This feature first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Meet our partner Sheila, a solution architect, and Simon, an employee from technical support. Both are considering getting certified. I don't have the credentials to diagnose whether Sheila or Simon are certifiable in the medical sense. I can, however, determine whether they have what it takes to be certified in NetApp technology.
As you can imagine, it's quite a journey to become certified. Like any journey, to reach your destination, you need to start somewhere. Your certification journey starts with the belief that there is professional and personal value in becoming certified.
Next, certification requires choosing a path. Not everyone follows the same path — the right certification path depends on your individual and business goals. In the end, it's all about experiencing, appreciating, and placing trust in the process.
Starting the journey to certification
There are two types of certification candidates, those who love certifications and those who don't know that they love certifications ... yet. Where are you as you begin your certification journey?
Sheila just heard that her company is one certification short of compliance. She had considered certification in the past, but was never able to spend the time required. Compliance, her main driver to certify, is in place for a reason — it validates that a partner organization is qualified in a specific technology and can confidently architect, implement, and administer a specific solution.
Simon, on the other hand, is struggling to determine why he would need a certification. Unlike Sheila, he has no need to stay compliant. So what are the other goals, personal or professional, that might be served by getting certified?
It is easy to find information on why you should become certified. The goal of this article is not to reiterate the benefits of certification listed in every advertisement or survey — for example, salary increases, or improved confidence in an individual's various information technology (IT) skills.
Neither is the goal to go on and on about how organizations can have confidence in an employee's experience because the employee has achieved a standard of excellence for a given job role. Instead, I want to focus on how certifications are purpose-built to ensure that they provide value to the candidates themselves and the organizations they represent.
Certifications are built for the candidate
Creating a certification path is a multi-faceted effort. Developing a single certification track can take a company more than two years from ideation to completion. It typically involves more than 30 subject matter experts (SMEs) across partner, customer, and internal organizations and can cost as much as $100,000. Part of that development cost is spent on unbiased third-party psychometricians who facilitate the process and ensure the fairness and legal defensibility of the certification exam.
Companies make a significant investment in the people who want to be certified. Although candidates might pay for a certification exam, the point is not to drive a high profit margin — the point is to increase confidence and customer loyalty in the industry. Without a solid business case, a certification does not happen. Period.
Where does the business case come from? Industry demands. In some situations, as was the case with our NetApp Hybrid Cloud Certification track, it's a response to a shift in the market: a moment when we took a step back and asked, 'How will we validate whether our end users have the right skills to be successful in a hybrid cloud world?'
Sheila and her peers were on our minds as we were building our NetApp Hybrid Cloud Certification track. She remains foremost in our thoughts as we analyze the framework to support customers and partners in the field.
On the other hand, we keep NetApp employees like Simon in mind when we update our support certifications. This is especially true when determining the breadth and depth of skills our technical team must have to be successful in their roles.
Every business case for a certification must be vetted. NetApp has created a detailed document identifying certification requirements. This is the first step in building a certification. Next, we talk with our audiences. We interview our audiences to understand whether there is need in the market to validate the specific skills on which we build a new certification.
We also want to understand whether there is an 'appetite' to create and consume the exam. We invest time to understand the value of the exam for the organization that wants to certify people and the value for the candidates and their respective companies. At the end of the interview process, we have an informed sense of what people are doing today in the field, who is doing it, and if there is a demand to keep doing it.
But wait, there's more ...
Once we have decided to build a certification exam, the process called Job Task Analysis (JTA) kicks off. Job roles are identified and the main objectives for the exams are determined. A diverse group of qualified SMEs who have experience working with the technology in the field are key to creating a relevant exam.
This group should be an accurate cross section of the field, not just folks who are interested to participate. Some of the SME's are then selected to participate in an Item Development Workshop (IDW) for continuity. In this workshop, the actual items (that is, the certification exam questions) are written.
A JTA is typically two days long, and an IDW takes a full work week. There is a requirement that six SMEs be present at any given time to ensure that the exam is legally defensible. This is an industry standard, one that any psychometrician knows well. Every organization that creates a certification process should be serious about ensuring that it is valid and adds value.
I have provided all this information up until this point to say: Sheila and Simon, we are invested in you becoming certifiable. After Sheila and Simon pass their exams and continue to apply their knowledge in the field, they could even become the SMEs for future exams.
Don't get me wrong. Many people who are not certified are excellent at their jobs. But there are routinely instances when a certified individual is required to deploy specific solutions and troubleshoot specific customer issues. Certifications are created to greatly decrease the number and frequency issues.
Eeny, meeny, miney, moe, which direction should I go?
Sheila and Simon cannot wait to get certified. Sheila can see the value that certified solution architects bring to her company and looks forward to sharing her credentials with her peers in the industry. Simon has been in his role for a long time, and now understands why it's in his best interest to achieve a standard of excellence through a certification exam.
So Sheila and Simon view the certification website and try to figure out where to begin. Many companies have progressive programs. NetApp certifications are available at the associate (entry), professional, specialist, and expert level. Everyone has the same starting point and then reaches a fork in the road as they move up to a higher level.
General guidelines for success are based on recommendations from a psychometrician and always include a mix of experience and training. Entry-level certifications typically are close to 70 percent recall to understand concepts and require up to six months of experience. To reach the professional level, there is a 50 percent recall and 50 percent application question mix and an extra six-to-12 months of experience are needed, and so on, up to the specialist level and expert levels.
What about training? It is rarely mandatory, but is often helpful to achieve a certification. Around 30 percent of exam questions tend to be pulled from training resources. Training by itself, however, doesn't guarantee success on an exam. Whereas some foundational knowledge is needed, training can never cover all relevant scenarios.
To pass an entry-level certification, candidates should have a good knowledge of training materials. At each higher level, however, on-the-job experience is increasingly important to passing an exam. This progressive importance of experience is by design. A certification would not be valuable if it didn't require candidates to apply the knowledge that they've gained in their roles.
In the meantime, Sheila and Simon have both decided to start their journey at the associate level. NetApp's entry level is the same across all certification tracks and requires basic knowledge of the full NetApp portfolio. Sheila will then follow the NetApp Hybrid Cloud Certification track, and Simon will move on to the support-specific certifications.
I'm all in, but what does that mean?
As a candidate who sees value in a given certification program, you play an important part in protecting the integrity of the program. Take it seriously — because the industry certainly does. Certification programs have built-in security scripts (algorithms) to identify suspicious testing behavior.
It can take a typical certification candidate up to a full year (sometimes even longer) to achieve a certification, and a company will protect the value of the certification for that candidate. Work hard to apply your knowledge. If you cannot apply your skills in a customer environment, perhaps you can do so in a lab environment.
Failure is okay. Exams are created to be difficult to pass. How else could organizations recognize those who are truly capable and competent? Failure helps you identify areas where you need more experience or training. It can be frustrating, but based on advice from psychometricians, initial failure is a part of the process for roughly 50 percent of certification candidates.
Don't envy those SMEs who create the exam items. Many NetApp SMEs have said that it is even more difficult to write exam items than it is to take the exam.
Exams are built with a legally defensible process and rely on the vast experience and knowledge of experts. They help you grow in your career and provide a clear value to you and your organization. Which leaves me with only one question: Are you certifiable?
Roslyn Jones, Vice President NetApp Learning continues to receive feedback from our customers, partners, and employees emphasizing the impact that certification has had on their careers and on their confidence. As one solutions engineer states, 'Getting certified on a specialist level verifies my knowledge and skills. And as a bonus, it proves my value to my company.'
If you are interested in getting started with NetApp certifications, visit our website at: netapp.com/support