I am frequently asked about the value of technical certifications as they related to one’s career prospects. Thousands of developers have invested millions of dollars and countless hours studying for exams that, assuming they pass, provides a document suitable for framing and enables them to put a single line and fancy acronym on their resume. Often at the bottom.
I don’t have any technical certifications (I’m not a programmer). I do have a World’s Greatest Dad mug. I didn’t buy it for myself, as that would feel like cheating. It was a gift from my wife. There are many other dads of varying ability that own mugs making similar superlative claims about the owner’s parenting skills.
Do I Need the Mug?
If I was somehow required to prove my parenting skills for some Best Dad Talent Showcase, I probably wouldn’t incorporate the mug into my demonstration. I might instead change some diapers and show that I know how to feed and play with my baby, and hopefully the baby would react positively. Observers might get a sense that I was a pretty good dad.
But let’s imagine that I did walk into the Best Dad Talent Showcase with mug in hand, proudly waving it around and pointing to it (and then to myself) as if the mug were some genuine award? I imagine the judges might become suspicious. Spectators could be thinking, “This guy might be an incredible dad – perhaps even the World’s Greatest – but a great dad wouldn’t need a World’s Greatest Dad mug to prove his point.”
If I was a brand new dad with no clue how to parent, that mug might be the only thing I’ve got to compete with the experienced dads. The fact that someone felt strongly enough about my abilities to buy me the mug might sadly be the best chance I have.
Certifications Are Not Mugs
The analogy between certifications and my mug is clearly imperfect (it was mainly an opportunity to brag about and photograph my mug), but I hope the message comes through. Certification tests from the more reputable vendors are generally regarded as quite challenging, and I would never mean to imply that the certs can simply be bought or earned simply as one might buy a mug.
The intended takeaway is that when experienced professionals pursue, earn, and advertise that they have certifications, it might actually raise some eyebrows instead of instilling confidence. Just like the World’s Greatest Dad wouldn’t need a mug to prove his worth, a strong technologist pursuing certs might be considered to be overcompensating for some possible skills deficit.
What If I Had Fifteen World’s Greatest Dad Mugs?
This perceived overcompensation is largely due to the fact that one rarely pursues just one certification. I tend to find that certs come in bundles, and someone might list from three to fifteen different certs on a resume. When I see multiple certs on a resume, the first impression is not generally positive.
Going back to my mugs, what if you came to my house for coffee and found that I had fifteen World’s Greatest Dad Mugs? You might find that a little strange, and if you discovered I had bought them all for myself you might even suspect that I had some sort of complex about my own parenting ability.
The greatest value of a certification may be the journey and not the destination. The pursuit of a cert provides a learning goal to be achieved within a deadline, and the financial cost (whether on the individual or an employer) gives added incentive to study and perform. One may find that removing multiple certs (particularly older ones) from a resume may improve results.
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.