A short history of IT certification, Part 2: The dawn of technology certification
Posted on
April 25, 2022
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This feature first appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.

NOTE: Part One of our four-part series on the history of IT certification was printed in the October 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. You can read it here.

In Part One of this series, we looked at the origins of professional certification and its adoption across different industries. In this second installment, we're going to focus on the IT industry and show how certifications became a standard form of validation for tech workers.

Industry certifications didn't start with the tech sector. For example, my father worked as a heavy-duty mechanic during the 1970s and 80s, and he was required to take courses and pass exams. He had to be certified to work on specific models of heavy machinery produced by vendors like Terex and Detroit Diesel.

Professional certifications offer benefits to both employer and employee. Getting certified gives workers the specialized training necessary to work in particular circumstances, using specific tools. On the employer side of the equation, businesses get to call themselves "certified service providers" for the pertinent vendor products, which in turn provides elevated industry status and reputation.

This model of professional certification, with its inherent advantages for employees and employers alike, was leveraged by early IT industry employers and organizations. Software companies and computer manufacturers created new training and certification programs for the nascent hightech sector.

The early years

One of the first IT certifications — if not THE first — was created by the Santa Cruz Operation, more familiarly known in the tech world as SCO. Founded in 1979, SCO developed a number of UNIX-based software products, including Xenix and SCO UNIX. In 1985, SCO launched its own certification program for its products. These certifications were:

Certified Unix Systems Administrator (CUSA)
Advanced Computing Expert (ACE)
Master Advanced Computing Expert (Master ACE)

Not long after SCO debuted its certifications, a software company named Novell launched its own training and certification program. Novell was the creator of Novell NetWare, an innovative network operating system that held a strong market position through the 1980s and 1990s … until a certain Redmond, Wash.-based bully stepped up and took Novell's lunch money away. (More about that in a moment.)

Novell's certification portfolio included the following credentials:

Certified Novell Administrator (CNA)
Certified Novell Engineer (CNE)
Master Certified Novell Engineer (MCNE)

Novell was also one of the first tech companies to create a certification specifically for IT trainers: Certified Novell Instructor (CNI). The CNI credential would enable Novell experts to become full-time or part-time instructors in one of the new IT training centers opening up in several countries around the world.

A bright idea catches on

Cisco Systems grew into one of the biggest IT hardware companies on the planet during the 1990s. The company built its own training and certification program to support its product portfolio. Two certifications in particular, the entry-level Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) and the expert-level Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) would become highly recognized and sought-after credentials for computer networking professionals.

One of the IT industry's earliest non-vendor certifying bodies was the Computing Technology Industry Association, a name that quickly morphed into a brand name still familiar today: CompTIA. CompTIA created its first IT certification for desktop computer technicians in 1993. The A+ certification would become a monster credential, eventually becoming the de facto industry standard for computer support and repair techs.

CompTIA built its reputation on being a "vendor-neutral" certifying body, acting as an impartial tech authority that was not beholden to any hardware or software manufacturer. (We'll be looking more at the vendor-neutral topic in Part Three of this series.)

Other venerable IT vendors stepped forward with their own certification programs. IBM, Hewlett Packard, Compaq, and Dell all created certifications for IT professionals who wanted to establish that they were proficient with each individual company’s products.

And then, there was this modest software business called Microsoft.

Certified 800-pound gorilla

The Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) program was launched in 1992 with a grand total of three exams: Windows 3.1, SQL Server, and LAN Manager. It didn't take long, however, for the certification program managers at Microsoft to expand from this modest foundation.

In 1993, the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Microsoft Certified Product Specialist (MCPS) certification made their debut. The Microsoft program managers also took a page from Novell's playbook and introduced a credential for instructors, the Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT).

In 1994, there were only about 5,000 individuals worldwide with the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) designation. A mere four years later, Microsoft announced it had awarded its 100,000th MCP certification. By 1999, Microsoft had certified half a million individuals.

The exponential growth in Microsoft-certified IT pros correlated with the high drama of the dot-com boom, but it also reflected Microsoft's growing domination of the software industry. With the launch of its Windows 2000 family of products, Microsoft became the 800-pound gorilla of the enterprise IT realm.

While open source software options like Linux — a "malignant cancer" in the words of then-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer — maintained some share of the server market, Microsoft's networking, information management, and productivity software suite was implemented in unprecedented numbers.

The Wild Wild Web

Some key factors drove the explosive growth of IT certification from the 1990s into the 2000s. One such factor was the democratization of computer networking and the increasing use of the Internet. In the 1990s, networks were growing in power and capability while also becoming less expensive to implement.

At the same time, the public was starting to surf the rapidly developing internet in record numbers. These rising trends prodded businesses and the public sector to adopt networks and internet technology in order to keep pace with fast-evolving consumer habits and workplace demands.

Another factor driving the growth of IT certification was the dot-com boom, a financial tsunami that led a legion of technocrats to propose new internet companies to venture capital firms in the hopes they would shower the company founders with millions in funding. Every digital entrepreneur wanted to be IPO'ed into the next generation of financial elite.

The tech bubble produced a huge demand for tech workers, which had the corollary effect of raising the popularity and recognition of IT certifications. Many people didn't have the time or money to go to a college or university and complete a four-year degree program — but they could take night courses at one of a growing number of authorized technical schools and IT training centers that promised quick and easy certification.

Of course, a certification is (or was, at the time) just a piece of paper. And possessing a piece of paper isn’t always the same thing as possessing job-ready IT knowledge and skills. As IT certification exploded onto the scene, a contentious issue arose concerning the value and validity of many credentials.

Among those pointing the finger of scorn at each other were vendor-based certification programs and their vendor-neutral counterparts. We'll examine this issue in Part Three of this series.

About the Author

Aaron Axline is a technology journalist and copywriter based in Edmonton, Canada. He can be found on LinkedIn, and anywhere fine coffee is served.

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