developers. However, in the last few years, the range of course offerings has expanded. Courses for general users are still rare, although Novell OpenCourseWare has started presenting some material. But more entry-level courses for the technically minded have started to appear, such as the Red Hat Certified Technician and the recently announced Novell Desktop Administrator program. This, Lacey predicts, is "a market that is poised for tremendous growth."

Yet, for now, the greatest growth seems to be in advanced and technical courses. CompTIA has responded to this trend by positioning itself as a "preliminary certification" that other programs can build on. At Red Hat, the upper-level Red Hat Enterprise Architect and Red Hat Enterprise Security certifications have proved popular recently, and the company has seen strong interest in such topics as clustering and storage management, enterprise deployment, and system management. Similarly, LPI's Level 3 certification is organized around a core subject matter with electives ranging from security to mixed environments and embedded systems. Lacey says that LPI is considering an additional level of certification for anyone interested in taking the entire set of Level 3 electives. In addition, LPI has partnered with Ubuntu and MySQL to provide additional courses in specific software, while Novell is "in discussion with Microsoft" about training to cover cross-platform compatibility, according to King. Adding courses like these can be especially difficult for companies like LPI and CompTIA who take a vendor-neutral position, because advanced subject matter often requires configuration knowledge of a specific distribution.

This kind of diversification has caused some problems in channeling students into the correct program. Novell has responded by offering free technical assessments to incoming students. King describes the use and enthusiasm for this initiative as "phenomenal." But, as Balkcom at CompTIA points out, no matter what you do, "you still have people walking into these exams without any experience."

Written vs. performance-based testing

Like the rest of the training and certification industry, those involved in GNU/Linux training are divided on the subject of whether written or performance-based testing is more desirable. On one hand, written tests, often involving multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions, can be administered anywhere. On the other, performance-based testing is frequently seen as better proof that students have mastered necessary skills, but it's less convenient, especially since it often requires key technical personnel to be absent from their jobs while they travel to the testing sites.

Members of companies that offer performance-based testing argue that it lends more credibility to certification. Performance testing, says King, "gives employers a degree of comfort, knowing that [graduates] can actually perform the task and do their job." Russell says much the same, suggesting that "a lot of credibility has been lost" in the certification industry because of what he calls "paper certs." Russell adds that the IT training and certification industry in general is starting to lean toward performance-based tests. Programs "want to do more of it if they are doing it already, or they are looking at how they can get into it." He suggests that elearning or blended learning might make hands-on testing more convenient in the future.

By contrast, those who belong to companies that administer written tests suggest that the dichotomy in types of testing is inaccurate. Balkcom says, "Multiple choice exams are really intended to measure basic knowledge. If you want to get a sense of whether a person has a basic knowledge of the topic, whether they spent some time on the topic, and whether they're genuinely interested in it, then a multiple choice exam is a fair read of that." Lacey agrees. What is important, Lacey says, is "whether a program is based on a job-path analysis, and whether the creator knows the process to create a psychometrically valid exam."

Still another view is provided by Gray at O'Reilly. For him, both performance-based and written testing are flawed because they are constructed on objectivist theories of learning that present knowledge then test students on their acquisition of it. Instead, Gray favors constructionist theories that emphasize teaching through doing. "In today's world, facts are not so important," Gray says. "Problem-solving and learning and thinking are, because now you can look up everything you need." To this end, O'Reilly courses revolve around what Gray calls "learning sandboxes" where students can follow along with tutorials and do assignments. This way, Gray says, "they internalize, and build their own model of what's going on. We find that they do a lot of experimentation on their own, and they do a lot of discovery that really lies outside the content that we're delivering.

"My hope is that one day these exam-based certifications will just go away," Gray says. "Exams only eliminate who can't do something, but they don't tell you who really can." However, such views are not widely accepted in the industry.

After certification

Another issue in the industry is whether certification should expire. LPI certification currently lasts for five years, although Lacey says that some certification holders were grandfathered when this limit was introduced. In a sense, Red Hat certification never expires, but the verification page for graduates lists the date of certification, and credentials are good for two release cycles; "releases are much more meaningful measure of relevance than just arbitrary dates on a calendar," Russell suggests. By contrast, neither CompTIA nor O'Reilly certification expires, although CompTIA is considering adding expiration in order to achieve ISO and ANSI accreditation for its courses.

Most companies report strongly favorable feedback from graduates. Red Hat certification holders seem especially proud of their credentials. "They feel it a step above most of the certification out there. They are very proud of having earned the credential," Russell says. He describes Red Hat alumni as "incredible advocates" for the program, both at their places of employment and in the community in general, noting that they are quick to defend the Red Hat programs when they are mentioned in the media.

However, services for alumni are still relatively recent in the industry. At O'Reilly, students can continue to have access to the learning sandbox by paying a monthly lab fee. According to Gray, about 40% of students have taken advantage of this offer in order to have a test bed or a portfolio that they can access during job interviews. At Red Hat, graduates can log into mail forums where they can communicate with peers. LPI currently lacks such services, but according to Lacey is testing a career matching service in selected markets. As competition in the market grows, the interest in such services may also grow.

Coming trends

All those interviewed for this article see GNU/Linux certification as continuing. Many are considering additional courses for their programs, and all are keenly aware of the need to update existing courses -- a process that Russell likens to "trying to squeeze 10 pounds of mud into a five-pound bag" as new subject matter such as virtualization arises and old material is evaluated for current relevance.

Besides the constant struggle to update exams or training material, certification companies are also concerned with providing more services to individual and corporate customers. At LPI, the focus has been on corporate consultation, including an extensive testing program for new material, and exploring plans with companies for more vendor-specific certification. Red Hat is equally interested in the needs of corporate customers, as well as ways to deliver its courses to make them more convenient to take.

With all this activity and interest in the future, there is little doubt that, as Lacey says, "We are seeing an up-pick in certification and the funding sources of open source coming back." Few others in the industry would argue. Clearly, the certification market is expanding, and is poised for even more growth in the coming years.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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