Vendor vs Vendor-Neutral Certifications

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For engineers and hiring managers looking to upskill themselves or their teams using certifications, one particularly important decision is whether to use a vendor-neutral or vendor-specific program. In this post I will think through divisions in this market landscape, focusing particularly on Kubernetes certifications offered by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) and VMware.

The rise of Kubernetes certifications offers a particularly illustrative example of the pros and cons associated with vendor and vendor-neutral options. When Kubernetes first emerged it was somewhat unusual in that some in the community believed and argued that the project would have broad enterprise adoption, not as a distribution by a specific vendor, but as a pure vanilla open source technology delivered upstream by the community and shepherded by the CNCF. However, as time advanced and the number and impact of vendor distributions became clearer, Kubernetes vendors began offering their own specialized certification programs in hopes of capturing this market. Although the dust has yet to settle (indeed, last year IBM withdrew their IBM Certified Professional SRE – Cloud v1 program, which was intended to demonstrate: “Practical experience in the administration of Linux/Unix, Kubernetes, and Monitoring tools for IBM Cloud”), we can begin to extract lessons from the vendor/ vendor-neutral K8s certification debate.

A popular certification for those wanting to demonstrate proficiency with vanilla K8s, boasting tens of thousands of graduates, is the CNCF, in partnership with the Linux Foundation, Certified Kubernetes Administrator (CKA). This certification promises “to provide assurance that CKAs have the skills, knowledge, and competency to perform the responsibilities of Kubernetes administrators.” The CKA, like most certifications issued by vendor-neutral foundations and professional organizations that have pushed forward into this space, such as Node.js Certifications through the OpenJS Foundation, the IEEE’s Professional Software Developer Certification, as well as other Linux Foundation certifications including the Linux Foundation Certified System Administrator (LFCS), demonstrates a baseline proficiency with the subject matter valued by job seekers and hiring managers alike.

However, in the real-world many SREs and DevOps engineers will not be using vanilla K8s. This may make the CKA a less practical choice than opinionated K8s certifications. Michael Rossiter, who passed a number of Linux Foundation Training & Certification offerings including the Cloud Engineer Bootcamp, the Linux Foundation Certified System Administrator (LFCS), and the CKA, complains:

I felt that I had learnt a lot about the setup and not as much about the newer offers of managed services such as GKE or AKS. I love that I have this deeper understanding but I see that more and more companies are interested in the management of a cluster and less in the initial setup.

Aspiring learners may instead elect to become certified by any of the numerous vendor programs on the marketplace, which include Red Hat Certified Specialist in OpenShift Administration Certification, the VMware Certified Professional – App Modernization Certification (VCP-AM), or Google’s Professional Cloud DevOps Engineer. Engineering managers of teams using OpenShift may assign individual contributors to achieve the Red Hat certification, those using Tanzu may prefer the VCP-AM, while those using GCP will select the certification for Professional Cloud DevOps Engineer.

Vendor and vendor neutral options are not antithetical, and can actually work well together. VMware acknowledges this by having their VMware Certified Master Specialist certification program require the CKA. By acknowledging that their proprietary Tanzu platform operates better when users possess a foundational knowledge of vanilla K8s, VMware is able to focus resources for curriculum development, exam proctoring, etcetera, on Tanzu-specific lessons.

While vendor and vendor-neutral K8s certifications can play nice together, they continue to be competitors in the technology certification space. The CNCF’s philosophical positioning of the CKA exam curriculum as an OSS project differentiates this certification from the vendor models. The CNCF extends their community-driven ethos to curriculum development, which is determined by CNCF maintainers and ambassadors, and tracked openly on GitHub. For OSS, the product is the community, so ensuring that the CKA continues this mission tracks.

The CKA is also tremendously affordable compared to many vendor certifications, advertising its $375 online exam prominently on the marketing website. This cost transparency differs tremendously from VMware, which requires curious individuals (like myself) to make an account and put required courses in their shopping cart to discover the price of each. The VMware Tanzu Mission Control: Management and Operations 2020 course, for instance, a required course for the VCP-AM, costs $850 up front. This is money well spent for VMware’s partners if it enables engineers to do their jobs more efficiently, but it also represents a not insignificant source of revenue for VMware, while effectively excluding prospective job seekers.

The price of certifications is worth pausing to consider. Most certification distributing vendors treat the revenue earned from their programs as lead-generating, but this is not necessarily the case. Chris Aniszczyk, CTO at the CNCF, explains that the foundation reinvests any revenue leftover after paying for educational and training materials back into the community. In fact, according to Aniszczyk, this monetary initiative is one of the most significant markers setting certifications distributed by this OSS community apart from those offered by private companies.

Vendors often house their certification programs within the host company’s marketing wing. They hope certification holders will provide native advertising for their products when (if?)  engineers post their accreditation status on social media and resume services (LinkedIn, Glassdoor). As my colleague James Governor has argued, Salesforce’s Trailhead certification program attracts extremely devoted followers eager to proclaim their certification status and loyalty. However, developers are sometimes less sanguine about sharing their certifications (see, for instance, Dave Fecak’s “Developer certifications: If you can code, do you really need them?”). Vendors must actively labor to entice developers to proclaim their certified status in a public way. AWS and VMware, for their own part, make no secret of their certification program’s branding potential. While AWS lists “perks that can help you show off your achievements and keep learning” as a benefit of certification (perks that include special events at conferences and certified merchandise), VMware lists an advantage of certification as the “ability to purchase branded apparel.” Logo-emblazoned tee-shirts aside, the deeper value-added beyond lead generation has to do with training and labor. The VCP-AM, like all vendor certifications, effectively locks engineers into an opinionated toolset.

In the process of selecting a vendor-specific or vendor-neutral certification, it is the practitioner who determines not only which training best meets the needs of the team, but also which technology most fully accords with the needs of the business.

Disclosure: AWS, GitHub, Google (GKE), IBM, Microsoft (AKS), Salesforce, and VMware are RedMonk clients. The CNCF and Linux Foundation are not currently clients.

This is the 2nd post in my series on developer certifications. If this topic interests you I recommend reading my previous post: “Developer Certifications: Obsolete & Indispensable.”

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