Thursday, November 26, 2009

Professional Certification

Just a few days ago I was laughing at real-estate agents that they may soon be required to pass an entrance examination to test them in practical knowledge as well as moral soundness (out of curiosity will this be a multiple choice test?). While it was expected - they are pretty much the last profession without any education or knowledge required, yet they represent you on your single highest monthly expense (in SG). The fact that there is no law regulating the real estate market does not make the situation easier - it doesn't mean no law - nothing to know - everybody plays by they own rules. Two days later I stopped laughing...seems that we're next...

As I've said so many times on so many places, I really believe in professional certification (and I completely respect those who don't), however, it really matters how this certification is done. For that reason I (mostly) don't really care about academic (university) results as they mostly represent ability to know a little about many things but nothing about one thing. They are very important in other aspects, though. As explained in books like The Talent Code and Talent is Overrated I believe that to really know something you need to clock-in your 10,000 hours of practice. I teach ruby/rails programming in 2.5 days course and I am able to cover almost everything to get you started writing even ERP solution, but does that mean that after 2.5 days of intensive training you're proficient in ruby or rails? Yes - if you spend the next few years working with it.

As such I was first quite enthusiastic to read that the government is stepping in to regulate our profession as well. Thanks to the thousands of failed projects and millions of government money wasted they decided that the current practice of audit after the project completion is as effective in weeding out failing vendors as a postmortem is in weeding out smoking. While many times the problem is on both sides - the vendor's as well as the client's - the experience of the vendor can make up for a lot of issues on clients side. Most of our clients went through a software development experience once or twice in their lives - while we go through it every day. I am talking about SME market here - where the projects go anything but as planned. Running a small business is like yachting - constantly monitoring the wind, the sea and reacting to every small change - either capitalize on it or run from devastating effects. While it's essential to standardize the processes - otherwise there's no business to run - you have to be ever ready to unfreeze the process adjust and freeze again. And your IT infrastructure either moves with you or against you. That's why the SME landscape looks so different to government regulated, without exception SAP dominated MNC market.

Back to certification, imagine my surprise to find out that the certification has been outsourced to an NGO that specializes in Microsoft certification. In fact, they do exclusively Microsoft certification and now this. First I thought, this may not be so bad - I can surely brush up on some VB craft if that's what it takes to be professional in 2010. But it gets worse. There is no preparation and there is no exam. Your professional level is black box decided solely based on 4,000 words self assessment essay of your past 6 years. No interview, no actual review of your work - 4,000 words of narration. On top of this you of course have to sign up for membership in this great organization because the certificate is only valid with a paid membership. Talk about business model - the costs - read a short essay - the revenue $800 for reading and $100 every year after. And since it's becoming a government requirement - not only the new members HAVE to come to you - even the old ones HAVE to stay - a truly new level of marketing and retention. I think universities have a lot to learn here - imagine your degree is valid so long that you pay a yearly fee. But I understand - even NGOs have to make money - and if you liken it to bar certificates lawyers have to pay every year it's not even so unusual. What still worries me a little is that Microsoft is to decide my professional level. I have a great respect for them - the company as well as the products. The problem is that I simply slipped during university and I somehow didn't get to back the right path ever since. I can only imagine a Microsoft grown professional reading my essay - my master thesis was on open source (this was back in 2000 when open source was fairly new to the business as well as academia). Besides having converted number of companies data centers from windows to linux with the exception of 1 software project all the others were done using non-microsoft technologies like Ruby, Java, Python, PostgreSql. If it was not enough we've been pioneering agile methodologies since maybe 2002 - I have not worked on waterfall model project since 2001.

Some of my friends actually suggested to write the essay as I normally would and then simply search and replace...Linux for windows, posgresql for MS Sql, java for J++, ruby for VB.net or C#, agile for waterfall.

Don't get me wrong - I am all for professional certification. All the other professions have it - so why not us. Lawyers have to pass the bar, accountants have ACCA and CPA, doctors have their attestations, even my mother as a teacher has to get recertified every 2 years. Even not so knowledge intensive professions have certifications - e.g. taxi drivers here are tested on the knowledge of the shortest path between any two points in Singapore. Of course, all those tests are considered only a prerequisite for practice - nobody really things that passing a bar will make you Allan Shore or Denny Crane. What it does is that it gives you guarantee that your lawyer or your doctor or your accountant achieved certain industry recognized standard and passed independent assesment. Why is independence of this assesment so important? After all, market numbers (or any numbers for that matter) clearly show that MS knows best how to do things. How would you like if every doctor would have to be certified by Pfizer or Merck or whoever had the best market numbers last year? Every doctor has to use their drugs anyway...

I definitelly think the governmet deserves a lot of credit for trying to improve current situation. Maybe it won't be as simple as appointing one company to award black box professional certifications...but it certainly is a step forward. And of course I know it won't be so hard...we'll all have to pass it after all.

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