Uncharted Waters

Dec 15 2014   11:52AM GMT

Are Certifications Worth It?

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Certifications can be found in every niche corner of the high tech industry: networking, hardware, programming languages, process models, auditing models, software testing, and so on. This is a big business and it seems to only grow as time passes.


There is a spectrum of certifications to chose from. At one extreme, you sign into an account online, take a test, and get a PDF in your inbox a little later with your name on it to show at your next interview or performance review.

Are you sure you need to be certified?

Questioning the Premise

If I take a more thoughtful look at certifications, a significant part of the industry looks a lot like a pyramid scheme in the same way that standards work. At the top of these pyramids are the groups defining the certs and standards. Usually this is done under the guise of developing people and bettering an industry. The next level down are people selling classes, books, and other kinds of content to the people that will eventually get certified by the folks at the top. The base is made up of recruiters and auditors that are incentivised by people getting the certification. They make money indirectly because others are willing to observe this or that standard.

In the words of Detective Lester Freamon from The Wire: “…you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the f*** it’s gonna take you.”

For the most part, the companies creating these systems aren’t interested in creating a skilled workforce, they are interested in making money.


Det. Freamon

The Buyers

What about the folks spending, or compelling the companies they work for to spend, hundreds or thousands of dollars on certifications? What do they get out of it? What do the companies get out of it?

For a few industries here and there, mostly in regulated spaces like those controlled by the FDA, certifying is part of the cost of doing business. These people can’t make or sell their product without first getting permission from someone else. My hunch is that that’s a pretty small corner of the biz though.

For most everyone else, certification is a one, maybe two time differentiator. Applying for a new job or angling for a raise are activities usually done in groups over a short period of time. Tens or hundreds of people send in resumes when a job advertisement comes out, and most people in a company are crossing their fingers for a few more dollars in each paycheck around their yearly performance reviews. One sort of logic says that having a new credential during either of these times will make you stand out from the masses.

Another sort of logic points to the futility of this sort of behavior. This is a lot like refinancing a house that you own. Refinancing your house is a lot of work. Really, it’s a lot. Basically what you are doing is closing one line of credit and opening a new one under the premise that you will save money in the long term with a lower interest rate. We have to be careful though, the savings aren’t so simple. Refinancing a house can cost thousands, and that will off-set and potential savings from the lowered interest rate for years to come. If you aren’t willing to stick it out in that house for the length of time it takes to pass the cost threshold and actually see the savings, it may not be worth while.

Personal Experience

My personal preference is for hands on courses with no real credentialing at the end. One example that is specific to software testers is RTIonline, which I wrote about last May. The point of classes like this isn’t the paper certificate that gets mailed to you a couple months later or being able to list the acronym on your resume and linkedin. The point is developing a skill set and gaining experience in your field of work.

Hands-on, practical courses hold their value far better over the course of your career, not because of the certificate you receive or the references you can make to the cert when applying, but for the abilities you develop. If you want to game the system, game it with how good you are at your job.

4  Comments on this Post

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  • aighead
    In my opinion IT certifications are useless, anyone can study long enough and hard enough to pass a test. The real test is in the field where the work counts. That is where certifications should take place. Of course it will never happen, it would cost to much money for protectors to monitor works.
    10 pointsBadges:
  • Jwnoord
    "CERTS WORK" just ask HR, the new industry of the United States.

    Frankly I knew this was going to be a problem in 1993 (or there abouts) when Novell started this for Server Administrators with the CNA program.

    A cert is really LESS a piece of paper and MORE a barrier to jobs for many cantidates.

    Before you think I am sour graping, I have taken and passed cert tests.  I have also worked with people who had an entiree portfolio of exams and couldn't find their way out of a paper bag.

    Trouble with the tests are many, but the most significant  is that they cannpt evanulate real world problem solving or soft skils in a customer environment.  Kind of like training to shoot real guns with a video game.  You can aim and fire, but the feel, kick, etc. are different.

    Without a 3D VR training tool, it would be very very hard to come out of trainign with a real feel for the weapon.

    Overall certifications are a HUGE scam, with money made by everyone along the line (feeding trough?), from IBM, Microsoft, CISCO, ORACLE, COMPTIA btw - what does COMPTIA make or do besides tests?

    Certifications are a direct response to the overload of IT workers entering the job market in the early 1990's.  Many people "embelished" their resumes, and that coupled with the massive growth in IT in the industry resulted in many "false starts" with new hires and lost money for employers.

    Managers appeard to not know how to hire people and HR swooped in to save the day.

    Trouble is HR was not really as computer or tech savy asw the hiring managers and their teams.

    That little fact didn't slow down Hr organizations though.  If they didn't know the technology, then they'd have someone else test the employees for them.

    With the advent of "CERTS" HR organizations have almost completely hijacked the onboardign process from managers. 

    Certications are the only concrete way a non technical person can screen technical people for skills.

    Overall the "cert process" has cost the country jobs, ingenuity, creativity, and frankly competiveness. 

    But what it lacks in productivity it gains in bolstering the ranks of HR at many companies.

    So bottom line, CERTs work, but not for the reason or purpose you think.

    50 pointsBadges:
  • Jwnoord
    Some people have LOTS of money and time tied up oin this process.  Nothing against them, it is the nature of the certifications keeping good employees from working.
    50 pointsBadges:
  • Harisheldon
    After reading your article, I agree, to a point, especially on your last paragraph.

    When I recently retired from the military, I went to a job fair.  While there, I was interviewed by a couple of good prospects for employment.  I was able to answer all of their technical questions and also brought up a couple of ways of doing things which had not been thought of, especially in the civilian community.

    After the interview, I was asked for my resume, which I greatfully gave, and copies of my certifications, which I did not have any of.  They said that even thou I have proven myself to them in a Q&A session, the upper management would not consider me for employment since I had no certifications to prove my knowledge.  Talk about a catch-22.

    Anyone can study for a test and pass it, it is the hands-on knowledge and troubleshooting that proves a person, not some piece of paper.  Too many companies want to see paper first and experience second, and many have chosen unwisely. 

    I now work for the government, AFTER I took and received the basic certs.  Now, they have become cert crazy and if you do not keep up with your certs, you are counseled until you get it done.  I could not imagine what the result would be in the civilian sector. 

    Worry about the mission first, can the person do it, and then work on the paperwork later.  A lot of companies would work in a more efficient basis if they took that into consideration.
    12,915 pointsBadges:

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