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Field Certification Program Strives for Acceptance

The influx of “paper MCSEs” has led many to call for some type of hands-on testing component. The Field Certified Professional Association tries to address that.

The influx of “paper MCSEs” has led many to call for Microsoft to institute some type of hands-on testing component, similar to what Cisco Systems does for its CCIE. It's the goal of the Field Certified Professional Association.

One of the laments about Microsoft’s certification process is that it turns out under-qualified IT workers. The influx of “paper MCSEs” has led many to call for Microsoft to institute some type of hands-on testing component, similar to what Cisco Systems does for its CCIE. Microsoft has, so far, refused and said it has no current plans to offer lab testing.

That’s helped birth the Field Certified Professional Association. The goal of the FCPA, according to Chairman Dr. Amir Elahi, is to supplement the knowledge-based certification with performance-based certs. Elahi said in late 2000 he contacted a number of major employers who complained that they had IT workers with the titles but not the skills to do their jobs. That prompted to him to form the FCPA (www.fieldcertification.org).

“We verify that [test-takers] know the conceptual stuff, but hands-on [testing] validates that they have those skills,” Elahi said. “Performance-based exams fill a vacant niche in the industry and alleviate the issue employers had that they had certified individuals, but they [couldn’t] perform the tasks.” Elahi emphasizes, though, that field certification isn’t meant to replace the current crop of exams and titles. In fact, examinees are expected to be certified before taking an FCPA test.

Beginning July 1, 2002, FCPA offered six exams: four were based on Microsoft products such as Windows NT and Windows 2000; one was for Cisco; and one was a generic PC technician, comparable to CompTIA’s A+. The names map Microsoft title names closely: Field Certified Systems Engineer (FCSE) and Field Certified Systems Administrator (FCSA). In the case of the FCSA, Elahi said Microsoft cribbed the name from the FCPA. “Microsoft took their MCSA [title] from us. We had the FCSA before Microsoft came up with its title.” A host of other exams are in the works.

The exams, Elahi explained, are based on job roles, not products. Roles include systems administrators, database administrators and software developers. The exams last between two and eight hours and are initially priced from $395 to $995, depending on exam length. During the test, examinees are confronted with a broken network and trouble ticket or a live network. Various tasks must be completed and the network brought up to speed within the allotted time.

As of late October, the FCPA has administered about 120 exams. Elahi estimated “about a 60 percent pass rate so far, but a large majority of the exam takers were senior people, not entry-level people.” The FCPA has three testing centers in the U.S. and one overseas, with goals of 20 approved testing centers in the U.S. and five abroad.

A key to making the program a success is getting field certification recognized by HR departments, as well as validation from vendors. Ehali said they’re well on their way to both. “We’ve contacted some major employers like Lockheed Martin, Unisys and IBM, and they were extremely excited.”

Those heavy hitters, along with other companies, Elahi remarked, “said if there were a way they could measure actual skills, they’d make it part of the hiring process. We then contacted vendors and, nearly unanimously, they were all very excited. Once we made the announcement [about the program], we were getting calls from all over the world.”

But vendor support appears slow in coming. While Cisco, Red Hat and Novell came out early as FCPA sponsors, no new information regarding their participation has appeared on their Web sites since the first months of the launch in 2001. Microsoft has maintained its distance completely; the company couldn’t be reached for comment at press time.

One veteran IT recruiter thinks field certification is a great idea. “I think it’s amazing. We mostly place project professionals, so the hands-on experience wildly outweighs the certifications” explained Jeff Markham, metro market manager for the San Francisco office of Robert Half Technology.

Although Markham is only familiar with the FCPA through its Web site, he said the very idea of hands-on verification of skills is becoming increasingly important. “Experience coupled with certifications is the best of both worlds, especially in project work. Our clients want someone who can hit the ground running on the treadmill.”

Markham said that although his clients aren’t talking about field certification yet, they will be in time. “As long as [the FCPA] can market this thing, if it can get word out, I think it would be a great thing to have on a résumé for a consultant.”

He also believes that field certification can be a significant differentiation in the job hunt, “for people who want to separate themselves from masses who are looking for jobs.”

About the Author

Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Virtualization Review.

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