How the Covid-19 Pandemic Changed Developer Certifications

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Much ink has been spilled about how the Covid-19 pandemic altered the ways in which people live, work, and interact. Between the great resignation, the move to remote education and work, and the increasing reliance on video-based technology (among other consequences), pandemic life is markedly different from “the before time.”

The certification space has not been immune (to use a terrible pun) to these pandemic-caused and pandemic-adjacent shifts. Both vendors and vendor-neutral foundations have experienced significant consequences to their programs. As part of my research I spoke with several leading developer certification providers about these affects, and received a candid and surprisingly diverse set of responses. In this post I collect the perspectives of representatives from Oracle, Red Hat, the CNCF, and the Linux Foundation—organizations with established and well regarded certification programs that have witnessed the pandemic’s effects first hand.

These certification distributors have not seen the overall demand for certifications increase. What has shifted is the way certification exams are administered, as well as candidates’ expectations and interests.

For Red Hat, one of the earliest pain points of the pandemic was accommodating test takers who had purchased in-person exams. Red Hat adapted to this contingency initially by offering extensions to those who had purchased exams for 2020, and eventually by rolling out online exam opportunities. Like many providers in this space, Red Hat recognized that the move to online testing was inevitable, but the pandemic accelerated this shift.

More surprising has been the evolution in certification candidates’ attitudes towards remote testing. Although the certification industry had long anticipated the move to remote, and many were already ramping up preparations for this prior to 2020, test takers were initially resistant.

According to Randy Russell, Director of Certification at Red Hat:

People want a controlled environment. They want to go somewhere and have a quiet place where they can focus on taking their exam.

This desire for a physical, in-person exam has not changed, but the affordances of life during the pandemic have. Consumers can no longer demand their ideal experience, and must instead make do with the (largely online) systems and resources available. Russell notes that candidates have now largely accepted this imperfect solution:

The key here in my mind is that there are people now in 2022 who would be happy to take a remote exam that would not have been happy in 2019, because they have had to adapt.

Peter Fernandez, Senior Director of Oracle’s Global Certification Program, confirms that the pandemic has been a huge wake-up for certification providers “all stemming from the word remote”:

There were no more brick and mortar testing centers. Everything became online. The industry was not at all prepared for it. A large number of testing companies sprang up over the last two years, all of them desperately scrambling to support this massive volume of individuals needing to test online. We dealt with the same issue. What came out of this different for us is that we actually built our own exam authoring system.

Like many certification-offering vendors, Oracle was not immediately prepared for fully remote exams, but became so quickly. Although there hasn’t been a large influx of individuals newly interested in acquiring developer certifications from vendors, the infrastructure required to accommodate these learners has pivoted dramatically.

Some in the OSS certification space have noted a market shift in the type of certifications consumers demand during the pandemic. Chris Aniszczyk, CTO at the CNCF, explains that in the last 18 months there’s been “a lot more focus on very entry-level certifications.” Individuals unable to pass the CKA, which requires significant prerequisite skills in Linux, CLI, etcetera, are interested in undertaking a beginner-level training that covers basic Kubernetes topics (what is a pod?, what is a service?).

Novice developers’ interest in acquiring this entry-level training, Aniszczyk argues, is a boon for those advocating cloud native technologies:

Once they pass or get involved in preparing for that, they enter themselves in the open source community, whether it’s through a local meetup or other venue. It just brings people closer to eventually leveling to where they need to be.

From an employer’s perspective, explains Clyde Seepersad, Senior Vice President & General Manager for Training & Certifications for the Linux Foundation, certifications hold a key to resolving the question: “how do I hire talent in an age where recruiting just became tougher because people could actually work anywhere?” The pandemic fast-tracked companies in coming to the realization that it doesn’t really matter where each individual contributor on a team is geographically located, just so long as they can “plug in their computer to get the work done.”

In researching this series I can confidently say that certification providers across the board agree that the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything. Some of these changes were inevitable, and even partially accomplished. Others were wholly unexpected. Most of all the pandemic has acted as an accelerant, forcing certification programs to adapt quickly and substantially.

Disclosure: Red Hat and Oracle are RedMonk clients. The CNCF and Linux Foundation are not currently clients.

This is the 4th article in my series on developer certifications. If this topic interests you I recommend reading my previous posts: 

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