Zigging while others are zagging
These days, at least in the US, it’s common for airline safety announcement to conclude with something like, “We know you have a choice of carriers and we appreciate that you chose us today”. It’s a nice sentiment, but it would be great if that message wasn’t so often undermined by the usually miserable experience of getting on the plane.
I’m mindful of that message, though, as I look at the current landscape of IT certification in which LPI resides. Someone looking for a career in information technology, and specifically open source technology, has an abundance of choices. Some of these choices drew their inspiration from us and a few even started out as LPI partners.
It’s only natural that LPI’s global success has attracted the eye of some who see certification as a path to revenue. Indeed, for many IT programs the certification exams themselves may not be highly income-producing, but the official courses and training materials certainly are. Other programs also apply marketing strategy invented by Novell (the deceased spiritual leader of most IT certifications). Under the Novell strategy, certification itself may not be profitable, but its promotion of vendor lock-in (or at least vendor bias) more than compensates. After all, once you’re hired and able to influence a purchase decision you would very likely stick with the products in which you were certified.
These tactics certainly work for many certification programs, but they’re not ours. In fact, LPI was, from the very beginning, an attempt to disrupt conventional IT certification much as open source software development has been disrupting the IT market.
For starters, we intended to disrupt the use of certification as a path to vendor lock-in. From the very start, LPI has been adamantly neutral towards specific distributions, or other elements of Linux diversity. In the beginning, we actually had a choice of exams for LPIC-1 depending on whether you wanted to be tested using the Red Hat “rpm” or Debian “deb” systems for software installation and upgrade management. (We’ve since figured out how to merge them into a single exam that tests both but doesn’t penalize you for knowing only one.) Recently we have started to implement the BSD certification exam so our support for open source diversity extends not only to Linux distributions but to the operating systems themselves.
This striving for neutrality extends to training methods as well. LPI has never had, and will not have by policy, a single “approved” training path. Our global network of partners assists those who need support through various means. As well, we provide a full and detailed list of objectives for each exam for the benefit of those who choose self-study. Traditionally, LPI never became involved in developing learning materials, but has done so recently at the request of our community, to support our academic partners that need something they can work with. These materials, which will soon call learning.lpi.org their home, will be made freely available to all.
The other thing that separates LPI is our desire to make our programs more accessible. While the trend has been to gradually increase prices for certification exams, LPI is actively looking at ways to reduce them. For us, the end goal is maximizing the open source talent pool rather than maximizing revenue. Our short-term accessibility effort takes the form of lower pricing in developing economies, and even lower pricing when we are able to do classroom-type “exam labs” at events around the world. Yes, this means resorting to pencils and paper forms in some instances, but consider that this way -- for now -- enables us to minimize the expense and thus the price. Going forward we are actively engaging in R&D to lower the cost to take exams even further; exciting and innovative results lie ahead.
And then there’s the new LPI membership program coming this year. Members will be able to participate in the governance of LPI, while using professional development activity (rather that just retaking exams) to maintain active status. In this respect, LPI is going to evolve into a body that more resembles a lawyer’s association or engineering society rather than a conventional IT certification. The certified professionals will have a voice in the direction of the body that sets their skills standards.
I think that what all this points to is the reality that LPI is cut from a different cloth than that used by most other IT certifications, even the other nonprofits. Consider LPI’s recently-refined mission statement:
“LPI exists to advance the use of open source software by elevating the people who work with it.”
That statement doesn’t even mention certification, because that’s not what we are at our core.
To us, certification is a means to an end -- more people finding and succeeding in open source careers -- rather than the end in itself. That perspective guides us to make different choices in strategy and tactics. We are not primarily concerned with selling as many certifications as possible to the exclusion of any greater social goal.
I’m looking forward to LPI’s coming years of membership, making our exams more affordable, and continuing to advocate for the use of open source in business, government, NGOs, and other non-profit organisations. This is a clearly a different direction than the certification mainstream, and one that I’m proud to be part of. To all the hundreds of thousands who have worked with LPI and entrusted us to help support your careers in open source, I know you had a choice and sincerely thank you for choosing LPI. Going forward, we will continue to earn that trust, helping our old friends, and making new ones along the way.