The value of certifications

Reading Davy Brion’s post on Does Certification Have Any Value?, he provides a common answer:

Someone asked which certificate would be the better choice on Twitter today: Microsoft Certified Professional or Certified Scrum Master. My answer was very simple: neither because they’re both utterly worthless.

That’s a very common answer to those looking at the point of view from those taking the exams as a means of proving they’ve learned something. In that light, things like Certified Scrum Master and Microsoft Certified Professional are useless. They don’t provide any indication whatsoever that the person holding the certification is able to actually apply those skills in the real world.

In fact, if someone comes to me using certification as a substitute for examples of experience, it pretty much guarantees that experience will be lacking but bravado will be abundant.

So if you’re wanting to use certifications as a means of learning – don’t, it’s a waste of time. If you’re wanting to use certifications as a means of gaining credibility – you can, but be aware that those that give you credibility because of a certification are likely clueless.

So do certifications hold no value?

No, there is value in some contexts. Clueless or not, sometimes the illusion of credibility from a certification is better than the alternative for some folks. For example, we often meet clients thinking they need Agile advice, but once we start talking to them, it becomes clear that we can help them in other ways.

However, a certification might be a foot-in-the-door to start a conversation that we would otherwise be eliminated. It’s not being disingenuous – it’s recognizing that we have to understand biases and work with them rather than pretend/hope they don’t exist.

Certifications, in some organizations, have currency beyond the illusion of expertise. This could be in the form of currency for promotions, or special deals with vendors (like the Microsoft Partner program was the last time I was involved with it).

Having a certification gets you points that puts you in “Gold” status that gets lower licensing fees. Basically, certification is a coupon for lower prices. It’s a sacrifice employees make for the good of the whole.

Otherwise, yes, don’t waste your time or money. Don’t worry about the worth of the certification, decide if the process of getting certified holds any value.

About Jimmy Bogard

I'm a technical architect with Headspring in Austin, TX. I focus on DDD, distributed systems, and any other acronym-centric design/architecture/methodology. I created AutoMapper and am a co-author of the ASP.NET MVC in Action books.
This entry was posted in People. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
  • Glenn Miller

    I wanted the challenge of passing the tests and so, in 2007, I worked my arse off to get certified. At my age (really olde), nothing helps in this business. The certs are no different.

    • ” At my age (really olde), nothing helps in this business.” You couldn’t be more wrong.

      What gets you a job as a software developer is a track record of success, and passion. Working on open source projects, or creating your own open source project(s), development blogs etc all show case your commitment to the community and allows you to showcase your expertise. This correlates to StackOverflow usage also.

      Come in and talk about SOLID design, why good software development principles matter. Talk about the new and evolving technology that has your interests, talk about how you used technologies to solve problems.

      Age is irrelevant, I want developers who are interested in growing always and have a good fundamental basis.

      Sadly I’ve never found these in the candidates I’ve interviewed that have been older than me. I’ve met software developers whose careers were most of my entire age, yet I wouldn’t even consider hiring for a junior developer because of their track record of fundamental misunderstanding of software development.

  • Marcus Swope

    I’ve always viewed certifications as a financial investment as opposed to an educational one. I know of plenty of companies that will give automatic and instantaneous bonuses/raises to anyone who completes a Microsoft Certification program, and if I worked there I would MOST DEFINITELY invest my time to get that certification. The question is, as you said, would you consider that a good place to work to begin with?
    It’s sort of like spending the time to refinance your mortgage at a lower rate, sure it’s not going to make you smarter or better at your job and it’s not for the “greater good” of your career. But, it will save (make) you money. And for that, it is worth it.

  • seif

    I have worked for companies where they were going for tenders, and when submitting they had to ‘prove’ their employees are worthy by showing how many certificates they have. A certificate might get you a job easier, but not necessarily a good job.

  • Bryan Murphy

    A few projects up on github are far more valuable than ANY certificate imo.

  • When I was doing Y2K remediation work (remember Y2K ?  Biggest IT scam in history !!) they employed a junior to help me get the work completed in time. Said junior was employed solely on the basis of having an MSCE. How I discovered it was worthless went like this;

    Me: (seeing Junior staring at Win95 boot screen) “What are you doing”
    J: “Waiting for this machine to boot – it’s doing something in background”

    (the program we used analysed date-critical DLLs, rebooted and did a copy and replace before allowing a logon)

    Me: “Well, turn off the splash screen and see what’s happening”
    J: “How do you do that”
    Me: (presses ESCAPE key)
    J: “Wow, they didn’t teach us that in the course”

    So the next day he brought all of his training material in for me to look at and said that every question in the exam could be referenced back to a specific place in the text – i.e. all the course taught you to do is PASS AN EXAM.

    Since then I’ve ignored most certifications as a basis for employing staff, using them as an indication of interests instead. Practical experience and expertise will beat a piece of paper hands down any day.

  • I just recently came from a meeting where certifications did hold value and not in any context you have mentioned. Some colleges honor the Network+ and CCNA certifications as college credit hours applied to specific programs. So in a situation where a high school student has the chance to earn college credits like an AP course is highly WORTHWHILE.

    Second point is, as a programmer I see certifications as a test that you passed to prove yourself just like in most of education. How you apply the knowledge is always up for debate and can be the difference between an ok person and an awesome person. The other piece to look at is what is the certification in? I have a Network+ and have placed high in Cisco competitions, what does that say about me as a developer? I can work better  with the network team then any other developer out there, and the proof is the certification on my resume.

  • Chris Tavares

    I got my CSM almost as an afterthought. Jeff Sutherland was teaching the class locally, and the chance to pick the brains of one of the originators of Scrum for three days was too good to pass up. Getting the piece of paper (actually  a PDF) was really incidental to the experience.

  • Wesley

    Interviewed a person who had 96% on .NET App. Foundation cert. He didn’t know how to get the AppSettings from a config file (in first 100 pages of book).
    All the questions I asked from the book/exam he couldn’t answer. 
    My conclusion: Braindumps. “NEXT candidate please.”

    It was like a few years ago on Tech-ed Europe. The 10 year old girl from Pakistan or something. She was the youngest MCP. She did a demo of her calculator App. DOH.
    Conclusion “She can remember things by heart very well from the Braindumps”

  • Pingback: The Morning Brew - Chris Alcock » The Morning Brew #992()

  • Jethro

    I have to say I disagree to some extent about this post. I
    do agree however that real world experience is vital, but is not always the
    case. I have worked with more than one developer who has quite a few years’
    experience but has been doing the same work over and over and over. When I mean
    same work over and over, I mean codes in the same manner as they did 3-4 years
    ago, never trying new tools or technologies. Now something that a certificate does
    give you, and your potential boss, is that you at least understand your “language”
    and that you are looking to grow as a developer. Yes a lot of what you learn
    from a certification is general knowhow stuff, but it doesn’t mean you can’t
    learn anything from it, which to me says having a Certificate is not totally useless!

  • Track

    I would say it helps a bit to get myself focussed on what to refresh/learn next. I tend to not dive deep enough without an exam on the horizon. I feel comfortable with both, the certification AND actually having experience in that field. I would suggest to not use the certification on business cards though. I have yet to meet people who do NOT want to work with me because I have certifications. That would as absurd like saying you do NOT want a B.Sc. in computer science (btw, many I have assessed didn’t know proper OOP stuff they sure have learned). 

  • Chris Bristol

    I think you’re right, the certification itself doesn’t mean much.  OTOH, it is very difficult to assess a candiate’s skills quickly and accurately in a few interviews. Its much like choosing your wife after the first three dates.  Who knows if things will work out in the long term at that point?  Certifications at least let you know that a person is interested in something, and that they are motivated enough to work towards a goal.

    But if nothing else, certifications are a good way to get past the initial HR/recruiter phase.  Since many of them do not understand what we do very well (all they usually know are the buzzwords), the certificates hold more weight with them.  And since many companies use them as gatekeepers, it makes sense to put some effort into impressing them.

  • Anonymous

    I agree 100% that real world experience is far more important than certifications. Heck, it’s even far more important than a CompSci degree.

    That being said, I don’t feel there is anything wrong with getting certifications. In fact, for entry level positions, especially, where people lack real world experience, getting certified can separate you from other entry level  candidates. The problem is, as someone else stated, that the whole certification process is tainted by braindumps, and other ways of cheating.

    I thought about getting an MCTS in Web Programming, but I stopped because I came to .NET for ASP.NET MVC, and have used it exclusively in the .NET world since the first beta. The exam is only 13% MVC, and I just didn’t have the desire to learn WebForms just for the purpose of getting certified. If Microsoft ever separates the two and gives an MVC track to certification, I’ll probably take it. Why not? It may not have much merit in the grand scheme of things, but it can’t hurt, either.

  • Good post, Jimmy. I can’t agree more. I’ve posted something along the same lines just a few months ago:

  • kly630

    I’m relatively new to IT myself at just under 5 years of experience, but I think certifications do have their place. It’s just not as important a place as people think outside your IT groups. For those people, I like to make an analogy to understand where certifications sit in the tech industry.

    If we think of technology as a language and want people fluent in that language, then having a certification is like passing a high school course in a foreign language. It’s a nice jumping off point, but let’s not pretend that people who have only done that much can live abroad in a foreign land and be immediately successful without any hiccups.

    And if passing a certification is like passing a high school language course, then on the job experience is the functional equivalent of living abroad for X number of years in a foreign country. Your understanding is typically going to be much much deeper as you’re forced day in and day out to read, write, speak, and listen to the language.

    For people with 10-20 years experience, there’s no question that certifications are worth little. Why would you give a high school level spanish test to someone who’s been living in Spain for years?