Carnegie Mellon University, Kenya team up to create software developer exam

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When Philip Miller came to Carnegie Mellon University in 1979 to oversee curriculum for freshmen computer programming courses, the institution was suffering a crisis of legitimacy. A group of graduates who cheated their way through multiple-choice programming exams the previous semester were falling flat on the job at top technology companies. A growing reputation as one of the world's premiere technological institutions was taking hits one unearned degree at a time.

To get things back on course, Mr. Miller said he knew the university would have to scrap the standard exam for something fail-proof, or at least cheat-proof.

"I decided to not only have people program but have them do it in a proctored setting so they could be sure they were able to program. I figured at Carnegie Mellon, of all places, if you get a passing grade in a programming class you should be able to program," Mr. Miller said.

More than three decades later, the idea of making students prove their skills is part of a strategy to fuel an emerging technological revolution in Kenya.

Last summer, Carnegie Mellon and Kenya's Information and Communication Technology Board teamed up to create an official Software Developers Certification exam. The six-hour exam, which uses a Java interface but is otherwise vendor-neutral, asks exam takers to write code, make corrections and perform other day-to-day tasks software programmers face.

The exam would allow the growing number of Kenyans who are learning computer programming skills on their own to prove their skills without having to acquire a postsecondary degree.

One program, the Akira Chilx programming course for girls living in Kenyan slums, has attracted support and funding for expansion from the World Bank and Google, according to Linet Kwamboka Nyang'au, the program founder who is also a visiting researcher for the Software Developers Certification project. Another program, Knowledge For Life, is an initiative of Kenya-based Seven Seas Technologies to train and recruit Kenyan college students for IT careers. The program currently has 400 students prepared to take part in the next phase of the pilot.

Although software developer certification exams exist through companies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, those exams usually require test takers to have some form of postsecondary education or professional experience to earn certification. Additionally, the IEEE's Certified Software Development Associate and Certified Software Development Professional certificates cost $745 for preparation and exam for nonmembers seeking to take the test. Once the Software Developers Certification exam hits the commercial market, it will cost test takers around $50.

Most importantly, the IEEE exams are multiple-choice and can be passed by someone with minimal knowledge about actual coding, said Mr. Miller, who passed an IEEE certification exam last year without actually knowing how to program. Mr. Miller said the university is in discussion with IEEE to replace the programming portion of its exam with the Software Developers Certification exam once it's complete.

Currently, researchers are using results of pilot exams conducted at CMU and in Kenya to send newly improved exams to tech companies Softtek in Monterrey, Mexico; Infosys in Bangalore, India; and Tech One Global Limited in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to continue pilot testing with new job candidates.

The certification should be fully operational in Kenya by October. Once the exam is finalized, it will come with an IBM-backed certificate declaring the individuals fit to work as top-level programmers.

The project, dubbed "Chipuka" after the Swahili word for "emergence," is being sponsored by the Kenya Transparency and Communications Infrastructure Project, which is funded through the World Bank. Mr. Miller said he approached the World Bank with the plan because he believes a high-tech economy is a proven method for enriching emerging nations. He cited India, which saw its software economy grow from $150 million in 1991 to $5.7 billion by 1999.

"In less than a decade they went from 50 million people in the middle class to more people in the middle class than the United States of America has people. Not all of them were software developers, but they were the sharp leading edge of the revolution," he said.

Andrew Lewela Mwanyota, project manager for the Kenya Information and Communication Technology Board, said the initiative is coming during a time when government and citizens alike are embracing the notion of a tech economy. Mr. Mwanyota said the growing IT sector in Kenya and East Africa was worth $2 billion over the last year but could grow quickly as digital and educational divides are addressed.

He said the country graduates 400,000 college students across all disciplines, with about 2,000 in the IT sector. He also noted that only 6 percent of Kenyans had PC access in 2010 but nearly 40 percent had Internet access through a mobile phone or other device.

In February, the Kenyan government launched the National ICT Masterplan, a five-year initiative to boost the country's IT infrastructure, to provide public services online, and to make Kenya Africa's hub for IT services. Additionally, Mr. Mwanyota said a recent $250 million initiative will help to introduce computer science to students at an early age.

Combining the momentum of the National ICT Masterplan with an affordable IBM-backed certification could be the push the nation needs in its mission to become the next India.

If it has an effect anywhere near that of the Certified Public Accounting certificate, which allowed thousands of Kenyans to go from high school to positions at top accounting firms, it will transform the way people think of doing business in the nation, said Grace Wanjiru Kihumba, a visiting researcher for the project.

"Not everyone will make it to the university. Let's face it, we have 400,000 graduates out of 34 million people -- that is nothing," she said.

"But if we can give them a certification that makes them relevant straight out of high school then we're going to have the CPA effect, and the CPA effect in Kenya has been amazing."

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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