Keil Hubert: Running the Certification Steeplechase

Arbitrary barriers are annoying enough when you’re looking for work in the IT sector. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert suggests that being jerked around over meaningless barriers is supremely aggravating.

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Have you ever experienced sudden migraine-like pain during an interview thanks to the realization that you’re completely wasting your time? If yes, skip ahead two paragraphs. If not, I’m sorry to share that it definitely is going to happen to you one day. The more experienced you get, the more likely it is that you’ll find yourself sitting in a cordial and productive interview one day when the person on the other end of the table from you (interviewer or applicant; doesn’t matter) says something so profoundly antagonizing that you can’t help but react with a spark of righteous indignation – and you’ll experience a blinding pain trying to suppress the natural human urge to say something rude. This will happen. Call me a seer if you like, but it’s coming. Bet you a pint.

I’ve been lectured by some well-meaning hugsy-wugsy HR people that ‘angry words have no place in the workplace’. I respectfully beg to differ: anger, frustration, and indignation are all natural emotional states that occur in human beings. They’re often the logical and rational responses to perceived threats, like unwarranted aggression or challenges to your security. In the workplace, this most often (I believe) takes the form of putting arbitrary and unnecessary barriers in your path that seem deliberately placed to prevent you from competing. When someone attempts to use their position to actively prevent you from getting or keeping a job, you get vexed with them. When their rationale for threatening your survival is specious, arbitrary, capricious, or ludicrous, your emotional reaction squares – and some adult language may transpire if your self-control slips. [1]

I was reminded of this last month during a telephone interview with an up-and-coming tech company. The headhunter who approached me had originally said that his client was looking for an experienced project manager to lead groups of engineers on new equipment installs. It was standard IT consultant fare – the kind of work that I used to do for KPMG Consulting back in the day. There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about the job the way it had first been pitched to me.

When I finally got past the HR gatekeepers to talk with the actual team manager, the client’s rep seemed a bit… vague on what it was that she wanted from the position. We went over my CV and experience, talked about her company’s industry focus, and chatted aimlessly for a few minutes. My hackles were up; this lady seemed like a Level 1 interviewer, and I didn’t want to accidentally overwhelm her with overly-complex answers to what seemed to be pointless questions. I shifted into a defensive position and game her some notional room to manoeuvre… and was rewarded when she tipped her (metaphorical) hand.

‘So, you have your PMP certification, right?’ she asked.

I would have been less surprised had she asked me if I'd ever played Hamlet in an avante garde community theatre production.

I would have been less surprised had she asked me if I’d ever played Hamlet in an avante garde community theatre production.

I blinked and bit off my first response. I told her that no, I’m not a certified Project Management Professional (PMP).

‘Uh… you’re not?’ she stammered, clearly caught off-guard. ‘I thought you were…’

It seems like a very little thing in retrospect, but that statement infuriated me at the time. The woman had my CV in front of her – we’d just been going over it – and my professional certifications are clearly listed. It doesn’t say ‘PMP’ just like it doesn’t say ‘Astronaut’ or ‘Whale Polisher’. Further, I’d already been over this with two HR screeners from her company. The job description that the headhunter had sent me didn’t list PMP as a desirable factor, let alone a required one. If this was going to be a discriminating factor, then I shouldn’t have ever reached this stage of the process.

Rather than say all that, I said instead that I’d been doing IT project management for twenty years, and never felt inclined to pursue the PMP certification. [2]

The manager said ‘Huh?’

I sighed.

The manager thought about this for a moment, and responded ‘I don’t get it.’

Oh, for *#&$’s sake… I stated to feel a sharp pain manifest behind my eyes.

I smiled (since one’s telephone voice reflects your facial expression) and tried to help gently lead the lady to enlightenment.

‘For the sake of argument what does a project manager actually do?’ I asked.

She laughed condescendingly. ‘They manage projects.’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘That’s a general description, but what do they do all day when they’re “managing” a project?’

‘Look, if you don’t know…’ she started.

‘I’ve been doing project management work for more than two decades,’ I said, trying hard to not let my anger leak into my tone. ‘Please bear with me.’

I could tell that she found my line of inquiry a bit hard to swallow.

I could tell that she found my line of inquiry a bit hard to swallow.

‘Oh! Well, they plan what work has to be done, and they ensure that work is done, and they submit reports to the customer.’

‘How is that different from what all your other managers are doing?’ I asked.

I swear that I could hear the woman blink in surprise. ‘Uh, no… it’s different…’

‘Different how?’ I asked. ‘All managers plan work, manage people, and write status reports. What makes a project manager different from a normal manager?’

‘A project manager… focuses all of his attention on one project while a work manager juggles lots of different activities.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I’m your boss, and I’ve just told you that you’re only going to work on one task until it’s done. You’re now a project manager. What changed?’

‘No!’ she said. ‘A project manager has to be certified.’

‘Why?’

‘To prove that they’re qualified.’

‘Qualified to make PowerPoint slides and work schedules?’

‘No!’ The lady was getting tetchy as her mental model fell apart. ‘To be able to do complicated things, that normal managers don’t ever do. Like making Gantt charts, or… um…’

‘So, a project manager is different from a normal manager in that he needs to know how to use rare and specialized tools that most regular workers don’t use, right?’

‘Right!’ she snarled in frustrated triumph.

‘And do you actually use any of those specialized tools in the field when you’re installing your equipment?’

‘Of course we do!’ she snapped.

‘So, when you’ve been installing your appliances in a customer’s data centre, you’ve consulted a Work Breakdown Structure? You’re recalculated values in a Risk Assessment Matrix? You’ve filed a Resource Utilization Report to a cost-control manager?’

‘Er… we followed a schedule…’ she said, the penny dropping.

‘And when something happened to screw up your plan, did you stop working and great a new Gantt chart to re-allocate your assigned level of effort? Or did you just adjust your plan and keep working?’

‘We… we just kept working,’ she said, sotto voce.

‘Sure you did. That’s what implementers do. But was anyone outside of the pre-sales team actually “doing” any project management? Or did you just do everyday management of people?’

The lady went silent. I suspected that she was chagrined, but I didn’t have any sympathy left for her. She’d admitted that the PMP cert was (for her company) a meaningless waste of employee time. So why dwell on it?

I view a good project manager as a critical part of the leadership team; someone who keeps all the different specialists on the team working together with a minimum of drama.

I view a good project manager as a critical part of the leadership team; someone who keeps all the different specialists on the team working together with a minimum of drama.

In contrast, I’m a strong advocate for advanced project management skills. I graduated from KPMG’s Project Management Methodology course. I’ve designed and helped teach custom PM skills courses for my managers. I’ve crafted my own project planning tools for my integrators and sustainment techs. I swear by in many of the ideas contained in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK, the holy book of PMPs everywhere). I use it. I believe in it… but I don’t believe enough to dedicate my professional life to it.

Make no mistake: I think that PMP is a fine certification, and I’ll probably go sit the exam for it… someday. I don’t feel much pressure to, though, because I’ve rarely ever seen it put into practice in the field. 95 per cent of the so-called ‘project managers’ that I’ve worked with over the years – certified and uncertified alike – didn’t use the vast majority of tools from the PMBOK methodology. They only needed (or only chose to use) the basics: simple timelines, simple milestones, and simple PowerPoint slides.

That’s entirely in line with what the grizzled old PM veterans taught us in KPMG’s PMM course: use the tools that help you to get the job done right and keep the client satisfied that you have things under control. Never force your implementers to use a tool that doesn’t add more value to the project than it costs to implement. They have enough to do without having their time wasted.

I explained all of this to the woman, doing my utmost to keep my inflection neutral and my tone upbeat. To her credit, the woman ‘interviewing’ me bounced back impressively quickly. Her demeanour changed, and we started talking about actual systems implementation jobs that we’d done – sharing war stories like a couple of veterans. She admitted towards the end of our call that her team only made their employees get their PMP certification in order to impress clients – they never made use of it in the field. Then she admitted to me that her company did the exact same thing with tech security certifications: everyone on the security jobs got their CISSP certification to be more ‘marketable’, and then never used any of the content from the course in the field. [3]

Thereby reducing the value of an expensive and time-consuming professional certification to roughly the same business value as an undergraduate degree in 'jazz appreciation.'

Thereby reducing the value of an expensive and time-consuming professional certification to roughly the same business value as an undergraduate degree in ‘jazz appreciation’.

I thought at the time that we’d made some meaningful progress in the call. We’d started to understand one another, had established that we shared some common ground, and had ended the call on a strong, positive note. I was grossly overqualified for the job that they needed filled, and the company was desperate to put someone into a project that they’d already committed to. The woman told me that HR would definitely be calling me the next day to set up the required second interview.

Weeks went by. After a month, I called the headhunter who’d arranged the whole thing in the first place and asked him what the heck was going on. He sounded surprised; ‘They passed on you,’ he said. ‘because you don’t have your PMP certification.’

I asked if he (the headhunter) had known about that barrier-to-entry before he came looking at me as a ‘good’ fit for his client. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘but I assumed that you had your PMP already and hadn’t mentioned it on your CV because you’ve done so much project management work.’

I thanked the headhunter for his time, hung up, and went looking for the Ibuprofen bottle.

[1] To be clear, I’m not suggesting that a barbarian rage is an appropriate or useful response to conflict in most workplaces. Rather, I’m offering that your body’s natural reaction to an external stressor (anger) can be tapped to fuel your attempt to counter your adversary’s position and make things right. Anger is a darned good motivator; when controlled and used as fuel, it’s a lot like the afterburner on a jet engine. It’s the extra boost you need to reach your desired objective.

[2] I appreciate the value one gains from the PMP course of study, but the certification isn’t held in high regard among the consultants I’d served with. There’s an old project manager’s joke that explains why: consultants would call people with their PMP “pimps” because they charge you a lot of money to rent a service that you should be getting for free at home.

[3] KPMG did the same thing back in 1999 with their ‘Internet 101’ marketing initiative. In order to impress the punters that we knew all about that new-fangled ‘Internet’ thing, the firm sent 10,000 of us to get professionally certified on programming Cisco network routers. Not that we ever used the knowledge at all; 90 per cent of my CCNA class were brand new university graduates who were hired to get the certification, and were laid off almost immediately thereafter once the marketing objective was realized.

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com
Follow him on twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his book on IT interviewing at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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