Certification by proprietary software companies today plays a significant part in the IT industry today. Qualifications from companies such as Microsoft, Novell, Cisco, Citrix and others are widely recognised by many in the industry, and are regarded by many as absolute bare minimum qualifications for anyone seeking to work in the industry.

I personally don't hold any of these certifications, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I regard them as marketing and revenue producing tools from companies which I would rather not support. They charge a fair quantity of money, and the person that comes out is generally biased toward the product involved, whether or not it is the best tool for the job. Most of the certifications are regarded as very easy to get, the general concensus being that anyone with a bit of intelligence willing to study for a solid day is able to get Microsoft certification for a product they've never used.

When I discuss these issues with people more aligned with the whole proprietary software industry, they say, true, they don't mean much, but someone with a certification will get a job over someone without. They say that a certification just gets a foot in the door, and then you draw on your real world experience to get the job done.

I have also avoided certiciation myself, because, being self taught by many years of hacking, playing around, reading, experience, etc, I regard my skills to be very unique, with specialties in all sorts of esoteric areas, and I don't feel that my virtues can be quanitied by a one-size-fits-all certificate from a software vendor. I feel that it would take many a page to describe my experiences in detail, and that by getting a certification, I would be putting myself in a box with others who have read the book, paid the cash, but not nearly as experienced as myself, whereas I would prefer to stand alone with unique vritues.

But, having said all this, with marketing and other forces at the disposal of billion dollar vendors, cirtification has become an integral part of the industry through the eyes of those who pay our rent. It allows managers, recruiters, and the like to make a 5 second comparison. If one person has an MCSE, and another has a resume with five pages of greek that you don't understand, it would be an easy decision for managers and recruiters to make - go with the known quantity, the conformist. Which puts people like myself at a distinct disadvantage. The choices being to swallow one's pride and go with the flow, or pay the price.

Up until this point, I haven't paid much attention to these issues, merely watching from a far as fools get hired on the basis of something you can practically get out of a box of cornflakes, it hasn't really affected me personally, it has never caused me any problems. But, recently I got a job with a company that has a real certification culture. This is a great company, and all my collegues there understand my opinions completely. But, none the less, there is an attitude from management that people who aren't striving for the next level of certification must be stagnating and not striving for greater heights. From their perspective, they can quantify the achievements and growth of other employees, but they can't with me.

They company pays for the exams, the study material. Employees are given time off to study, and the whole day off on their exam day. Often, there are drinks at company expense after a passed exam. My collegues feel this is a great deal - they don't respect the certification, but if someone else is paying for something that could further your career, why not?

I'm sure my company is not unique. Which leads me to the point - I would love to see the free software community participate with some real certification options for people such as myself. This would have many benefits for all parties involved.

For employees, it allows them to play on the same field as people with proprietary certification. It would make learning about free software and its applications in general a more legitimate use of company resources, as opposed to something that should be done only if there is an immediate business benefit. Employees are often encouraged to get certification that might be good in the future, whereas learning about free software is generally something that is only encouraged with respect to a specific project. It would, potentially, seperate out the true hackers from the people who can install Red Hat.

For companies, it gives them something to show to clients, they know their employees are becoming a more valuable resource, and they can see where the money is going.

For the free software community, it legitimises the knowledge of its people as having a true, quantifiable value to a company. It makes learning about the software something that can pay off for individuals in terms of their careers. Basically, it can transform using free software from being something interesting to play around with to something that it will be easy to land a job with, and not only with companies that understand free software, but any company if free software certification can get on par with commecial certification.

There is also revenue. This provides a real opportunity to generate money to be used to further the free software movement. My company provides an annual budget of a few thousand dollars per employee for training, certfication, etc. Most proprietary exams cost $AU50-300 or so, so there are a lot of people paying money for these certifications. I'm sure there are a lot of people such as myself who would, given to opportunity, dearly love to pay for a certification relevant to free software, and support the movement financially in doing so

For this to work, the qualifications would have to really mean something, not just token certificates like proprietary ones, so that they gain respect in the industry, and anyone skilled enough to get a certification would definately be an asset to any company.

Basically, what I would propose is that an organisation, possibly a new, independant organisation formed to make this happen, and donate all the revenue as appropriate, or possibly (preferably) an existing and respected organisation like the Free Software Foundation, would start the scheme. A number of different certifications would be available, the questions submitted by the public and included in exams after being verified, and publically available to study from. Study guides and the like could also be sold.

Possible certificates could be a basic entry level GNU/Linux use (shell use, shell scripting, file management, etc), security (file permisions, users, groups, suid issues, buffer overflows, prevention), networking (IP addresses, routing, ports, firewalling, NAT, ftp, telnet, ssh, http, rpc, nfs, r utils, etc), OS architecture (packaging systems, building from source, header files, linking, shared libraries, processes, file descriptors, stdio, etc) programming (C, glibc, system calls, sockets, etc). As well as maybe specific certificates on individual packages like Apache, MySQL, Perl, etc.

Questions would be submitted by users, extracted from FAQs, usenet posts, etc, and would be changing and growing all the time. Questions would consist of a question, possible answers, answer, and a paragraph or two of explanation. Questions and answers would be publicly available, but there would be so many of them that memorising them would be impractical, or much harder than learning about the underlying subject. For example, for a 100 question exam, there might be 10,000 possible questions in the database.

Study guides could be downloaded, or purchased in printed form to generate revenue. Actual exams would be done at participating testing centres that currently do proprietary certification. What you are paying for is basically a certificate saying that the well respected organisation running the scheme certifies that you completed a series of questions specified by the organisation to an acceptable standard.

This is just something that I have thought a little about. I think it would further enhance the the prospects of people trying to work in an industry that has been traditionally dominated by proprietary vendors. It would make it easier for companies that are focussed around certification to recognise the very real and valuable skills of people who are skilled in using free software in the same way that they are used to recognising the skills of other individuals. It also provides a way for people to pursue knowledge in free software in a way that is seen as legitimate by companies. In addition, it provides a way to generate revenue. Companies are used to spending on certification, whereas they aren't so used to donating money, or paying for software media that that they can download quicker and for free on their fast internet links.

I see this really as a win-win situation. Individuals win, they acheive something worth having, career prospects, etc. Companies win, they know what their employees are capable of and are a resource of quantifiable value. The community generates revenue to pursue other goals.

I also feel that this is a bit of a gap in terms of the free software movement. I am used to there always being a superiour, non-proprietary alternative to the offerings of proprietary vendors, but I guess certification is a real area where there is no non-proprietary alternative, so I feel that it would further the movement to put an end to this. The fact that most vendors provide certification is a testament to the fact that there is demand from the industry, a demand that we should cater for just like the demands for software.m Through corporate eyes, Microsoft has provided a way to compare Windows experts. The free software movement has not provided an equivalent tool, and I think that doing so would allow the movement to be taken more seriously by the industry.

I would imagine that some people would see this proposal as selling out to the corporate world. I disagree. For starters, the available questions, answers and guides would be a valuable resource for people seeking to learn, whether or not they end up taking an exam. Secondly, I think that co-operation with the corporate world, on our own terms, is one of the things that is most important about the movement. Encouraging the commercial sale of media, support, etc are all important ways of encouraging the use of free software by companies and not just individuals. We lose nothing in terms of freedom, independance, openness, by pursuing this, and yet gain accpetance, recognition and the like.

I would be interested in conversing with anyone who shares some of these views. I would be interested in putting in work to make this happen, but would be a big project, and I'd need a lot of help from to community in terms of questions, etc. I guess a first step would be to create a website to allow people to browse, submit, and test themselves on questions so a database of suitable and interesting questions could start growing. But, past this point, I would need assistance of real experts in terms of which fields need to be covered, in which proportions, etc. I would like to think that I would have a tough time passing one of these exams if I did it properly, so I would certainly need help creating the exam!