On IT Certification

From: Tom DeMarco
To: The Editors, Cutter IT Journal

Ladies and Gentlemen,

    I find myself dismayed and offended by the May issue on IT certification, a notion that is at its best a dangerous mischief, and at its worst a positive ethical quagmire. The journal's attention lends an unwarranted legitimacy to this murky matter

    Perhaps the most offensive among the articles was Prins Ralston's rapturous ("Certification is Working") endorsement of the concept. Mr. Ralston is president of the Australian Computer Society, the organization anointed to perform IT certification in Australia. Whatever the merits of certification, it has always been a big hit among those who get to do the certifying. I wish the journal had balanced Mr. Ralson's views with the outlook of some de-certified ex-programmer now slinging fries at a McDonald's in Petaluma . . . .

    Nancy Mead works for the S.E.I. We do not currently have an active certification mechanism in the US, as Ms. Mead points out in her article, but if we did adopt one, which Pittsburgh-based institution can you think of which would be the most likely candidate to implement it? Hmmm.

    The case for certification made by Ralston, Mead and also by Patricia Douglas goes something like this: Poor old Citicorp and poor old Aetna and poor old Microsoft really can't tell if the people they are thinking of hiring are good, competent, educated programmers or lazy, uneducated, even unscrupulous types, so what should we do? How about we appoint an august elite (made up of our own august selves plus some of our august pals) to judge. We will divide the world into betas, who will be allowed to work in the field and gammas, who will not. In the process we will be demonstrating that we ourselves are alphas. What a brave new world!

    Though the rationale for certification is always societal good, the real objective is different: siezure of power. Certification is not something we implement for the benefit of the society but for the benefit of the certifiers. It is heady stuff be be able to decide which of your fellow human beings should be allowed to work and which should not. Those who hope for a share of that heady stuff are the core of the camp that favors certification.

    The entire discussion is somewhat dishonest. The term "certification," for example, conjures up the image of fresh faced young people lining up to be given their mantles of office while parents in the audience blink back tears of pride and a choir softly hums complex harmonies. But the real issue here is not certification; the real issue is de-certification. Certain people are going to be kicked out of the fold, not because they are not useful to the needs of the market, but because they don't jump through the certifiers' hoops. Lost in the shuffle here - at least in Nancy Mead's view - would be people who do not have degrees. Sorry about that Mr. Gates, in the brave new world, you wouldn't be allowed to write software. You can just sense the frustration of the prospective certifiers that companies like Yahoo are hiring kids right out of high school, kids who don't even know what a Data Division is, for gods sakes! Something must be done about that!

    Others would de-certify for different reasons, but de-certification is the heart of the matter. De-certification will be heady stuff for the judges but an embarrassment and a catastrophe for the rest of us. Like the New York law board which regularly de-certified aspiring lawyers in the sixties for opposition to "America's just war in Viet Nam," an anointed IT certification mechanism carries with it not just the potential, but the inevitability of abuse.

    The final and most irritating case for certification was Ed Yourdon's. His approach is a little different: he argues that Y2K will bring certification down upon us anyway, so we better do it ourselves. Let's shoot ourselves in the foot before somebody else does it.
    Before ending, I offer the following example of how certification/de-certification will work: I hereby de-certify Prins Ralston, Nancy Mead, Patricia Douglas and Ed Yourdon. They will forever after have to write their names with the letters RTSF (Relegated To Slinging Fries) after them. This demonstration shows us two things about the process: 1) those who do the certification are always effectively self-appointed, and 2) the basis for de-certification, no matter what the societal rationale, always works out to be the private agenda of the de-certifier.

    James Bach and Luke Hohmann came out against certification in their article, arguing along the same lines I have used above. But I am going to de-certify them as well. This shows a third fundamental fact about certification: 3) it is inherently capricious, subject to all kinds of mischief.

    I vote that we let poor old Citicorp and poor old Aetna and poor old Microsoft figure out for themselves who they should hire. I suggest that we have a perfectly fine selection mechanism at work today; it's called the market. Some people get hired as software developers and some people don't. It is a lot more competent than any appointed elite would be and a lot more ethical.


Tom DeMarco
Camden, Maine