Open Insights 09 – IT Certifications

Heavyweight Internet Group Newsletter
Issue 09 – What About IT Certification?
July 2, 2005

by Sean Hull
Founder and Senior Consultant
Heavyweight Internet Group

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What About Certification?

From time to time the debate comes up again about certifications  in IT.  Are they important?  What do they indicate?  Should they be a deal breaker?  Which ones are relevant and which ones are less meaningful.  Depending on who you ask, you’ll get wildly  different answers.

Take for example a recent discussion over at Computerworld where Editor Don Tennant says he’s “Certifiably Concerned

Basically he covers a study in which it was found that folks WITH certifications were receiving smaller raises.  He found this very counterintuitive and managers may also.  But I’ll tell you with some confidence that most of your tech folks won’t be surprised.

There are a couple of different reasons for this.  The first one  sort of cuts to the heart of IT.  It is very much a moving target, that is to say that the set of skills, were they defined as a bunch of commands that work a certain way, are constantly in flux and changing.  Multiple choice tests especially focus on this type of wrote memorization of commands, not on problem  solving skills.  Due to the nature of technology being in constant flux, most good engineers don’t know all the commands.  It’s true ask one of your engineers the syntax for say doing an XOR with UNION in SQL.  The concepts are truely what is important, and that cannot be thoroughly tested in a certification exam.  It is more the job of a proper University education to teach that type of theory, and instill the problem solving skills to find the syntax and details when needed.

But we’re really hitting on a second point here, and that is that a Bachelor of Science degree from a good University is really the best certification you can get, besides real-world on-the-job  experience of course.  I’ve found in my experience that the ones most insistent on seeking out certifications are those who don’t  have Computer Science degrees in the first place but rather technical school training, and are looking to beef up the resume.  Barring perhaps the Cisco Certified Engineer which I understand is quite grueling with real-world problem solving with a real network, and real messes to cleanup, most certifications seem to be pretty  much a waste of time.

So where did this certification mania originate from then?  Well Law has the Bar Exam, Medical Doctors must go through residency, and get licensed to practice medicine, so why not apply the same rigors to the IT industry, albeit in more simplified form to provide the same sort of measures of skill and aptitude?  Good question, but as it turns out the IT industry is still too  disjointed, with no central authority governing it to provide  that type of certifications.  The best you have for such measures right now is the Bachelor of Science degree, hopefully from a  University which emphasizes engineering and has a good  reputation to go along with it.

And now you’re wondering, without certifications how do we find  good people?  Well I hope for one thing you take away from this that a certification might be misleading you in the first place on aptitude.  But really it means you have to do the legwork of finding the right people who have (a) some synergy with your company  (b) a degree from a good University (c) plenty of real-world  experience.  Run them by your best people to get their gut feel on the person, ask some tough questions, or how they might solve some problem in the enterprise. 

This type of selection process should go equally for full-timers as it does for the consultants you bring on board for your shorter term needs.  Don’t take the sales pitch, their parent company’s reputation, or other easy indicators at face value, and dig a  little deeper to find out if they’re worth your time, and money.

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