(This essay appeared in our latest SQLskills Insider newsletter over the weekend and generated such a lot of discussion that I thought I’d share it with all of you who just read my blog. I’ve added a few points at the end too.)

There’s constant debate in the SQL Server community about whether the current certifications are worthwhile. Until recently, if you’d asked me, my opinion was that apart from the MCM certification, most SQL Server certifications were a waste of time and money.

This has understandably annoyed some people as many employers require certain certifications, and people like to get certifications to prove to themselves that they’re capable. I’m not saying your certification is worthless – but that its worth to anyone but you has been diluted through the actions of others. You know whether you have the real-deal skills or not, but how do others?

Why have I held this somewhat controversial view? It’s because over the last few years there’s been a sad proliferation of ways to allow someone to pass these certifications without the required knowledge and experience.

And don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a rant against Microsoft. It’s a rant against those whose actions have led to the detraction of the integrity of the existing certifications – those who want a short-cut to a certification and those who provide them.

For example, for most of the Microsoft SQL Server certifications, you’ve been able to:

  1. Attend a 3-5 day ‘boot camp’ that crams enough knowledge down your throat so you pass the exam at the end of the week
  2. Buy a book that gives you all the knowledge you need to *pass the exam*
  3. Buy a brain-dump from someone who’s memorized the exam
  4. (Allegedly, in some countries) Pay someone else to take the exam on your behalf

Note: I’m not implying that someone who does #1 or #2 is also going to do #3 or #4, just that this is the list of what someone can do to help pass the exam.

I cannot fathom how someone can live with themselves after doing #3 or #4 above – blatantly cheating to achieve a certification is despicable.

#1 and #2 aren’t that much better in my opinion. The point of a certification is that it certifies that you have a certain level of knowledge and experience in a subject. Reading a book or having knowledge drummed into you isn’t experience – it’s just book learning. Many prep guide books have given you the knowledge needed to pass the exam, not the complete set of knowledge implied by the certification – same for the boot camps. However, picking up a book to fill a few gaps in knowledge is acceptable, just not getting the book as the only source of knowledge for passing the exam.

This state of affairs has not been limited to the SQL Server certifications, and has not been limited to Microsoft at all – it’s been all pervasive through the certification industry, from what I can tell.

There’s also been the perception that in many of the non-MCM SQL Server certifications, some of the questions have incorrect answers and that some of the questions try to steer you towards picking the new features as the answer. I’ve heard this from many people who’ve taken certification exams.

This means there’s been a big problem: lack of confidence that someone with certification X actually has the commensurate knowledge and experience that certification X implies. I’ve even heard of companies that discard resumes when the candidate lists a bunch of certifications, on the premise that they must be falsified – which I think is taking the not-trusting-the-certifications to a misguided extreme.

The people who have been suffering are the vast majority of people who take the certifications the ‘proper’ way – building up experience over time and then taking the exams. For these people, hearing that anyone can take a short-cut and get the certification without having the real knowledge and experience really reduces the value of their having the certification. And, because it’s been common knowledge that people can cheat or short-cut the exams, it must be incredibly frustrating for those who do it the right way and spend money on the certifications in good faith.

The sad reality has been that one cannot assume that a certification equals the holder having the certified qualities.

This is one of the (many) reasons why the SQL MCM certification was created – a certification that cannot be passed without taking a practical exam and that you cannot pass with just book learning. (Ironically though, you need to have some of the lesser certifications before you can be awarded the MCM.)

There are various layers of security that were used in the re-launch of the SQL MCM program.  Right now, having the MCM really means a lot.  I won’t get in to the specifics of the security precautions here (for obvious reasons) but I will be incredibly upset on the day I hear of the first brain-dump for the MCM because then the MCM certification won’t be trustworthy.

I wish this overall situation were otherwise. I wish people didn’t cheat or look for short cuts. There’s even been talk amongst the SQL Server MVP community of creating a set of community certifications to try to work around these problems. Why hasn’t it happened? Because it’s very hard, time consuming, and expensive to do – and, ultimately, it would be vulnerable to some of these issues as well.

My opinion has been changed recently by steps Microsoft has taken to re-instill confidence in the integrity of their certifications. Last November Microsoft released an interview with Don Field, their Senior Director of Certification and Training (see Microsoft Ensures Integrity of Its Certification Program) which lists a bunch of things they’ve been doing, including suing a notorious brain-dumping site, banning exam candidates that can be proven to have used unfair means to pass, and aggressively shutting down web sites with leaked exam content.

The Microsoft Press exam and certification guides have also started emphasizing that reading through the book is not enough to pass the exam and the exams themselves are becoming a lot more in-depth and higher quality. Furthermore, testing centers are coming under high scrutiny to ensure they are not allowing cheating to take place.

I applaud these actions. It’s high time that the millions of people with Microsoft certifications can start to feel that their certification means something to other people. However, I think that Microsoft learning partners and testing centers have to play along here and get with the security program – for the benefit of everyone. And I think that Microsoft has to continue to be aggressive in its anti-cheating crusade – as the cheaters will never stop trying to make a buck from people looking for a short cut.

If you ask me my opinion today, it’s that things are slowly moving in the right direction and I hope the overall value is going to re-emerge for the non-MCM certifications. I really, really hope this happens – as otherwise, how can we gauge the knowledge and experience of the vast majority of SQL Server professionals out there? And then what value will the certifications be?

Call to action: Simple: if you’re going for a certification, go about it the right way. Don’t cheat or take short cuts – you’re only cheating yourself, and making a mockery of the certification you just ‘attained’.

[Additional that wasn’t in the newsletter: 

I’ve had feedback from two people on the mailing list that they’ve heard of folks trying to find a brain-dump of the MCM knowledge exam. That makes me really sad, and angry!

Call to action for Microsoft: I think each certification exam should have a practical (lab) component so that it validates people really *know* the stuff rather than having just read a book, for instance. Yes, this will cost more to implement, but that’s an investment in getting more people onto the Microsoft platform as the certifications will be really meaningful. Provision of certifications should not be under a revenue-generating model anyway – the cost should be non-negotiably borne by the various product groups IMHO – as a way of fostering more adoption of their products.

End additional.]

I’m really interested to know your thoughts on certifications – please comment!