Why Words Matter: The problem with IT certification training

When it comes to IT certification training, and actually the IT industry in general, we have a problem with words... What makes me say this? Glad you asked. 

Here I go again, breaking promises to myself...

Once upon a time I promised myself I would stop being so preachy about certain subjects and just shut up and do my job. Well, I break a lot of promises to myself, so yet again here I am I’m breaking this one. I take a lot of IT tests (mostly security but some others) and throughout my career I’ve done pretty well at them. Want to know the secret? I am old and have heard just about every topic or term called something else. So… What happens when a young person or a non-native English speaker goes to take these tests? With so many of these terms, seems like there’s a pretty good chance they might not do that well. Why? I’m so glad you asked.

So, what’s wrong with the way many IT tests are written?

These tests are written horribly. Yes, I’m generalizing here, but I’m okay with that. It’s almost as if the people writing the tests have never actually taken the courses they’re writing the tests for! I’m going to cite some examples because I think they’re pretty instructive as to the problem:

On the test

In the training materials

“Network Access Control Device”     


“Master keys”

“Root Keys”

“Identity Controller”     

“Identity and Access Management”

I know that a firewall controls network access, but these days a lot of things allow access based on who you are (identity) and not what/where you’re coming from (traditional firewalls). So a “Network access control device” could be a lot of things and not just a firewall. It was a firewall in this case, because they had mentioned it throughout the training, but consistency of language is really important.

Misuse of words can be a career killer.

I once had a person working for me that couldn’t pronounce the word “executable” because everyone in his high school said it wrong and he just didn’t know the difference. Exposure taught him the “standard” way to say it so there was no confusion. If someone, fresh out of high school, takes one of these exams then goes into a company talking about their “Network Access Control Device” or their “Identity Controller” no one is going to know what they’re talking about.

Now I’m picking on IT certification tests and the like, but really this is a very common problem in IT. We do not have a standard vocabulary as much as we would like to think we do. I just learned recently that an engineer at a vendor wrote up a really great “How to do xyz” guide for deploying their stuff… problem is? He used terms he just made up to describe pretty standard things for that vendor. Now anyone using his write-up is going to think those are the standard ways of referring to things and anyone who didn’t use it will be totally confused. Sound familiar? It probably should.

What is the solution here? Aka what are WE doing about this.

In reality, there probably isn’t an overwhelmingly great solution. The best we can hope for is people who are patient and kind of figure out what someone is talking about before jumping to conclusions (I can be bad at this sometimes).

In our little world, we’re in the process of building out vocabulary cheat sheets so that everyone can know what everyone else is talking about. Obviously, they won’t cover everything, but a client or co-worker that doesn’t like to ask a lot of questions can look at that sheet and think, “Oh, THAT’S what they meant by 'forwarder'.” FYI: Splunk has one for their global set of stuff (https://docs.splunk.com/Splexi...) and it’s pretty good. We’re just trying to narrow it down to the things we use commonly.

Hopefully this will help with things, but hey, I’m a dreamer and an optimist.