Certified Architect?

I received a press release from The Open Group a couple of weeks ago regarding their IT Architecture Certification (ITAC) program. This is a subject that I haven’t discussed on my blog until now.

Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of certifications. Back when I was assisting in the interviewing process for Java developers, I saw quite a few developers who were best described as “book smart.” That is, they had memorized sufficients amounts of the certification guides from Sun, but taken outside of that certification context, their ability to contribute value was questionable. It seemed to me that these certifications were really only of value to consulting/contracting firms, because it gave them some kind of a stamp to indicate that the people they were providing had some level of qualification. Of course, the organizations doing the certification gained value as well, as people paid for the training/testing/etc.

When people discuss a need for certification, it ultimately comes back to a need to make the process of finding suitable candidates easier. In my experience in corporate IT, there’s always been at least one group that does pre-screening of candidates before they ever show up on the desk of the team performing the interviews. It’s likely that this includes HR, and also likely that it includes a number of contracting/placement firms. After all, the value proposition of these placement firms is that they provide “qualified” candidates, versus just opening the flood gates to resumes from the Internet. The real problem in all of this is that certifications are disconnected from how people work on a day-to-day basis.

Take the P.E. (Professional Engineer) designation as an example. In the context of a civil engineer, there are certain things that only a P.E. is allowed to do regarding designs, otherwise the company producing that design puts themselves at significant legal risk should that design fail. No respectable civil engineering firm is going to have designs that haven’t been signed off by a P.E. The same thing does not exist in the world of IT. Not only is there no standardized “sign-off” process, but there also isn’t any kind of liability (other than potentially losing your job) if you deliver an IT solution that fails.

If there is no standardization in the way that we perform the work, how can any of the potential value in certifications be realized? Where I see organizations and individuals struggle is where there’s a mismatch between the culture of the organization and the desired culture of the individual. I’ve seen people that are viewed as industry experts struggle mightily because the way that they like to operate simply doesn’t match with the way that the company operates. I’ve also seen teams that may not have had the strongest technical people be far more successful because they simply work better as a team.

At the architect level, my experience has shown that the successful architects tend to be the ones that excel at leadership, influence, and communication. They have to be strong technically, but technical knowledge alone does not make a successful architect. From a technical perspective, it’s probably even more critical that the architect can learn quickly and focus in on the critical aspects of the solution, rather than simply having significant technical depth and experience. How do we assess this? While technical knowledge can be tested, the interpersonal skills are very subjective. On top of that, not only may two people judge interpersonal skills differently, the aspects of what an organization finds important in interpersonal skills will vary. This factor makes it very difficult to come up with a certification process that will really add the value that the proponents claim is possible.

I won’t go so far as to say that certifications have no value, but in terms of IT solution development, they’re simply another tool. A blanket rule that sifts out any resume that doesn’t include certification Foo is probably going to result in you missing out on many good candidates. Because of the lack of standardization in job descriptions and processes, certifications are simply another data point to be factored into the equation. James McGovern has commented on how he likes when potential candidates have blogs. The lack of a blog shouldn’t rule out a good candidate any more than the lack of a certification does. The existence of a blog, certifications, speaking experience, etc. all must be examined.

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