This feature first appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
There is a highly popular television show called How It's Made that chronicles the nuts-and-bolts details behind how various consumer products are manufactured. The show's lasting popularity is a tribute to both its excellent production quality, and the heightened curiosity many of us have for learning more about what goes into creating something we own, or a service we use.
There isn't a TV show or helpful YouTube series, on the other hand, that explains how new IT certifications are made. It's true that creating a new IT certification isn't as intrinsically fascinating as seeing how a new electric guitar is built, or how chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream gets made.
For IT pros who hold one or more certifications, however, or newcomers who are working towards their first IT certification, knowing more about how new certifications come to life can help them to better quantify the value of a new or existing credential. And besides, sometimes it's just cool to know how stuff happens, right? Ask someone who watches How It's Made.
With that said, let's look at the phases of creating a new vendor-neutral certification. We can even consider how its success — or lack thereof — is measured upon its release.
Phase One: Brainstorming
Here is a familiar scene found in numerous movies and TV shows: A group of employees are gathered around a large conference table in a boardroom, while a manager stands in front of a whiteboard with a dry erase marker, extolling the people in the room to come up with the next "big idea" for a product.
The creation of a new vendor-neutral certification starts with a similar process. The workers who manage and maintain certification programs must first evaluate where and when to add a new certification. These decisions are based on factors relevant to a number of key brainstorming questions:
What IT industry fields are underrepresented by current certifications? — IT certification providers need to identify where there's a demand for trained workers with certified skills and knowledge that aren't covered by other certification tracks. This speaks to one of the key metrics of a successful certification: Relevance to its related industry.
Does the new certification fit into our current platform and industry standing? — An IT industry association needs to consider whether a new certification will be viewed as a coherent and logical addition to its existing program. For example, an IT certification provider that has previously specialized in project management platforms would likely have a tough time establishing a new certification in quantum computing.
How dynamic is the body of knowledge surrounding the certification? — Information technology is always evolving, which is usually expressed in iterative changes to hardware and software. But some fields like artificial intelligence (and the aforementioned quantum computing) are more likely to experience radical changes in the not too distant future. Would a newly created certification maintain its accuracy and relevance over a respectable period of time before requiring a major update?
Phase Two: Creation
Once an appropriate IT field has been identified for a new certification, the certification provider must create an outline for the body of knowledge the credential will encompass. With a vendor-neutral certification, the body of knowledge should be relatively unaligned with any manufacturer's product, except in cases where a product is highly dominant in the field.
An example of this is IT industry association CompTIA's A+ certification, where one of the exams has a knowledge domain fully dedicated to the Windows operating system. Because computer techs will regularly encounter Windows — the industry's most popular operating system — when working on computers, it's sensible to cover Windows within a vendor-neutral certification.
Once the raw body of knowledge has been gathered, certification managers can build a structure of organization to sort the topics, also known as creating a taxonomy. An IT certification is typically organized into a number of top-level knowledge domains. Within each domain is a series of subcategories that drill down into the nitty gritty details of each topic.
The taxonomy-building process also helps to determine what percentage of exam content will be dedicated to each knowledge domain. Larger categories with a lot of fundamental knowledge should get more representation on the exam than smaller groups of more tertiary content.
When creating knowledge domains for a new certification, certification providers will often solicit the involvement of external subject matter experts, or SMEs for short. SMEs are typically industry experts who have developed their competencies through years of work experience and/or education practice.
This collaboration is beneficial for both the certification provider and the SMEs. The certification program managers get valuable insight and expert feedback from industry professionals, and these same professionals often earn ongoing credits that apply towards recertifying their own industry credentials. SMEs may also receive financial compensation for participating in a new certification's development.
Once the knowledge domains have been nailed down, there are two key deliverables which must be developed: exam content and training materials.
This is a tricky phase of certification creation. Ideally, the training material should teach candidates the relevant knowledge and skills without specifically referencing the actual exam content. Simultaneously, the exam content needs to accurately reflect the established knowledge domains without being too derivative of the contents of training materials.
This is a challenging tightrope that certification managers have to walk when working on exams and training materials. This is in addition to creating training materials in multiple formats — self-study books, online courses, live instructor-led class curriculum, and other formats — and writing content that can be adapted to different types of electronic exam questions, including multiple-choice, matching, and simulated environment tasks.
Many vendor-neutral certifications will go through a beta exam trial, in which a select number of candidates can register to take a beta version of the certification exam and offer feedback on the questions.
The cost of beta exams is often lower than the final versions, and candidates who achieve a certain benchmark score on the beta exam are usually awarded the accompanying certification. This makes it desirable for existing IT pros to take the beta version and share their impressions with the certification provider.
Phase three: Release and Evaluation
Once a new vendor-neutral certification has been created, it's time to release it into the wild and see what type of industry response it generates. Unlike with a product-specific credential, a vendor-neutral certification isn't attempting to establish a corporate brand or stand as a competitive advantage within a given market.
Vendor-neutral IT certification providers (by and large) work toward providing an organic benefit to the industry, one that gets passed down to employers and workers. In some ways, vendor-neutral certifications are more like secondary school degrees in that the credentials represent a body of knowledge rather than specialized expertise with a given product line.
Still, the ultimate judge of whether or not a new IT certification soars to success or falls flat on its face is the industry's adoption or rejection of the program. If a new cert gains traction with employers, job agencies, and workers, it can grow to become an industry standard credential.
For a new IT certification to become popular with tech workers, it must be reasonably attainable. This usually means it must be affordable, and it must be earnable within a reasonable time frame: Months rather than years. But a new certification must also be recognized by employers as a badge of distinction and proof of ability before IT workers will consider it to be valuable enough to pursue.
This requires certifying bodies to proactively promote new certifications to IT employers. Businesses and the public sector need to know what a new certification represents before they see it on a résumé for the first time.
As with the tech industry in general, the lifespan of a certification can be brutally short, or an achievement in longevity. A new certification that fails to catch on, with low numbers of credential earners, is usually destined for the program's recycle bin.
If a new certification becomes well-established and respected in the industry, it is considered to be a great success. Of course, continued relevance requires that the new credential be revisited and updated on a regular schedule by the certification provider in order to remain current and relevant.
How it's made!
We hope you've gained some valuable insight into the process of how a new vendor-neutral IT certification is made. Knowing more about how industry associations and technology groups create their credentials can be helpful when considering which certification programs to take when the time comes.
Vendor-neutral certifications play an important role in the IT industry. While they sometimes include knowledge and skills relevant to a specific vendor's product, they are meant to promote a broader approach to the field of information technology, in much the same way a college degree does with its related subject matter.
And as for vendor-specific certifications, which typically address knowledge of particular products, we will be taking a behind-the-scenes look at their creation in an upcoming issue of Certification Magazine. We'll cover how vendor certifications must fulfill different requirements when they are being created, and how this influences the methodology behind how they're made.