How Computer Warranties Paved the Way for Edward Snowden

So just how did a young college dropout manage to earn a six figure salary, gain top-level security clearances, and land a job working in two of the federal government's most secretive and exclusive agencies?

It all begins with warranties.

Product warranties that is, like the one someone probably tried to sell you the last time you bought a smartphone or a laptop. Your computer at work is likely covered under a few warranties for the hardware and software. Any large organization that relies on an IT infrastructure to manage operations – hospitals, universities, governments -  is likely to have extensive warranties covering the installation, use, maintenance, repair, and periodic upgrade of their hardware and software.

Warranties are ubiquitous in the IT sector because the products are expensive, break easily, are hard to fix, and need constant upgrades.  Buyers need some guarantee that when things go wrong, or they need to make changes or updates, they will not have to purchase new hardware or software. That guarantee takes the form of a product warranty that essentially shifts the risk of maintaining IT systems back to the vendor.

The issuers of the warranties, in turn, need to limit their exposure to potentially costly repairs or product replacements. One way to reduce risk is to limit who can work on warrantied products to people with very specific and verifiable skill sets. If you are on the hook for replacing broken equipment, you want to make sure that whoever is maintaining that equipment knows what they are doing. Requiring skilled technicians leads warranty issuers to identify skills standards and a means for certifying those skills, which generally takes the form of certification exams. Warranties can then include stipulations that purchasers only allow certified network administrators or systems engineers work on their products. Certifications are then embedded into job descriptions and hiring practices, leading to a widespread and robust demand for these credentials and a clear signal to students and job seekers on what's needed to land a specific job.

IT certifications come in many shapes and sizes. Some are vendor specific like a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE).  Others are vendor neutral like CompTIA’s A+ certification. Some certifications serve as entry points to IT careers while others are highly specialized and designed for advanced practitioners.  Organizations generally need employees and technicians that can work across a broad array of IT platforms, generating significant demand for IT certifications across many different industries and employers.

What does any of this have to do with Edward Snowden? Snowden was a “Certified Ethical Hacker”, a credential that “establishes and governs minimum standards for information security specialists in ethical hacking and information system auditing.” According to some reports, that credential is what landed him the job at Booz Allen that put him in the position at the NSA from which he gathered information that shocked the world. Given his extensive work on information security, he likely possessed a host of other certifications attesting to his skills as a programmer, network administrator, and “infrastructure analyst”.

What he didn’t have was a Bachelor’s degree.

Product warranties may no longer be the only driver behind the development of IT certifications today – government regulations and data security are also important – but the practice of identifying and certifying skills has become entrenched in the sector. The widespread use of certifications in hiring and promotion decisions has opened up alternative pathways to high-skilled, good-paying jobs that do not require a college degree. In fact, non-degree credentials – certificates, certifications, and licenses – are getting a lot of attention these days as students, employers, and policymakers try to find better ways of matching the supply and demand for skills.  As college gets ever more expensive, alternative pathways to postsecondary skills and good jobs are becoming more important, particularly for the large and growing population of adult learners.  Understanding why some industries develop and come to rely on these alternative credentials is important for policymakers aiming to improve connections between education and the labor market. Edward Snowden may not be the right poster child for that effort, but his path to a rewarding and lucrative career is important nonetheless.  And it all started with the fine print..."


Mary Alice McCarthy is the director of the Center on Education & Skills with the Education Policy program at New America (CESNA). Her work examines the intersection between higher education, workforce development, and job training policies