Certifications have always been about benchmarking and assessing IT professionals' ability to use technology and provide something of a guarantee that candidates are competent with needed skills in the workplace. But as DevOps, continuous delivery, agile, scrum and other frameworks become necessary, the question around certification of these skills becomes this: How can you accurately assess and measure the less-tangible, softer skills hiring managers require? And if you're an IT pro, do you need one or more of these certifications at all?
"This isn't so different from the existing certification world in that it's about measuring people's ability to use tech to drive the business. We can use certifications to verify that they have the hard skills to do the job and use certain tools, but we also need to measure understanding of principles and best practices around technology," says François Déchery, co-founder and vice president of customer success at continuous delivery solutions company CloudBees.
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A subjective assessment
That brings elements of subjectivity into an area that's traditionally been seen as a objective way to measure skills and competency. Organizations have unique needs and so their idea of "best practices" might be different from one business to another, says Déchery.
"Is there a 'right' answer? What is the best 'best practice' for some of these skills? By definition you're asking about what's 'best practice' not just for the frameworks and skills you're measuring, but how candidates will apply those to your business -- given X, Y and Z constraints, how would you design, build deploy and integrate tools? What about security? How about usage of management systems? Resource allocation and value? This is what many of these certifications are really trying to get at," Déchery says.
In newer, more niche areas like DevOps, agile and continuous delivery, where the space hasn't been fully defined, certification becomes even more important and can also help differentiate candidates in the marketplace by signaling not just technical competency, but also a candidate's approach to solving problems and addressing issues, says Jose Alvarez, cofounder and managing director of technology consulting firm Zivra.
"IT certifications around these areas can also be used to show which point of view you are representing. Where new definitions and points-of-view are being developed every day within these frameworks, IT certifications demonstrate which approach you will take to solving your customers' issues. For example, will you take an enterprise service view to DevOps, or are you certifying yourself in specific technology or automation?" Alvarez says.
Skills around DevOps and agile are much broader than one specific technology or process. In order to measure a candidate's capability in these areas, you need to know that they can work with more than one technology or process, and that's what many of these certifications are trying to address, Alvarez says.
"DevOps or agile certification demonstrates that the individual has gained a good understanding of broader concepts and other skills like 'management' or 'communication.' The risk is that it is difficult to measure and benchmark these skills. One way to ensure that these certifications are valid and will produce the desired results is to do some research on the certification authority. What experience do they have in certifying this competency, and which point of view do they represent?" Alvarez says.
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Training the trainer
That means that certifying bodies must also produce a body of knowledge and learning materials about their own approaches to topics and frameworks like DevOps, agile, scrum and continuous delivery to ensure candidates understand the "why" and "how" behind the best practices that they will eventually be assessed on, says Déchery.
"You not only have to produce a set of guides to cover what's on an exam, but also the approaches and frameworks that were used to come up with the certifications. You have to go into a great level of detail about what is covered on the exam, outline the topics and the approaches which are going to be covered, so they can see where you are coming from when you created the exams around these technologies. It's a way of saying, 'This is what we mean by 'best practices' and this is where our perspective is coming from," he says.
Many of these certifications are taking a "flipped classroom" approach to learning that uses hands-on experience, scenario-based training, essay questions and real-world simulations scored in real-time to gauge both technical competency and broader, less-tangible skills, says James Stanger, senior product development manager at CompTIA.
"For the last 20 or 30 years, certification has meant taking an exam. But lately we've seen an emphasis on content and courseware delivery and on the training piece. Part of that is how candidates are taught material, but also how they use that knowledge in real-world situations, how they do idea exchange and knowledge sharing. The idea is that a candidate would be given scenario-based assessments that happen in real-time, based on a set of facts and given a certain technology or framework, and then see how they respond to gauge their skill and expertise," Stanger says.
These kinds of certifications are more difficult to design, develop and deliver, but they can offer a much deeper, broader view into a candidate's potential; combining of certifications and is a great way to get an edge in the competitive hiring market. Especially in areas where experience is scarce, the next best thing may be an IT certification, says Alvarez.
More than just hard skills
"Employers today are looking for candidates that can bring thought leadership; not just your typical IT engineer or IT administrator. These new thought leaders will need the knowledge, leadership and communication skills required to help bring digital transformation to their enterprise. DevOps, and agile, continuous delivery and other similar IT certifications are just one more way to show that the candidate is prepared," he says.