Monday, 19 March 2012

IT Certifications - How much they're worth

The Background -
This time I am touching a seemingly non-technical topic, but important one; at times controversial and almost always leads to hot debates in the industry. I am myself a successful Oracle DBA, Corporate trainer, mentor and member-by-invitation on interview panels of few fortune IT companies, working in the industry for about 17+ years, without any educational background in IT and any formal training in Oracle, let alone certification, in first place joined IT industry after about working for equal number of years as maintenance engineer in power generation utility. The purpose of giving that little autobiography is the proof enough to some of the points that I will be making here. Did I mention about a part of my activities is also IT career counselling? Yes, I do that too, for an obvious consideration by my friends and acquaintances that it must have been an essential part of my life with that kind of my overall background.

As a part of my activity as IT career counsellor, I have to answer a volley of questions about the certifications - Is the certification really such a hot commodity? How much value a certification will add to my resume? Are certifications really worth the time and expenses? How important are they over an academic degree? What is the comparison between hands-on knowledge and certification? etc...

In general the tone of IT career aspirants seems to have been set as the certification is everything and the ONLY thing they require to take leap into this career. My purpose here is NOT to prove certifications are good, bad, mandatory, useless or worthless but just to put the things straight, discuss their appropriateness, validity, worthiness, importance and necessity and that to from my own experience and observations in the industry and also from most of the authors on this same subject who also have already endorsed my view.

What is Certification ? -
There is no doubt that the birth of idea of "certification" and motive behind it is very much pious. With the proliferation of IT, the company managers (who may not be so techie), always wanted that there should be some agency to assure the competency level of IT professionals they wanted to hire. Of course, the best judgement would be done by the vendors/originators of particular technology. So major IT giants like Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, Linux, Sun etc. picked up this demand and planned in their own way and criteria some definite curriculum and on line exams, or practical exams or a combination of both and deputed some third party agencies to conduct / monitor it. So there came up so many franchise centres in most major cities and towns. They all engaged into aggressive marketing and targeted mostly the beginners, fresher and undergrads in the process overstating the importance of the certification. The pious purpose of building a competent work force with a relevant proof (vendor's certificate) for the industry was thus somewhere observed to be lost.

What do certification stands for? -
It is subject to one's perspective. A right time to Santa & Banta story to make the point stand out in a funny and interesting way. Once these two scientists decide to do some research on cockroaches. They wanted to know the effect of pulling off the legs of the cockroach on its behaviour. So they pulled off first of 6 legs of the cockroach who volunteered for their experiment and as they put him on floor, now got into senses of the pair's dreadful experiment, the cockroach struggeled to get away as much fast as it could but limited by loss of one leg. However, our scientists were not to leave him without their experiment ending into a "logical" conclusion. So they picked the creature up and it had to lose another of its leg, and the poor creature again tried in vain to totter away, but the pair of scientist were bent to continue till the creature should lose all of its legs and make observation for each loss of his leg. At last with no legs on when they put the cockroach down on the floor and cheered it to move, the poor creature won't, when Santa made an observation that probably the creature has become deaf and now can't take the orders hence not moving, while Banta totally had a different observation that the cockroach has become blind and so can't see and hence not moving.

The fun apart, the point here to make across is that the certifications too are subject to interpretations. What they mean to one employer may not be same to another. However in a general survey conducted by Robert Half Technology, that they put on net the link to which was available for some time on concluded that only 15% CEOs of the IT world cited certification in the relevant technology as a valuable qualification for an IT job applicant to posses. However, even they were still short of accepting that it should be the sole criteria for recruiting a candidate. In their opinion, while certification may indicate knowledge in the given area, it does not demonstrate in majority cases the ability to apply that knowledge at the workplace. Compared an academic degree with a certification without ample hands-on is just an additional piece of formal designation with no distinction. 100% employers showed their interest in job seekers who can contribute really to their companies rather than their decorations.

However to quote Socrates, "an unexamined life is not worth living", certification demonstrates an ongoing commitment to learning and keeping abreast with the technological advances for a "working" candidate. It shows you are ambitious and motivated enough to achieve a professional goal. Certification may reinforce your experience, reassure your employer about your skills and to that extent make your resume stand out from stack. However, certification does not become a substitute for rigorous hands-on training or experience.

Is Certification a hype or necessity? -
This question is very relevant since almost every certification requires substantial time, efforts and is highly expensive. Certifications have a very short life in the sense that they are valid only until a new version of the technology arrives in the market, and then you have to go for an upgrade. The preceding discussion and survey statistics mentioned makes one point clear, that the certifications are not nearly as important to most of the employers as your ability to apply knowledge and skills and contribute to the organization, which of course comes through exposure to technology than targeting an examination.

Notwithstanding everything foregoing, well-chosen certifications that reflect your skills and interests and reinforce your experience are definitely worth considering. With an overwhelming number of certifications, the current trend of pursuing certifications indiscriminately, just with intention to keep up with stream of new designations, is certainly a hype. Certifications are hot, mandatory, and lead to better job or pay package is nothing but a myth.

Exploding myth -
Certification is necessary, they attract employers and fetch better pay packages - False. Sound understanding, hands-on and exposure to the technology is more important. Certification in relevant technology in addition to these is certainly a bright spot.

Certification substitutes for non-IT related academic qualification - False. Most fields in IT sector are concept oriented and not related to any academic qualification. Certification does not prove employability either. Any intellect irrespective of his/her academic major can work in IT if he/she gets proper exposure through study and practice.

Certification adds value to your resume - True. Certification relevant to your experience exhibits your commitment to achieve professional goals and indicates an ongoing effort to excel. However, myriad of certifications with a false promise on performance has an adverse effect.

Certifications enhance employability of fresher - False. Without an exposure, a merely certified candidate is at par with academic degree. In most cases certifications are just gained by studying through FAQs without enough hands-on and coaching is provided by "certified" trainers rather than experienced faculties. So fresher must consider these factors before opting for a certification.

Conclusion -
Use certification as an opportunity to study further and enhance existing ability, which was exactly the purpose of certification when they were introduced. Doing certification neither is about keeping pace on a treadmill and outsmart others by fancy designations you earn, nor using them as license for getting a job, which they are actually not. 


  1. I disagree - certain certifications actually do prove knowledge. Forget the "easy" ones like Security+ and CISSP; but if I'm hiring, and two people present themselves, one with OSCP or CHECK, and one without - I know exactly which one I'll be interested in interviewing first.

    "Assault course" based certifications (as a pose to multiple choice ones) do prove some knowledge, and in many cases (e.g. UK Govt work) are a PREREQUISITE to applying for a job.

  2. I've been in the IT industry for about 20 years. I'm a successful DBA and developer and have been a corporate trainer. I'm a published author. I have multiple certifications in Oracle, Microsoft, Novell (ancient), and CompTIA. The purpose of giving that little autobiography is to point out that autobiographies aren't proof of anything at all.

    >My purpose here is NOT to prove certifications
    >are good, bad, mandatory, useless or worthless

    I find it amusing that you have this statement at the top but spend much of the article indicating that certifications aren't really all that useful.

    >Exploding myth -
    >Certification is necessary, they attract
    >employers and fetch better pay packages - False.

    There are three different concepts in the 'Myth' you are exploding, and you are indicating 'False' to all three. I'll grant you one of them.

    "Certification is necessary" -- I agree, False. You can have a successful IT career with zero certifications.

    "They attract employers" -- I disagree, This is true. I've seen it happen. It doesn't GUARANTEE an employer will hire you, but hiring managers *do* react favorably to IT certifications. The Robert Half survey you mention is fairly pointless. Why? Because except in the case of an absolutely tiny company, CEOs don't make hiring decisions. It doesn't matter what their opinions about them are. The people who make hiring decisions are front-line managers. These, as you note in your post, "may not be so techie". If they see a certification on the resume of a candidate, it becomes one of the points in the candidate's favor that they *might* make a good choice for the job.

    "They fetch better pay packages" -- I disagree, this it sometimes true. Again -- I've seen it happen. It's not something that can be guaranteed, but it does happen. Getting certifications while you're employed also provides assistance in getting better raises. You can't expect much, but if you get 1/2 percent higher raise each year than you would have without a certification, it adds up to big money over the course of your career. Companies look favorably on employees that push career development on their own.

    >Certification substitutes for non-IT related
    >academic qualification - False.
    >Most fields in IT sector are concept oriented
    >and not related to any academic qualification.
    >Certification does not prove employability either.

    Here you're essentially saying that an IT certification doesn't act as a substitute for a degree, and then indicating a degree isn't useful either. If you have the opinion that an academic degree isn't useful, then why does it matter whether or not an IT certification is a substitute?

    >Certifications enhance employability of fresher - False.
    >Without an exposure, a merely certified
    >candidate is at par with academic degree.

    ' par with an academic degree'. This would mean that the IT certification is a substitute for an academic degree, which was a myth you just exploded.

    Your post is contradictory and biased. Certifications certainly aren't the *only factor* in getting hired or advancing in your career. They are not *mandatory* to getting hired or advancing in your career. Howver, to move from that to saying that they don't *assist* in getting hired or advancing in your career is simply wrong.

    The one thing that I really like about your post is the last point, which is the number one thing that I hope anyone takes away from reading this article: "Use certification as an opportunity to study further and enhance existing ability". This is perfect and what I always push. If in studying for a certification you learn new skills, then you have helped your career even before you take the test.

    1. Hi there,
      Thank you so much for an elaborate comment expressing your views about the certifications. This issue is certainly a big debatable issue and as such being debated and will remain so for indefinite time to come. I hope readers will get the other side of certification from your comments. Thanks for your contribution.