Great Careers in Testing
An interview with Ray Kelly
Ray has been instrumental in driving the resurgence in professional certification and is recognized as a leading global advocate for the value of technology-enabled education in raising economic and social standards. As Certiport's President and CEO, Ray's wealth of experience in the technology, training and certification industries has been foundational in creating an innovative corporate culture, expanding the company's global channel and delivering exceptional new products and services. Ray orchestrated the successful acquisition of the industry's leading exam preparation company, MeasureUp, and secured several new marquee test sponsor clients and international distribution partners. Under Ray's leadership, Certiport has developed the largest certification network in the world comprised of over 12,000 active Authorized Testing Centers and 120 distribution partners operating in 152 countries. As a result, Certiport business has doubled in three years and the company is now the sole distributor of the two largest certifications programs in the IT market, the Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) certification and the Internet and Core Computing (IC³) certification.
Prior to joining Certiport, Ray was the senior vice president for client services at Prometric, where he was hired in 2005 to lead global sales and marketing, and was later promoted to lead all industry-oriented business functions within ETS Prometric. Ray has held leadership positions with several other technology and education companies. Ray has served on the board of directors for several companies and foundations including Certiport and Just Marketing International, the world's leading motorsports marketing company. Ray founded and served as chairman of the board for the Cancer Challenge, one of the leading charity events in the United States. Ray has a computer science degree and an MBA.
What have been the most enjoyable areas of your career in testing and credentialing? What do you most enjoy thinking about?
I am thoroughly enjoying my time at Certiport as I work in a culture where everybody knows they are making a difference in the lives of the candidates they serve. Certification fills an important need throughout the world, and being in a position to lead and influence the industry is incredibly rewarding.
As a veteran of the technology and education industries, I have seen an increasing gap between those who truly understand technology and those who are struggling to keep up in a fast-paced world. I joined Certiport because I see foundational certification programs as a real solution to this issue as they help students and workers master digital literacy skills and key application technologies. As a result, the most enjoyable part of my job is seeing individuals take a test, earn a credential and arm themselves with the skills necessary to succeed in today's economy. I regularly visit schools, companies, and governments all over the world where I am constantly inspired by the work they are doing to get more individuals certified and ready for the workforce. Individuals who obtain the right credentials are positioning themselves for life success. It is not just about the IT industry anymore - I believe technical certifications are valuable to everyone.
What has been the biggest challenge of your career and how did you overcome it?
One of the biggest challenges in my career was assuming the responsibility of a CEO and being given the opportunity to develop a healthy, growth-oriented, and sustainable business. The keys to unlocking the huge potential of Certiport were creating an innovative corporate culture and building a team that shared common goals. To do this, it was critical to pinpoint each individual's strengths, weaknesses, and chief motivations helping them achieve synergies in a growth-oriented team. Making the tough decisions to move people out who weren't effective at their job was painful, but essential.
An even bigger challenge lay in identifying the individuals, especially leaders, who were the right people in the wrong jobs, and moving them to positions where they could excel. In most of those cases, those people went on to greater success in their new roles. That was very satisfying.
What qualities do top test creators have in common? What have you discovered to be the best ways to attract, compensate and work with extraordinary test developers? How important is expertise in making tests compared with expertise of the subject matter in question?
Test developers are sometimes the most overlooked experts in the certification community. Most successful test creators have experience in educational psychology, evaluation and measurement, and they are also creative and have excellent language skills. All good test developers must have a good understanding of the subject matter, but they should also have a great understanding of the test objectives. A skilled test developer can work with subject matter experts from almost any domain to generate valid, relevant content. The best developers know how to craft a question that calls on experience and fundamental understanding. They master the art of phrasing a question with the fewest words to produce the needed clarity.
Certiport is unique because many of our exams are performance-based and involve cutting-edge simulation development or live-application testing. The opportunity to work on the unique challenges involved in performance-based certification has helped us attract exceptional test developers and even new clients. The opportunity to practice excellence in testing while working in an environment focused on employee satisfaction, training, and development is also an important draw for personnel.
There are many talented content developers in the market who are willing to help develop great tests, but often it's recognition from their peers that makes it worthwhile for them. Well-earned recognition is a must in my book.
What have been your keys to success in marketing and sales of professional certification and testing products and services?
One of the key drivers to the successful adoption of professional certification is to make it an easy process for individuals to obtain all of the test preparation and learning content necessary to achieve a credential. At Certiport, we give test candidates the opportunity to obtain all of the learning pathway products including assessments, prescriptive learning, and mock/practice tests. The full learning solution provides an individual with the highest chance for success.
Additionally, we have had great success with our site license model, which allows individual sites to become a Certiport Authorized Testing Center and provide a high volume of exams for a flat fee. This model allows organizations to budget and simplify their testing practices by eliminating the need for individual test vouchers. The site license model has also allowed us to implement very large certification programs across entire states and countries, and we've had great success recently in places as diverse as Kansas, Washington, and Iraq.
What are some of the most important technologies and software for the development, management and delivery of assessments?
I see many certification organizations that are crippled by the delivery platform of their test delivery vendor. In my experience, assessment delivery software is just as critical a component of the testing solution as content development and exam management. The larger and more complex the pool of content you develop and manage, the more important a robust content management system becomes. Good test development tools can facilitate cost control and item development turnaround time. Item banking, test form construction, item analysis, and tracking tools become increasingly important as the size of the item pool and complexity of form construction increases.
What areas of IT certification are growing in demand and which are declining?
Most areas of IT certification for in-demand skills are growing, but the strongest growth is coming from both ends of the spectrum, from foundational or basic IT skills, to high end architecture skills. Basic IT skills are useful for any individual or student, and in fact, anyone entering nearly any field today. With the tremendous number of youth entering the job markets around the world, these basic IT skills are a necessity for almost all workers in the digital age. The growth rate in basic IT skill certifications is especially growing strong internationally, in countries that are striving to bolster their economies with a capable workforce.
With the proliferation of web services and cloud computing, the demand for high end architecture skills is also rapidly increasing globally. These are the professionals who bring these massive computing systems together and make them interoperable.
The declining certifications are generally those that are aligned with waning technologies as you would expect, but downward trends are also apparent in certifications that haven't provided job value. When employers don't see the value in a credential, it will immediately suffer, no matter how strong the sponsor brand may be. That's why performance-based certifications are so important. Employers see the value in those credentials that require a candidate to perform real life job tasks as part of the certification.
What are the top reasons that organizations decide to go with a third party to develop and manage their certification programs?
Most technology organizations develop and manage their own certification program networks for the delivery of the exams from a third party provider. However, there are an increasing number of organizations including Microsoft, HP, and Adobe that use third parties to manage all facets of many of their certification programs. By outsourcing the certification piece of the puzzle, they can continue to focus on their core competency - building useful technologies. Organizations go with third parties to develop and manage their certification programs in part because of their expertise in developing, marketing, delivering, and managing proprietary certification programs.
About how many IT certifications are earned each year in the United States? Of those certifications, what percentage is paid for by employers vs. employees/individuals?
We estimate that well over 2 million IT certifications are earned each year in the United States, with many more exams being delivered. In the IT industry, about 60% of all certifications are paid for by the employer, according to a Cert Magazine study, although there is an increasing trend for certifications to be taken by students as part of the school curriculum. The key takeaway here is that employers find certification valuable enough to pay for it as a benefit to their employees and their enterprises, and that schools are using certifications to prepare students for an increasingly competitive workforce.
Certiport has worked with Microsoft since 1998 as the only official provider of the Microsoft Office certification program. To what do you attribute its success?
The Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) program is delivered in the Certiport partner network in over 140 countries and in 24 languages. This year over 1.2 million people will achieve their MOS certification, making it by far the largest IT certification in the world. I attribute our success with the MOS program to two key factors: the growing popularity of the Microsoft Office suite, and the need for academic and workforce markets to validate desktop skills today. In academia, MOS promotes success in the classroom for students and instructors by building individual distinction. For business, MOS maximizes office productivity and efficiency for the organization, increases job satisfaction, and heightens career achievement among employees. In workforce development, MOS prepares and places job candidates, ensuring they possess the skills employers require.
What percentage of certification tests are currently taken online and what do you feel that percentage will be in five years?
In today's competitive work environment, being 'employable' typically means possessing current and relevant technical skills obtained through continual education. The increased need for frequent credentialing requires a convenient and logistically feasible way to administer exams. As a result, there has been a significant increase in online certification testing over the last few years. Currently, Certiport delivers almost 35% of its exams online—a 38% increase in just one year. As technologies including virtual proctoring, cheating-detection, and biometric identification improve and are implemented across Certiport's test center network, we're likely to see this percentage increase to well over 50 percent in the next five years.
When, if ever, do you imagine that high stakes certification exams may be delivered online at the home of the test taker vs. at proctored testing centers? How do you see this area evolving?
Proctors administer all of Certiport's certification exams. When an exam is delivered to a test candidate, the proctor must enter his/her proctor ID and check the identification of the candidate before the exam can be initiated. The idea of being able to take a high stakes exam at home is interesting, but I doubt it will be fully embraced by the market. The remote proctoring solutions available today don't scale well and haven't proven to be effective in a home setting for higher-stakes testing. They are still too cumbersome and I believe that it's unrealistic to fully protect against cheating in a home environment.
As we all know, however, technology has a way of solving problems over time in new and unforeseen ways; remote proctoring technologies and data forensics should eventually be better able to detect aberrant behavior, and online-proctored high stakes exams will start to happen. Market adoption will come down to how much risk companies are willing to take by putting exams in an unsecure setting. It is likely that at-home testing will gain momentum for lower or medium stakes testing and may evolve with acceptance at this lower level.
What are some the most important elements to consider when designing and developing secure high stakes tests and their supporting administration, scoring and other systems?
The most important element to consider is the relevance of the certification. You can develop the most secure, well-documented, capable system in the world, but if the exam or the certification is not relevant to a job task, if it doesn't help someone do their job better, provide opportunity for the credential holder, or insure someone is capable of doing a job correctly, then the certification will be a failure. A lot of companies rush to develop a certification because they think they need a credential to give their technology or organization credibility, but what they really should be doing is investigating ways to make people more successful in life, work, and in the community. As for the supporting systems, interoperability is often overlooked. Frequently the item banking system doesn't talk to the test delivery system. The test delivery system doesn't talk to the CRM. When designing tests, it is vital to take the time to make sure all the systems work well together.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in starting a new certification exam based on a new field of expertise?
I would tell them to reach out to their peers in the certification community and learn from them. There is a tremendous amount of talent in this industry, and people in this business are very willing to share best practices. They could start by finding the online communities on social media platforms such as Linkedin and Facebook, and connect with the associations like ATP, PTC, CeDMA, and ITCC. There is a lot of good information out there, and many good people willing to help.
Who are the five most influential professional certification organizations?
There are literally thousands of professional certification organizations and all have their own niche. Microsoft, Certiport, and HP are the three companies, I believe, that have most influenced the professional certification market in the IT industry. Microsoft's professional certifications have been around for over 20 years and the company has more certified individuals than any other company. Certiport pioneered the area of performance-based testing and is in its 15th year of developing and distributing tests for the Microsoft Office program, and MOS has become the world's leading IT credential. HP's ExpertONE certification program is also one of the most influential in the IT market and its ATA certifications teach and assess the ability to design, implement and support IT solutions. Educational Testing Service has one of the most widely recognized programs globally for English language testing (TOEIC and TOEFL). It's hard to decide between the hundreds of other high quality professional certification organizations, but I'm a fan of financial certification, especially the CPA program (managed by AICPA and NASBA), which has proven its value over time.
What is the value of testing and credentialing in our society?
We live in an increasingly complex and competitive world in which there are high expectations for our educated workforce. The high unemployment rate has not created the talent surplus that many expected, and many jobs go unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates. Certification fills an important gap by both preparing individuals for college and the workforce and by validating their skills. The value of certification is not just in a piece of paper, it is in the way it changes lives. Certification validates computing excellence, in-depth knowledge, and real-world skills. It differentiates and elevates the individual from the crowd. Certification is valuable to individuals, educators, organizations, and governments.
The process of testing, certifying, and credentialing individuals validates and confirms knowledge, specialized skills and experience within a particular field. Beginning with the individual, a certification or credential sets them apart from others to ensure career progress and productivity with practical, real-world skills to help them become immediately valuable to a potential employer. For educators, providing an education with proof of knowledge establishes value and gives the institution a reputation for preparing students to be college and career-ready. For employers, certification and credentialing increases the employee competency and overall organization productivity. For governments, certification allows them to ensure that their constituents have the requisite skills to form the foundation of a successful economy. In the technology industry in particular, the pace of business is accelerating to staggering levels. The increase in information, rate of transactions, and interactions is exponential. These drivers are causing business leaders to reevaluate their business models and look to technology to give them a strategic advantage, but they need IT professionals with the foundational skills and abilities to keep pace. Certification programs help educators effectively teach and validate IT skills while providing students with credentials that demonstrate real-world prowess to prospective employers.
The bottom line is that certification is arguably the single best solution for verifying skills attainment and mastery, far better than accreditation or even traditional education as a whole.
If you had the power to change the world of assessment, what would be the first three things you would do?
First, I would raise the bar in the assessment market by instituting more performance-based testing, requiring the candidate to demonstrate their ability to "do" and not simply "say." I believe that the best tests are those that measure real-world knowledge by asking test takers to perform tasks, rather than answer multiple-choice questions. Although the majority of testing organizations are still using selective responsive, or multiple choice questions, to test candidates, many more progressive organizations are already beginning to incorporate performance based elements to demonstrate their competence in using a skill. In the IT world the most popular tests are those that require individuals to demonstrate their ability to perform a task.
Second, I would encourage more employers to offer certifications to their employees as part of a continuing education program. Role-based assessments, integrated with application-specific content, allow organizations to better qualify employment candidates based on their proprietary, specific needs. This would also help organizations identify those individuals in need of training and pinpoint exactly what areas on which to focus.
Third, I would like to see assessment always being coupled with learning. One important benefit of assessment is identifying what an individual needs in order to be effective and competent, rather than simply showing what they already know. By focusing assessment on prescribing learning, we create efficiencies and elevate capabilities.
How do you envision the future of testing?
Technology enables the possibility of removing the current physical constraints on test candidates. Ideally, certification testing could happen in a just-in-time environment, where the candidate takes their exam from any location, anytime/anywhere, and with the proper technology ensuring they are who they say they are. I also envision a model in which certification testing becomes a subscription model with a program that is not high-stakes. This would be attractive to organizations that have very dynamic certification programs and need to be almost as fluid as their technology.
In the modern world, earning a degree to demonstrate competence isn't enough anymore - workers have to prove they have the specific skills to fill job openings. Certification is arguably the single best solution for verifying skills attainment and mastery.