Thursday, March 27, 2008

Certified or Certifiable?

As a senior technology professional, I interview a lot of candidates. I also maintain solid relationships with other folks in the community. Frequently, the topic of certifications arises: A good investment? Valuable? A clear measurement of skill?

Consensus appears to draw the line related to one's seniority. If you're (for example) just out of school and looking for an instant creditability boost, by all means pursue a certification. Likely, this credential will assist you in overcoming the "junior" tag and likely land you more interviews and client roles. (Note: I'm going to use the terms senior and junior offense to either. Can't think of a better one word description. I was a junior once too.)

In stark contrast, the value of certifications drops off the table around the 2-3 year mark. Some in my circles even perceive certifications as a negative for the senior professional. They think, "If this guy is so solid, why is he wasting valuable time pursuing certifications? He should be out presenting, involving himself with the community, writing, and leading by creative means."

For the record, I have my MCSD (since 1997) and the RUP certification. Earlier in my career, I think they served me well. However, I haven't pursued certifications for some time--and these I pursued partially from a self-serving reason and partially to contribute to "number of certified professionals quotas" for vendor partner relationships (I've worked for Microsoft Gold Partners for much of my career). Quite honestly, I just have far better uses of my time (continuous learning, presenting, building new lines of business, recruiting, writing, mentoring, etc.) than pursuing certifications.

Admittedly, I do learn some things when preparing for an exam. Going back and drilling into the nitty-gritty helps me pick up on all the things I missed while self-teaching and the get-er-done processes we all follow during rapid learning. Further, certifications whisked me in the door for many client and full-time opportunities. They didn't, however, aid me in locking up positions--that was up to me.

I think we tend to look at certifications as a clear, quantitative manner in which to publicize and communicate, "Hey, I know my stuff!" to an otherwise less-than-captivated audience bothered by a lot of noise. It's an easy answer but don't believe it. For the most part, the greatest developers or technologists I've encountered were not certified. Not only were they not certified, they weren't even computer science majors.

These folks were artists. Plain and simple. They were creative craftspeople who were genuinely passionate and engaged in their pursuit of greatness. And they didn't need a certification to highlight their talents. You know these folks too. They just ooze with technology coolness. These are the guys and ladies you see at every conference and event: organizing, presenting, evangelizing, and providing energy.

With the exception of benefit and instant creditability for less-experienced staff, why do certifications even exist? (BTW, I truly believe certifications for the 1-2 year consulting staffer are no-brainers. Go out there and make a name for yourself. Other, larger opportunities will present themselves as a result).

Certifications exist for two reasons:

  • Proliferation of vendor 'wares
  • Industry attempt at lending creditability
  • Company feel-good about hiring decisions

Vendors love it when you get certified! We're so important--we have 50,000 certified TechnoCo professionals! I guess they figure it validates their market and gives them a way to assist companies to [incorrectly] assess candidates. (Full disclosure: I've done editing work for ReviewNet (assessment firm). I don't agree with a company leveraging these assessments but I do feel positive about helping ReviewNet to at least get the questions right.)

I think there's also an attempt from the technology industry to "professionalize" our industry. Attorneys must pass the Bar, medical doctors pass boards and fulfill residencies, and CPAs pass...well the CPA. I suppose this is good but does it simply serve as an artificial barrier to entry? Again, I know fantastic doctors, attorneys, and CPA--and I also know horrid ones. They're all "certified". Label me unimpressed.

Which brings me to my final point: companies typically do a poor job of interviewing and hiring staff. For every great interviewer--there are 9 horrid ones. Companies assessing candidates using certifications seek out some homogenous automaton whom they perceive can sling out code faster (note: not with better quality) than the next, uncertified candidate. I think it also creates a CYA of sorts: "well, Rich is certified...he must be good!" C'mon. That's just lazy. How passionate are they? Can they communicate? Can they solve problems? Can they learn? Can they teach?

So my advice is this:

  • Companies: stop giving more than about 2% weight to certifications
  • Juniors: get your certs but look beyond them very quickly
  • Seniors: don't even touch 'em. Substitute: blogging, presenting, community involvement, and mentoring

Please weigh in with your thoughts below!


muncman said...

I agree with your assessment. Very well put, I might add! One exception might be if a senior person is switching platforms. The exercise of studying for Microsoft certs (if not actually taking them) might be of benefit to a life-long Java dev, perhaps?

Jeff Hunsaker said...

@muncman Hadn't thought of that one. However, if a senior Java person flips to .Net, they'll have some instant creditability from me. The language isn't that far off and the concepts are very similar. Learning the surrounding technology would be the hurdle: struts, spring, etc. So, I'm not sure pursuing a cert would be the best use of time for that person.

Anonymous said...

I could not disagree with you more here. Blogging a substitute for certs? Most employers would laugh you out of the building here in the UK. Community involvement, mentoring, blogging are all good, but as a measure of actual valuable skills they dont mean a thing. Thats why certs exist: as an external validated measure of how good you ARE, not as how good you SAY you are. I'd rather hire an MCSD than someone with a page rank 4 any day of the week!

Jeff Hunsaker said...

@anonymous My argument isn't so much for or against certifications (remember, I'm an MCSD) but rather does it make sense for a senior professional (7+ years) to invest time pursuing certifications when there are other things s/he could be pursuing: presenting, improving relationship/networking skills, selling in new business, etc.

That said, I'm not convinced certifications are as quantifiable as we'd all like to think. I've seen MCSDs who couldn't tell me the difference between an interface and an abstract class. I'm just never going to give a lot of weight to certifications.

Good to grab if you're junior but IMO, not for senior folks.

Anonymous said...

I used to tech folks and the certs rarely were an indication of interest, passion or talent. Just because you can cram for a test doesn't mean you understand the concepts and apply them in creative and innovative ways. For me a certification is a great way to feel personal ownership over the technologies you're testing for. I'd say it's for the developer. If they love them, get them, if not then don't.

For the record--
Major: BFA in Musical Theater
Certs: None.