The Stigma of Tech Certifications (and their real value)

Every so often I will receive a résumé from a software engineer that includes a list of technical certifications.  These days most candidates tend to have none listed, but over the years I’ve seen some include anywhere from one or two certs up to ten or more certs, and it seems the number of companies willing to certify tech professionals has continued to grow.  Vendors like IBM and Oracle each offer over 100 certifications, while Brainbench lists almost 30 tests on Java topics alone.  At prices ranging from the $50 neighborhood up to $200 and more, the technology certification industry seems quite lucrative for the testing companies.  But what is it all about for engineers?  What (if any) value do certifications have for your marketability, and could having a certification potentially result in the opposite of the intended effect and actually hurt your chances of being hired?

When do certifications help?

There are some situations when certifications are absolutely helpful, as is the case for job seekers in certain industries that generally require a specific cert.  A certification that was achieved through some relatively intense training (and not just a single online test) will also usually have value, much like a four year degree tends to be valued above most training programs.  If a technology is very new and having skill with it is incredibly rare, a certification is one way to demonstrate at least some level of qualification that others probably will not have.

When and why can certifications actually hurt?

Professionals that have very little industry experience but possess multiple certifications usually will get a double take from hiring managers and recruiters.  These junior candidates are perceived as trying to substitute certifications for an intimate knowledge that is gained through using the technology regularly, and more senior level talent will note that the ability to pass a test does not always indicate the ability to code.  Many of these job seekers would be much better off spending their time developing a portfolio of code to show prospective employers.

Experienced candidates with multiple certifications may have some stigma attached to them due to their decision to both pursue them and then to subsequently list them.  Some recruiters or managers may feel that these professionals are trying to compensate for having little depth in a technology or a lack of real-world accomplishments, and that the candidate wrongly assumes that a cert shows otherwise.  Some that evaluate talent might get the impression that the candidate obtains certs in order to feel validated by (or even superior to) their peers, and that the cert is more driven by ego than a desire to learn.  Lastly, there will be some who feel that over-certified technologists are ‘suckers’ that should have spent their (or the company’s) money and time more wisely.

The greatest value of certifications

Having spoken to hundreds of programmers certified in any number of technologies, I found that the majority claimed to find more value in the process of studying and test preparation than with the accomplishment of passing the test and getting certified.  Pursuing a certification is one way to learn a new skill or to get back to the basics of a skill you already have.  Certification tests are a great form of motivation to those that take them, due to the fact that there is:

  • a time deadline – If you decide you want to learn a technology in your spare time, you probably don’t associate any particular date in mind for learning milestones.  Certs are often scheduled for a specific date, which motivates the test taker to study right away.
  • a time cost – Preparing for a test like this comes at the expense of other things in your life, so most that pursue certs understand the time investment required.
  • a monetary cost – Shelling out $50 to $200 of your own money is an additional motivator.  It’s not that much for most in the industry, but it is a lot to pay to fail a test.
  • a risk of failure – If you are studying with others for a test, pride will also be motivating.

As the pursuit of certification seems to be the greatest value, keep this simple fact in mind.

Just because you get a certification doesn’t mean you have to list it on your résumé.

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  1. Mike S.

    My inclination is to list just one certification. Then if it comes up in discussion during the interview, I can mention that I take certifications periodically for the reasons you stated – it forces me to study a field with more focus.

    But what I really want to do is have some useful code in my github (or gitorious) account. Now I need to find the right itch to scratch with that.

    • fecak

      Listing one doesn’t usually result in any negative reactions. When you start to see a pattern of someone seeming obsessed with the certs, the problem arises. Useful code to show is always going to trump a cert, at least with forward-thinking software shops and managers. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Swimming In The Mud

    This was helpful. Thanks. With a 5-year hiatus from my 20-year technical/computer career, I’ve been wondering what, if any, certifications I should consider earning if I want to venture back into the field. In a way, with the 5-year break, it might be NECESSARY to do. The gotcha is getting back into my old area of core networking requires all those CISCO certs, which were way more expensive than the ranges you mention, and MUCH more time consuming… the kind of cert I always thought best to earn WHILE EMPLOYED at a company willing to pick up the tab. To veer off in other areas that I only had occasional experience with–web design, web programming–might require certs of the type you’ve been discussing to get myself up-to-speed to ‘prove’ my potential (though I’d have thought a B.S. in C.S. and a solid work history in various computer disciplines would be enough). Your take on that? I also spent 5 years involved in all aspects of a startup cybersecurity department at a large national lab but to leverage that now, I’m certain I’d have to get a CISSP cert at a minimum to, yet again, ‘prove’ my ability to step back in and get up to speed (a lot changes in 5 years!). Any advice?

    • fecak

      I’m aware of the CISCO certs and they are a little outside the area that I was referring to. My focus is more on developers, but I do remember hearing that those certs were very expensive, often required, and incredibly valuable (at least at the time, which was 5-10 years ago).

      Being out of any industry for 5 years will present challenges. Based on your brief assessment, I would think that if you were to brush up on the changes in the industry since you left you should be quite attractive to employers assuming you are priced correctly and have all the other necessary traits (hard working, soft skills, etc.).

      You are able to offer an employer a very experienced candidate (albeit a few years away from the game) that held all those hard-to-get certs at one time, which shows that you had the knowledge necessary and should be able to get back there. If a company were looking to hire a mid-level candidate who would probably be able to ramp up to senior level very quickly, I’d think you should be fine. Your experience is there for them to see, and I think it should come down to a bit of modesty (“I knew all this stuff a few years ago, I’m rusty, but willing to put in the time to catch up”) and being willing to not start back at the top. Good luck!

      • Swimming In The Mud

        Thanks for entertaining my questions, especially since they fell a bit outside your targeted audience’s concerns. I have one residual question that might relate to all. If certs are from more than 5 years ago, are they ever worth mentioning on a resume, especially if a resume is lacking in more recent certs?

      • fecak

        In most cases I’d say no, but in your case they could be. Assuming that the certs are difficult to get and widely recognized as such, they have value. It’s not entirely different than listing a college degree 20 years after graduation. You wouldn’t think to drop your degree from your resume, yet it primarily shows that 20 years ago you were able to pass your classes. A challenging cert shows that you were able at that time to pass the requirements necessary, and if those skills are still relevant it could be (in your case) worth listing.

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