A common conversation with my clients centers around the topic of certification.
- Should an architect get certified?
- Should a hiring manager insist upon only hiring certified architects?
- After all, wouldn’t you prefer to work with someone that has proven to some independent 3rd party that he or she is a credible and capable practitioner in their respective field?
If we were talking about being an electrician, a plumber, a network engineer, or anyone else that is operating in a non-volatile environment in which requirements, solutions, techniques, and best practices are a relatively static set of known values; then I would absolutely encourage you to work with only certified personnel. The Business and Information Technology arena is, however, constantly changing in terms of practices, frameworks, techniques, tooling, technologies, and strategies. What constitutes ‘state of the art’ best practices is a moving target. Furthermore, Business and Information Architecture must, by necessity, be aligned with the goals, constraints, and differentiators of a particular organization. Certification at a generic industry-level simply cannot account for such organizational-specific nuance.
What does it mean to be certified?
Simply put, getting certified means that a 3rd party has determined that you have the requisite knowledge to operate in a given capacity. Some certification programs even go so far as to require proof that you have actually applied this knowledge to your field for a given period of time. Certification can be used as a benchmark for gauging an individual’s grasp of a particular domain of knowledge. It can furthermore be used as a hiring criteria to quickly sift through candidates.
Is there any sort of guarantee that comes with certification?
The only guarantee that certification provides is that the individual in question is very good at learning a body of knowledge and answering questions. There is no guarantee that this individual has successfully retained this knowledge beyond the scope of the test. More importantly, there is no guarantee that this individual is actually able to put this knowledge into practice consistently in the design and development of a solution. The practical application of knowledge to a given situation and the honing of skills and techniques on real world projects is the true measure of someone’s capability.
What is the purpose of certification?
Take one big step back and ask what the purpose or motivation is behind certification. Two words – lower risk. Requiring certification is simply a way to reduce the risk that the personnel working on your projects will do a lousy job. If you return to the earlier argument that the Business and Information Technology arena is dynamic, evolutionary, and fiercely competitive, then the prospect of requiring a generic industry certification does little to reduce risk. To truly reduce risk on your projects, you need a way to certify that someone is prepared to contribute successfully to your organization’s approach to architecture.
I work with businesses, government agencies, and non-government organizations of all shapes and sizes. With few exceptions, everyone is taking a custom approach to architecture and solution development:
- TOGAF, but trimmed down to the bare essentials [a large healthcare technology services firm]
- Zachman + TOGAF + FEA Reference Models + a custom set of solution techniques [a mega insurance carrier]
- TOGAF, but trimmed down to the bare essentials + RUP during Phase G of TOGAF [state government agency]
- Customized RUP for most projects, Waterfall for a low risk projects, SCRUM for everything else [transportation company]
- Custom solution life cycle, RUP for SW projects, BPM + Six Sigma Processes for non-SW changes [defense contractor]
- TOGAF + Zachman [oil & gas exploration firm]
- I could list more…
What’s the take-away? For an individual, getting a certification might make you more marketable. For an enterprise, the value of generic certification is pretty sketchy. What really matters is that you can lower the risk that personnel will not understand your custom approach to business, technology, and architecture as a whole. You want teams that know your approach and can successfully apply it on real projects. The only way to accomplish that is through a custom education process that consists of classroom learning, role-specific certification that is tailored to your processes and approach, and culminating in an apprenticeship-style mentoring program. Learn it, test it, do it, and then teach it to the next generation.