Ethics and the IT Professional

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Ethics—in our industry it’s like yelling “fire” in a theater. The issue of ethics in IT certification is a topic with no clear winner. The battle lines are etched into our psyches, and on each side proponents wage a war that has reached epic proportions.

Why is ethics an issue at all? Cheating is wrong, and the form or manner of cheating should be a moot issue. Instead we are mired in a panoply of irrelevant arguments and petty justifications, the battle waged in forums and Web sites across the Internet.

Ethical issues challenge our society at all levels. High school and college students download term papers from the Internet. Companies large and small ignore ethics for the grander goal of making profits. Ad campaigns offer instant certifications for seven days of intensive training, with free computers, cruises and other incentives that have nothing to do with providing the requisite skills.

Proponents of cheating say it doesn’t matter how they get certified. A common thread in one Web site forum rants that Microsoft, Cisco and the other test sponsors are only concerned about profits, not certifications. Equally vocal are those who recognize the true underlying value of a certification—as a benchmark for skills and competency earned on the job and through education and study.

The “gold rush” mentality is pervasive. Many who have either worked in IT or are attempting to enter the field, lured by promises of high salaries and a burgeoning job market, quickly find themselves toiling for fool’s gold with inferior tools provided by unscrupulous sites offering “actual exams” at low prices. At the same time, Web sites claiming to be free of “brain dump” material are littered with ads from and send frequent commercial e-mail for sites that are either known or suspected pirates and brain dumps. It’s no wonder so many are confused with the ethical line in the sand.

The crux of the issue may lie in the consequences of cheating, or the lack thereof. The penalty for using improper or illegal training material is nebulous, at best. Microsoft’s non-disclosure agreement considers it a breach to publish exam items, yet provides no recourse against those using “dumped” material.

The consequences of these activities are felt throughout the industry. Those using brain dumps, which are poor sources of reliable information to begin with, leave candidates with a false sense of security when attempting to enter the job market. Leaving aside the ethical implications, many of these candidates find themselves overwhelmed—unprepared and often summarily removed from their positions when their shortcomings are exposed.

There are industry efforts to reclaim certification’s lost value. Organizations like the Information Technology Certification Security Council (ITCSC) work to promote best practices and develop a clear, unified strategy among members to raise the bar in security, testing and assessment procedures. Caveon, a recent startup that was founded by test experts from Galton, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, was formed to assist test sponsors by providing educational, analytical and legal support systems to fight against cheating and fraud.

David Foster, Ph.D., one of the co-founders of Galton Technologies and now president of Caveon, said the industry needs to adopt a stance of intolerance for cheating and provide appropriate punishments to companies and individuals, as well as establish security standards for the accredibility of exams. The problem, according to Foster, is finding sufficient evidence of cheating to substantiate any punitive actions.

The issue of ethics and cheating won’t be solved until IT certifications join the ranks of other professional designations by developing uniform standards of testing and accreditation. This includes assessments based on actual, real-world measurement of skills. The Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) lab exam is one example of the standard all certifications should seek to attain. Those who hold a CCIE have been put through a rigorous and challenging series of exercises in a simulated network environment utilizing both hardware and software over an eight-hour period. A similar final exam for a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) would quickly weed out the “paper MCSEs” and go a long way toward rebuilding the credential’s eroded value. Continuing education credits similar to those used the in the financial, engineering and medical fields are another viable option.

As Robert Brown wrote in “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” “And, whether they pipe us free from rats or from mice, if we’ve promised them aught, let us keep our promise.” If the promise of certification is to be a valid and valuable measurement of professional skills, as an industry we must do whatever necessary to keep that promise.

Ben Ice is the marketing manager for Adaptive Learning Systems Inc., developers of the Exam Force line of test preparation, and is the editor for The Cert Times, a monthly newsletter that reaches more than 250,000 IT professionals.


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