What do you do with some jerk who fraudulently claims to have a network certification? If you listen to my friend Erik Eckel, you toss them in jail—at least that’s what his article advocates. He views this as the only way to protect the interests of the many network administrators who’ve gotten and maintained their certifications, often at their own expense.

I’ve got to tell you, I think this is a horrible idea, truly a case of the cure being worse than the disease. Let me tell you why, as well as what I think we should do to penalize those who fraudulently claim to have certifications they aren’t entitled to.

A legitimate concern…
Just because I think Erik’s solution is too draconian doesn’t mean I don’t think he has a legitimate grievance. Companies like Microsoft have created a whole series of certifications that are properly valued by employers and employees alike. When someone falsely claims to have an MCSE, for example, he or she is clearly acting unethically and harming those who can legitimately claim the certification. In this way, bogus cert claims devalue the efforts of those who actually put in the time and money to take the classes and pass the tests.

Further, the problem of fraudulent certification claims presents serious problems for employers as well. As anyone knows, it’s much easier to hire an unqualified employee than to fire one, once he or she is on the payroll. And even if an employer doesn’t actually get taken in by false certifications, verifying them makes the hiring process more time-consuming and expensive. Perhaps most importantly, as employers continue to get burned by fake MCSEs and CNEs, they might simply disregard the certification altogether—which will deprive them of a valuable way to screen potential new hires.

…but a bad solution
So Erik and I agree that the problem of bogus certifications is real, and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Where we disagree is over his solution. I don’t like the idea of creating a new state or federal statute to address fraudulent claims of IT certification. Here’s why I think it’s a bad idea:

  • It’s extreme: Erik believes that making it a crime will discourage people from making these claims. He’s probably right—but that still doesn’t make it a good idea. After all, I dare say that if we made end users who didn’t update the virus definitions on their laptops subject to death by firing squad, we’d have fewer problems with macro viruses. Still, I don’t think it’s a good idea.
  • It’s unwieldy: Unlike with the accreditation of lawyers, doctors, or accountants, IT certifications change quickly. Further, new companies enter the marketplace and try to build mindshare behind their own brand of certifications, as do new industry and trade associations. How can anyone possibly expect to craft legislation that could deal with the swiftly changing trends and industry alliances regarding certification? Do you really want to have 50 different state regulations on IT certification? When you move from one state to another, do you want to face having to apply to a state agency to get your previous certification accepted there?
  • It gets lawyers involved: I’m on the record as opposing the ever-increasing use of legal action to solve technology disputes. Despite the fact that bogus certifications are a real problem, I just hate the idea of creating yet another growth industry for creative litigation. Do we really want, for example, lawyers to get in the middle of the current controversy surrounding Microsoft’s decision to retire the NT 4 MCSE certification?

While I’m opposed to literally making a federal case out of certification, there are things employers can do. First, check to see if the person’s certification is current. Microsoft and other vendors make this pretty easy to do. Unfortunately, many companies don’t include certifications in their job applications. If someone is hired after falsely claiming to have an MCSE on a job application, for example, that should be grounds for termination. Second, the industry should create a Web site that publicizes individuals who falsely claim to have a certification. Just because claiming a bogus certification shouldn’t be illegal doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be shameful.
Contra professionalization
The main reason I’m opposed to making it a felony to falsely claim an MCSE or CNE certification is that I’m ambivalent about the whole spectacle of accreditation. One of the great things about this industry has traditionally been that it’s a meritocracy. You don’t have to go to a particular school or get a specific degree. You just have to know how to do the work. The IT field is full of people who started doing something else in life, only to be attracted by technology.

I’m glad you don’t have to get a four-year degree in computer science before getting an entry-level job at an IT shop somewhere. I’m glad you don’t have to pass the equivalent of a “bar exam” to work in our industry. All we care about is that you know how to do the work. To the extent that a certification verifies that you know how to do the work, that’s fine.

To my way of thinking, there’s a huge difference between getting an MCSE and getting a CPA or a JD. Perhaps it’s my personal prejudice, but I’ve always looked at these latter tests as methods to limit the pool of potential accountants and lawyers by creating an artificial barrier. Talk to most accountants and lawyers, and they’ll usually admit that passing the bar or getting their CPA was completely irrelevant to most of the things they actually do on the job.

When it comes to the MCSE and other certifications, its main purpose is not to limit entrants to the marketplace, but to verify that the new person actually knows the job.

I hope that never changes.
Bob Artner is Director for Community Content at TechRepublic. He hopes his sister the CPA won’t take offense at his lighthearted remarks about accountants. Also, he would like the company attorneys to know that he thinks they do great work.If you’d like to share your opinion, please post a comment below or send the editor an e-mail.