The IT industry is swamped by certifications. Every conceivable three-, four- or five-letter acronym seems to mean something. However, everyone can recount a story of someone certified but clueless. In a world where answers are often a quick Internet search away, are certifications still relevant?
Certifications aim to show someone knows something or can do something, like configure a device or follow a process. Condensing a complex product, process or industry into a test is hard. Schools and universities, dedicated to learning with larger budgets, have been grappling with this for some time and even multi-year degrees are not always good predictors of competence.
Knowledge atrophies and conditions change. While some certifications require periodic certification or ongoing training to keep candidates current, there is no way to guarantee someone maintains or improves their skill and their knowledge is current.
Certifications risk devaluing experience. For example, the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE, now Solutions Expert) boot camps of the 1990s saw many inexperienced candidates spoon fed the minimum information to pass then unleashed on an industry expecting people more capable. Why hire someone experienced when you can hire a newly minted MCSE at a fraction of the price?
Certifications are no longer the only way to demonstrate competence. Speaking opportunities at user groups, social networks and blogging are open to anyone. Online training websites like Coursera or Pluralsight provide similar or identical material to common certifications at no or minimal cost. For a more specific example, a software developer that wants to demonstrate competency in a library or programming language can contribute to open source software or answer questions on Stack Overflow.
Many candidates complain about excessive certification costs, particularly for not-for-profit certification bodies. Certifications are expensive to create and administer, particularly minimizing cheating, and to market, because an unknown certification is wasted.
Does that mean certifications are dead? No. Certifications continue to have the same benefits they always had.
Certifications give you credibility. While saying you know something is easy, becoming certified is a known, third-party verified benchmark. Harder, time-consuming and/or hands-on ones like the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) or Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) especially so. They are good personal development goals.
Certifications make you more marketable. Many employers look to them as shortcuts for skills. Hiring someone certified decreases risk. Couple with experience or aptitude, they may lead to increased pay or new positions. They can even be a personal brand. For example, putting a certification next to your name on LinkedIn immediately tells the viewer your career focus.
Certifications open new networking opportunities. Certifications identify people with common interests or solving similar problems. Meetups, conferences and training courses target these. Some give discounts to certification holders, too.
Certifications tend to give rounded and broadly applicable knowledge, including different technologies, business areas or perspectives. They usually reference authoritative information and cover best practice, albeit sometimes abstracted or out of date. This can be harder to Google for because it requires domain knowledge.
Certifications benefit certifying authorities, too. From a vendor’s perspective, certification programs ensure product users are competent by requiring partners and resellers to have certified staff. Periodic recertification or certification expiry forces users to be up to date and creates recurring revenue.
The existence of certifications indicates a product’s or market’s maturity. They can help standardize, unify or legitimize a fragmented or new discipline. Certifications are as much a marketing tool as technical.
They allow vendors to identify and communicate directly with the user base. Vendors often know their customers (who is paying for the software) but not the people using it.
Certifications are not going away and are still relevant for the same reasons they always have been. They can still be a differentiator and misconstrued. They are still useful to vendors but expensive. However, the real question is how the current alphabet soup needs to evolve and still be relevant in the constantly changing IT landscape, particularly for areas like software development with a poor certification track record. That is something for the next blog post.
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