In my last post on the subject of Customer Success & Learning Subscriptions, I began to think through how vendors and vendor neutral foundations measure success. Customer success is central to the stories organizations tell about their IT and developer certifications, but what it means to be successful in this context is far from clearcut. In this follow up, I will explore another popular avenue for gauging success as it pertains to tech industry certifications: the success story.
With the word “success” in its title, the success story is a good place to continue my investigation. In marketing literature customer success stories have long served as a prized feature (boondoggle?). On the proof-of-value spectrum, spanning from most subjective to most objective, these testimonials land on the extremely subjective end. To use Aristotle’s framing, success stories lean heavily on ethos (character, position) and pathos (feeling, emotion), but less on logos (reason, logic). In other words, success stories allow prospective purchasers to determine whether a product is a good fit based on how compelling a given narrative is, rather than, say, a statistically significant sampling of customer surveys.
Although success stories have long been used to convince purchasers of a product or service’s merits, technology certification providers have increasingly pointed prospective candidates to success stories in their bid to demonstrate value. In these testimonials, certified individuals recount what their certification journey looked like and how receiving a certification impacted their career. Many, like The Linux Foundation and Oracle’s Stories of Oracle Certification Success are featured in their blog. But regardless of where they appear, the way these stories are marketed is worth investigating in terms of their benefit to consumers. What success means requires an interrogation of strategy and motives.
What Makes Developer Certification Success Stories Successful?
1) Individuality: Success stories sell individuality. Instead of positioning learners as faceless, interchangeable consumers, success stories draw in readers using personal interest. We can see this tactic in action in Tech Lead Nicola Racco’s Learner Story for his AWS certification. Racco provides unique and interesting background information:
It was perfect for me because I love to learn about technology. It’s an obsession that began while spending time with my father at his computer shop. And it’s now being fed by AWS Training, which is giving me the great depth and breadth of knowledge I need as an architect.
By enabling readers to imagine the kind of person who becomes certified, the certification-curious can better see themselves in this role. Although Racco’s specific situation and history is unlikely to be shared by others, by standing out from the crowd he more effectively sticks in the minds of readers.
2) Inspiration: Success stories for educational products are frequently inspirational. Feel-good narratives communicate a journey’s ups and downs, focusing on the struggles candidates overcame to achieve their goals.
Platform development engineer Faseela K’s success story for the Linux Foundation recounts her feelings of apprehension leading up to the Certified Kubernetes Administrator (CKA) exam:
I was actually nervous, as this was the first online certification exam I was taking from home, so there was some uncertainty going in. Would the proctor turn up on time? Will the cloud platform where we are taking the exam get stuck? Will I be able to finish the exam on time? Those and several other such questions ran through my mind. But I turned down all my concerns, had a very smooth exam experience, and was able to finish it without any difficulties.
Although Faseela struggled with the exam process’s uncertainties, she ultimately overcame her fears and triumphed.
3) Motivation: Red Hat’s twist on the success story, the Certified Professional of the Year, showcases individuals with Red Hat certifications who “demonstrate ingenuity, hard work, and expertise.” Winners are featured in a high-quality video highlighting their experience with the program—a presentation intended to spur candidates to excel in ways similar to these exceptional certification holders.
This year’s winner Neil D’Souza, Senior Site Reliability Engineer at ServiceNow, has 8 Red Hat certifications. Particularly affecting is Neil’s admission of failure as part of the process. “I failed Red Hat certifications multiple times.” This declaration is sure to empower other candidates who may also be struggling to pass. Far from something to be embarrassed, D’Souza argues that failure is a healthy part of growth:
I’ve always believed the road to success is paved with failures, especially if you see those failures as learning opportunities.
Rather than trying to quantify success by providing statistics about the pass/fail rate or the likelihood a certification will land its holder a job, D’Souza’s success story video offers a compelling motivational message.
4) Diversity: Clara Pérez, Sr. Technical Architect at The Ksquare Group, shares her experience discovering Salesforce’s developer certifications. After spending years struggling to find a place in the IT industry, she found a welcoming and inclusive home at Salesforce:
I got my degree in network IT back in 2010 and landed a job as an engineer, a woman in a field dominated by men. Around Christmas that year, I lost my job and the only job I could get was at a call center. I was so depressed that I had spent 5 years studying IT in college just to take calls. A friend of mine in New Jersey told me there were a lot of job opportunities within the Salesforce ecosystem. I thought this had to be a scam since I had never heard of getting paid for working on the internet. Good thing I was wrong! The same friend ended up offering me a job and flew me out to NJ to interview with the CEO of the company. Little did I know, that CEO was my future manager.
Pérez’s story is forceful for a number of reasons. She successfully enters into a male-dominated field, and despite feeling depressed by setbacks in her career, is able to reestablish her professional and personal identity by joining Trailblazer. Pérez engages her status as an outsider in the field head-on. In fact, in addition to citing her gender identity, Pérez’s story profile also shares geographic details (she lives in Santiago, Dominican Republic) and it features a picture of her that shows she is not white. By volunteering details about her identity with readers, Pérez implicitly offers a message of hope to other women, non-Americans, and BIPOC people that may be facing similar career and personal challenges. Through highlighting her success, Salesforce suggests that it offers a welcoming and diverse community for anyone interested in emulating Pérez’s journey.
Do Success Stories Actually Measure Customer Success?
If vendor and vendor neutral organizations market their success based on how well the individuals they profile demonstrate the ideas of Individuality, Inspiration, Motivation, and Diversity, as my taxonomy suggests, then is it fair to use them as measures of customer success?
It depends, but probably not.
Marketers correctly note that pulling on heartstrings and our love of interesting and deeply personal stories is effective, but they are wrong to suggest that the success story alone provides evidence of a program’s success. Luckily very few companies allow success stories to stand by themselves (although a few I have spoken with suggest they should).
Obviously, from an internal perspective, if an organization’s marketing team plopped a smattering of success stories onto the desk of the CFO in order to prove the value of their program they would be laughed out of the room. Savvy consumers ought to approach success stories with the same degree of skepticism.
Success stories must be interpreted as supplementary at best. While they may draw genuine interest from audiences, these biased testimonials do not pass muster as a metric for success. Prospective B2B and B2C purchasers of educational packages (curriculums, certification exams, learning subscriptions) should not accept testimonials from a handful of unique and exceptional individuals as proof positive of a programs’ value. Success stories can and do support the corpus of marketing literature surrounding educational portfolio, but should not be used to prove customer success. They should always be looked at in the context of more quantifiable metrics (pass/fail rates, job placement) and directly related to a candidate’s goals (career change, upskilling, channel sales).
Disclosure: Red Hat, AWS, Oracle and Salesforce are RedMonk clients.