Torbjorn Zetterlund

Thu 10 2008

Is Professional Certification A Scam?

by bernt & torsten

I have been working in project management for the past 25 years. I have managed projects that vary in size from small $50,000 projects to large several million dollar ones. I have followed various international project management standards and lately, I have been working under the CMMI standard.

Now my current employer is pushing me to get certified for the Project Management Professional (PMP) designation, I have refused because as far as I can see, the PMP designation though it may be a way to tell other parties like business partners to my firm or potential employers that I am indeed qualified to perform my job as a project manager, acquiring the certification is not a way to actually improve my skills.

In my mind having a PMP designation does not make any difference to what I do. I work with many project manger who have obtained the certification by spending thousands of dollars to prepare themselves to write the certification exam. It has not changed the way any of them work; they still conduct their projects according to company standards.

In my software development firm, we are Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI) compliant, a standard that provides us with a strict process in delivering software. Many of the project managers we hire have the PMP designation when they come to us, but are not familiar with CMMI, and have to change the way they are used to doing things to comply with the company’s process. Many fail and leave or are dismissed, so I have concluded that PMP certification is irrelevant, and wonder why companies demand this certification.

If we look at my industry, in software development, historically very few projects have made it on time, resulting in the project managers being seen as the ones at “fault”, this might well be the case in other industries as well. As projects continue to overrun their timelines, a business opportunity was spotted. The certification industry has targeted project managers and offers them a new designation that seems to give them added credibility in carrying out their job.

The Project Management Institute that acts as the authority for certifying project managers, in all industries was created. To receive a PMP, a project manager has to agree to adhere to a code of professional conduct and meet the Project Management Institute (PMI) requirements. Passing this standard allows a project manager to use the PMP acronym next to their name. By the end of 2006, there were approximately 220,000 PMPs (source Wikipedia). It has also become much easier to get a PMP, as exam content is available on the Internet allowing individuals to gain certification without much knowledge or understanding.

What PMP has created is an auxiliary business for universities, trade schools, and consultants in preparing and certifying professionals, some more professional than others, and also opened doors for cheating and undermining the PMP designation. Many serious business universities have raised their fees to ward off any cheaters and hopefully attract only serious individuals perhaps. Since when has the ability to pay been a measure of integrity?

It is not enough that we go to university to get an MBA or Ph.D. on top of our BA degree, we now have to get certified in the profession we choose, to compete for the available jobs out there. So, if your chosen profession is project management, you’d better get your Project Management Professional (PMP).

Before you receive your undergraduate degree, it might be a good idea to check with your university what prep classes they have for your becoming a PMP. Certification is a contentious issue, despite improving professional practice being its raison d’etre. The problem is, a certification is a stamp stating that you can do a specific job, but it says nothing about how well you do the job. so it is up to the individual’s interpretation of the company process on how they do their jobs, and a companies process might not have anything to do with how you been certified to do the job. I eluded to it earlier when I mentioned that our project managers with the PMP did not change how projects were delivered and missed deadlines were still a problem.

The real issue in my industry is that we do our planning well, but during the execution, due to personnel or functionality we add new features without factoring in the impact these changes will have on the end result. No collection of letters after your name is going to change this.

So, the software industry’s response to this was the industry certification of a company’s process under the Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI), the CMMI has 5 levels, a company has to start a level 1 and build towards level 5, with various certifications in each step.

This has been proven to lengthen the project, as the largest part is gathering the requirements upfront, and the execution of the project then comes in on time. But due to changing priorities or client demands, executives in the software companies over-rule the process to meet specific business needs, and the project still runs overtime. I do not think the software industry is the only one that has business needs going before the process, that happens in any industry regardless of a PMP or CMMI or ISO 9000 or whatever the specific industry certification process is.

A downside of taking a certification are:

Certificates do not challenge the learners, you pay attention to the lectures and read through the materials, you can easily pass the graded exams. They don’t push you hard enough to actually make you absorb the topics. If you don’t think hard enough and push yourself, the information will stay in short-term memory and be forgotten.

Certificates are designed to make you strictly follow a curriculum. It actually makes sense because you build up the knowledge from basic to advance. However, the map is drawn for you. You are not challenged to think outside the box. On the other side, there is no map or limit for the projects in the field of data science. You can define a problem, design a solution and implement it in any business domain.

Certificates only cover predictable scenarios. However, real life is full of surprises. It is not possible or feasible to cover every possible obstacle in a certificate. It also makes them too long to mention every possible solution or technique in detail.


So, to conclude there is a new business opportunity – certification of company Executives, why should the rest of us be certified when they can change the requirements or due to business needs change ways we certified workers do our jobs.

We need to know that our executives are qualified to do their job!