EOF - Turning IT Certification on Its Ear

How to offer better certification, for more people, at a lower price, without vendor lock-in.

The Linux Professional Institute (LPI) was started in 1998 as a Linux certification organization aimed at removing obstacles to open-source adoption and increasing the skill level of its community. Since then, LPI has delivered more than 35,000 exams in almost every country and has gained the support of vendors, trainers, employers and governments. This success is only the beginning, however. As an organization, LPI has the potential to turn the world of IT certification on its ear, just as Linux itself has disrupted the software world.

Technology-related training has become such a vendor-driven commodity that it's merely nothing more than extensions of marketing programs of software vendors. Nobody is taught technique anymore; it all has come down to locking students in to one tool.

IT certification now is expected to be vendor-centric, a phenomenon unique to the IT field. Pharmacists, for example, are not trained to understand only one brand name of drug. Even in the case of “vendor-neutral” programs, such as CompTIA, vendors still control the certification. The people being certified and those who would hire them have no voice in the training content.

Although LPI has accepted vendor sponsorships to further its goals, vendors alone do not dictate its future path. LPI is community-driven and not only vendor-neutral, but indeed vendor-independent. For instance, the community demanded desktop Linux certification, so LPI is working to make it a reality. More significantly, what we are trying to do as a body is bring the IT certification world kicking and screaming toward the peer-review model that people have come to expect from other professions.

Given its perspective, LPI finds itself having less in common with other IT certification programs available to technology professionals and more in common with groups such as the National Organization of Competency Assurance, whose membership is dominated by medical and vocational certifications rather than by IT programs.

While most technology vendors have been hiking the costs of their certification exams, the LPI is making a conscious effort to reduce the costs of its exams and increase accessibility in every country. In some countries, the $100 US charge for an LPI exam is an IT worker's salary for a month. Since LPI's goal is to advance open source rather than maximize revenue, we clearly have a challenge ahead. Even in rich countries, the fees for most certifications often are beyond the reach of the unemployed looking for new career paths.

A major initiative within LPI is research and development in ways to lower the cost of computer-delivered education, while improving the testing technology to deliver hands-on testing in a scalable, cost-effective manner. Our growth is dependent on the progress of Linux and open source, which has made some significant inroads in the enterprise and public sector. The City of Munich's decision in May 2003 to select Linux not only for servers but also for desktops makes it the poster child for Linux clients. Munich's decision wasn't about price; Microsoft fought hard to keep the business, according to published reports, and was priced less than the Linux option. But Linux won the bid.

Although there may be no doubt Linux has global presence, LPI faces challenges when it comes to making sure that open-source education and certification are relevant and useful in many languages, cultures and governmental structures. LPI from its central office alone can't make Linux relevant everywhere around the world. Nor would a conventional branch-office approach work either. Our community-based affiliate network is now operating in the United States, Japan, Brazil, Canada, Germany and Austria. More national affiliates are coming on-line every day; some of the newest additions include Australia, Nigeria, Bulgaria and China.

The short-term goal is to expand this network of affiliates, but we have a long-term vision as well: to make sure certification is accessible and of the highest quality possible, while being relevant in every locale. Even with our network growing by leaps and bounds, hurdles remain. In particular, we must make the human resources community aware that Linux certification is available. Organizations as a whole need to know that if they select Linux as a strategic technology, expertise is available to them in the form of trained, certified professionals who have passed the LPI program.

And while having one's training nullified because of a product upgrade is frustrating, LPI also understands that re-certification over the years is as important for the IT profession as it is any other profession. Where LPI differs from other IT certifications is that if we introduce a re-certification program, it will be based on fixed-year intervals rather than on product upgrades.

Like Linux itself, the certification program developed by LPI demonstrates the power of community involvement. Unlike any other mainstream certification program, LPI combines the strength of a worldwide grassroots network together with experts in exam development, psychometrics and delivery. As LPI moves forward, we intend to keep setting the example that all other IT certifications eventually will be compelled to follow.

Evan Leibovitch is President of the Linux Professional Institute (www.lpi.org).

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