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Certifications in the WordPress ecosystems are not necessarily a good idea

Diploma png sticker, transparent background

The topic of certification has popped up a few times in the WordPress ecosystem (I remember the first time I took part in a discussion about it, during the WordPress Community Summit at the inaugural WordCamp US), and it’s got both its strong opponents, and proponents.

I’d say I am quite firm in my stance that I believe it to be a bad idea within WordPress, it comes with a lot of administrative overhead, and creates a socioeconomic divide which may be viewed as detrimental to the continued adoption from a developer side of things, at least, and possibly others as well.

Socioeconomic requirements

Let’s start with one of the heavy hitters, because this will be a recurring element.

The time needed to get certified comes with a cost. Having the benefit of both time, and money, to set aside to do certifications is a privilege, and one that not everyone has.

It could be argued that certification could or should be free, but this would in turn undermine the value of a certification, because it’s “available to all” (we have a bit of a catch-22 on our hands). The reason certifications are often quite costly is because the value of them lies in the perceived exclusivity, and “guarantees” that come with it. You’ll put aside the time, you’ll do the work, you’ll pass, because it’s expensive and you don’t want to fail it. If anyone can do it for free, fail until they get it all right, then where’s the value, they stumbled their way into the “high ranks”.

Socioeconomic impact

I’d be remiss if I did not pull out the potential benefit of such a scenario as well. With certification comes value, and with value comes money. If I spend money to get certified, I would want that back, and more, to cover both the investment, and to make the investment worthwhile.

This may improve the situation for some, but not if such a certification process is free, we’re then back to the catch that anyone can do it, so why pay someone extra for it. Much like many freelance services today, someone will undercut your pricing, with the same level of perceived expertise as you.

Value over time

Another aspect that must be weighted, is that a certificate is only as valuable as its relevance. A great example here is Cisco, anyone can set up one of their routers, but anyone doing more than home setups (most folks looking to get a Cisco setup would be doing much more) would want to have someone with relevant certifications on hand.

Cisco certification must be, at a minimum. renewed yearly, and they are costly; They have modules depending on what you will be doing, some modules may need multiple renewals in a year, as they tie to firmware releases or new product lines.

Of course, a certificate could be non-expiring, but then where’s the value in it? What was relevant 10, 5 or even 1 year ago isn’t likely to have the same value today, especially in such a rapidly evolving technological world as we have today.

When last someone I know had to renew their Cisco certification, for a single module, they had to go away for a full week of courses before they were allowed to take the exam; and then had one shot at the exam. This meant cost of travel, food and lodgings, on top of the course cost and exam/certification fee.

In a WordPress world, of 3 releases per year, you’d want a certified hire to be relevant, and have the certification for the latest release, likely also previous releases depending on how they were issued.

This means, with quite a bit of presumption on my side here, someone would then need to set aside time (and money) for 3 certifications a year at a minimum. That’s a hefty investment for many. (We obviously don’t know what a certification system would look like, so take my numbers from the air with a grain of salt, please).

Now, it’s not uncommon for such certification to be covered by an employer, so let’s cover that as well. Quick note that how employers and certification authorities do this may vary, so I’ll just cover potential cases here.

If an employer was to cover an employees certification, then they’d first need to hire this individual. Would companies be willing to hire someone without any existing certificates if they existed, and they wished to be seen as professionals among their competitors, how would they juggle certified vs non-certified employee assignments onto projects (more of a management puzzle that last one, but it has some relevance)?

Another aspect is that many places will tie you down through deals for such cost coverings. If work covers you certification costs, you need to bind your self contractually to that employer for X amount of time; OR the certification may not even be in your name, but rather in your employers name, meaning you can’t take it with you if you get an offer somewhere (the latter depending on what the certification authority pushes, of course).

Certification authorities

Since I’ve touched on the authority of certificates, let’s jump into that as well, shall we?

A certification authority needs to not only device how to certify someone, but must also always be on hand to validate a certification. It also needs to be officiated in some manner, I’ve previously thrown out that without any official status, a certificate is as worthless as a W3Schools HTML diploma.

What this means is that for a WordPress certificate to hold any real value, it needs to be issued by WordPress.org and the WordPress Foundation, or an official subsidiary of the foundation.

This means additional full-time staff. Any business working with certified contractors or employees expect a level of professionalism that volunteers can not, and should not be expected to provide. Those seeking such safety-nets need to be able to reach out, say “does X have certificate Y”, and get a prompt response, and being safe in knowing their inquiry was reviewed, and responded to by someone who will be held accountable if this is not correct.

Accountability

Oh yeah, accountability, that’s a big one. Part of what you are getting when someone is certified, is the assurance that this individual has been thoroughly vetted, know their stuff, and the certifying authority are providing guarantees of this.

Mind you, this may not be monetary guarantees or such, but as soon as certified folk make mistakes, it undermines the certification authorities seal of approval, and thus affecting anyone else with that same certifications. If the authority of such certificates is WordPress, that quickly (and likely incorrectly) translates into “WordPress does not have good developers/designers/etc”, hurting both WordPress as a project and brand, but also WordPress community members attractiveness as hires outside our little bubble.

To counteract such potentials, the certification would then need to be excessively rigorous, pulling us back to the previous topic of socioeconomic availability.

In closing

These same criteria may apply to a lot of FOSS projects I believe, even if my personal experiences have deep ties to the WordPress community.

I will note that not all certification is bad, far from it. Some is even necessary and valuable. Take for example the UK’s ICO certification, where a national body can certify that a business lives up to data protection standards. This gives your clients peace of mind that you’ve done your due diligence, and the nations official accreditation body has vetted it as being compliant. As a client, you can see what their requirements are, and what to expect.

But what are the minimum requirements for being good with WordPress? And is it right to diminish someones chances at work and self-worth because they do not have the time or money to put aside to pursue a digital badge of approval?

There’s probably other aspects that should be mentioned, but I’d much rather have open conversations about this, let’s figure out what is best for everyone, together!

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