That there above? That’s my new sticker collection. I just started it in November and already I have seven stickers. Seven dull, rather unimaginative, digital stickers, though I must admit the pseudo-teardrop of the Microsoft stickers is at least pretending to try. Hey, it’s better than IBM’s square! Although, come to think of it, a monochromatic square is about as IBM as you can get.
They’re also officially referred to as badges. Sure, whatever. Until a physical object that I can affix to the left breast of my jacket lands in my mailbox, they’ll remain digital stickers as far as I’m concerned. And anyway, I DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ BADGES!
I call it my ‘new’ sticker collection because I also have an ‘old’ sticker collection. That’s some of it in the images below. If, like me, you were born in the very heart of Gen X, it’s likely you also have (or, more sensibly, had) a sticker collection. It was the Pinterest of the early 80s. And just as useless.
Sticker collecting started with the most iconic of traditions; a ‘gold star’ on a school test. Then, somewhere, a teacher took it upon themself to up their sticker game, perhaps a pair of glossy cherries or a cute cartoon bunny, and voila, a fad was born.
Next thing you know, students are begging for the return of math quizzes just to see what novel sticker their teachers had found. Kids filled entire photo albums with stickers. Flat ones, puffy ones, small ones, large ones, funny ones, sincere ones, branded ones, and, of course, the much beloved scratch and sniff ones, sure to account for increased senility rates in the coming years.
There were individual stickers from teachers but also those received as birthday gifts or purchased outright with allowance money. A trip to the mall became an epic treasure hunt as stores stocked entire aisles with every sticker concoction imaginable. Whole, unused sheets of them went straight from the package into the collection, never once being stuck to anything.
Vast, glue-backed fortunes were traded with the same intensity once reserved for hockey cards and Monopoly properties in hopes of obtaining desirable stickers no longer found in stores. Rare, final pieces to a series became holy grails; their owners held in awe … or contempt.
What was once a singular recognition of success granted only to those few with exceptional results morphed into an expected, and universal, addition to every assignment or test submitted to a teacher. Remember that the next time some Gen Xer starts soapboxing about participation awards. Odds are they once glowed with glee having received a puffy, googly-eyed, Pac-Man sticker on their cursive homework that looked no more legible than a doctor’s prescription.
Like my old sticker collection, this new one is also born of fad. As the coveted rewards for earning ‘certification’ in assorted tech-related skills, you’re most likely to encounter collectors of these digital stickers on LinkedIn where they serve as bat signals from the unemployed. And like their analog ancestors in my youth, the means of earning them have become rather dubious.
Certifications for Microsoft’s Office suite applications are reasonable enough. You take some classes then complete an examination. Prefer traditional teaching? No problem. Register for formal night classes at your local community college. Prefer self-learning? Again, no problem. There are opportunities for text-based and video learning all over the internet, from genuine online educators to enterprising kids posting Youtube videos from their bedrooms offering middle-aged knowledge seekers the simultaneous convenience of feeling too old and too stupid.
You can also register for practice tests that mimic the certification tests (sometimes with shocking accuracy). Once you’ve deemed yourself ready, you schedule a certification exam and with any luck, you’ll pass and begin your own digital sticker collection.
That’s pretty much how I achieved my Microsoft Excel certifications as part of a government-sponsored retraining initiative in which my fellow classmates and I were enrolled in formal schooling at a local community college but entirely self-taught the Excel material. They also provided us certification in Excel 2016 while learning on Excel 2019, so, yeah, perhaps not the most competent use of your tax dollars, but hey, free stickers for me!
The same cannot be said of my other certifications. That Microsoft Office certification examinations require a person to perform tasks within the actual product for which they are being tested turns out to be rather unique in the world of software certification.
Like you, I’d thought this would be a given considering the ability to use said software is kind of the whole point. I was mistaken. You can, in fact, become certified in almost any software simply by writing a multiple-choice quiz.
All my non-Excel certifications (Microsoft Database Fundamentals, IBM Predictive Analytics Modeler, and IBM Business Intelligence Analyst) were granted this way. It’s not inconceivable to envision someone earning these very same certifications without ever laying eyes on the actual software, let alone moving a mouse around inside them. With the internet being what it is (finding online … umm … ‘sample questions’ … isn’t terribly difficult) it’s all but certain somebody has.
The IBM certifications take this cynicism to another level. While there’s far less ‘help’ on the internet, the tests themselves are bordering on comical. Not for their content, they’re by no means easy, but for the way in which they’re administered.
Consider the ‘Explorer’ exams I took to earn those two ‘foundation’ certifications. In both cases, I was given as many opportunities to take the exam as I needed to pass. Depending on your levels of ability and shame, that should require anywhere from 1 to 4 attempts. Even a sincere student will just be regurgitating memorized answers after that.
Oh, and that passing grade? 60%. How’s that for a competency benchmark?
Hmmm … whatta ya think should be a pass, Carl … If they can do, say … two-thirds of the stuff?
Na, just make it 60%, Bonnie. Nice, round number. Like a decent moonshine.
Consider the Predictive Analytics Modeler ‘explorer’ exam. Comprised of 60 questions, those same 60 questions were asked each and every time. Only their order in the test, and the order of possible answers to a particular question, were altered.
The Business Intelligence Analytics ‘explorer’ certification was no different, save for the added challenge of there being 180 questions randomly chosen for the 60 question exams.
Difficulty escalated with the accompanying ‘intermediate’ certifications. No longer was I afforded the luxury of endless attempts to pass the ironically named ‘Mastery’ exams. I was more than a little choked when passing my first ‘Mastery’ exam resulted in the receipt of a sticker emblazoned with ‘intermediate.’ I suppose that to be a true ‘Master’ in IBM’s eyes, I’ll need to pass an ‘Omnipotent’ exam.
Despite the added urgency, and the stress that comes with it, these ‘Mastery’ exams didn’t live up to my fears. This was especially true of the IBM Business Intelligence Analyst ‘Mastery’ exam. Essentially a test on my ability to use IBM Cognos Analytics Reporting, the multiple-choice ‘Mastery’ exam was unquestionably passable with nothing more than memorization of the 180 questions provided in the ‘Explorer’ level exam. I kid you not.
How that test is supposed to differentiate an ‘Intermediate’ user from a ‘Foundation’ user is beyond me. I get that sticker regardless of whether I score 60.1% or 99.9% and easily 60% of the questions in that ‘Mastery’ exam were taken verbatim from the ‘Explorer’ exam rotation.
I could have done nothing more than study the ‘Explorer’ exam questions until memorized, wrote both the ‘Explorer’ and ‘Mastery’ exams back-to-back, passed both, and been granted official status as SUPREME MASTER of the COGNOS IBM Intermediate Level Business Intelligence Analyst, just the same.
That people are upgrading their skills, or retraining altogether, often with a faint scent of desperation about it, should not be derided. I, myself, am perhaps one of the smellier of the lot. Take twelve years away from your career in a now-cratering industry to raise children, and opportunities for a return are as unlikely as Liberal electoral success in rural Alberta. That whiff of panic emanating from my daily worry ritual should be expected.
But this certification fad is dangerously close to exploitation. It’s profiting off of false hope given to people desperate for a sense of value and accomplishment in a world that’s told them their existing skills are unwanted or obsolete. Two weeks of scripted lectures with dated learning material and a multiple-choice quiz is proof of nothing. Nor will it get me hired.
Yet here I am plastering my LinkedIn feed with stickers boasting of my new ‘credentials.’ It’s easy to do and it makes me feel good for a few seconds. See, world? I’m trying. Career counsellors would even have me even boast of these remarkable new ‘skills’ in my resume. I’m a bonafide Excel expert! I’ve got proficiency in database whatchamacallits! I’m a verified guru in data thinky stuff and pretty report making! IBM says so! Look! Look at my sticker!
Truth is, my new sticker collection is no more valuable than my old sticker collection. At least the old one has some nostalgic charm. Those Dukes of Hazzard stickers remind me of being 10 and the pure joy that show brought me. These new stickers, these ‘badges’, just remind me that I’m not 10 anymore but the business world thinks that treating me like I am will make me believe I’m employable.
Sad thing is … they’re right.