Early in my career, my certifications were such a point of pride I was excited to display them in my cubicle. Earning them was no easy feat: I did it completely on my own, without the five-day boot-camp-brain-crams where you rush out of class to the testing center before the knowledge evaporates. No, I bought the books and studied day and night. With only myself to answer to and no looming deadline, studying for a single test took months.
College classes are a breeze compared to certification tests. In college I had weeks of small quizzes, class participation, and finals to earn my grade. Certifications tests, on the other hand, give ninety or so questions about the entire scope of a product, pass or fail. No one can revoke my college degree, but my certifications expire in as little as three years.
So I studied every waking moment. As test day approached, the studying bled into my workday. When everything was humming smoothly at the office, I’d crack the books. Eventually, I was written up for studying too much, and ironically it affected my year-end review. That’s right: I was punished for studying IT while working in IT.
Why? They got me on the cheap, and feared I’d jump to a higher paying job if I had some education to match my ambition. Which is exactly what happened: I moved from a boutique specialty firm to a top ten law firm with offices all over the place. The boutique was in L.A., where I managed 400 nodes along with three other guys. I took two lessons with me: Never work for a branch office, and never display my certifications.
Hanging my CCNA, CNE, and MCP in my tiny cube, I may as well have put a target on my back. The three guys I worked with didn’t have a certification among them, but were clearly technically proficient. I held no pretense about my certifications: While studying, I quickly came to realize that while they provide a potential employer with proof that you’re familiar with a subject, they’re in no way a substitute for solving a real-world crisis like a file server that’s stuck in a reboot cycle. I remember studying printer pools deep into the night, and even answered a test question about it, yet I’ve never faced a need for that information in the real-world.
I don’t think those certifications were the only reason for my failure at that boutique, but I believe they were the tipping point. I may have never even guessed those plaques had any affect on my relationship with my colleagues, if a vendor hadn’t told me. Looking back, though, I had an "Aha" moment: I remembered one tech leaning across my desk, squinting at the words, the date, Bill Gates signature, and just walking out.
In his own way, each guy tried to make me prove my knowledge. One stood me in front of a Novell server that was producing an odd error and acted incredulous when I was as baffled as he. Another would teach me way too fast and refuse to repeat himself. A third – the worst – slowly and methodically picked apart any suggestions I made. It was a nightmare.
In an ideal world, we should be able to display our awards and trophies and expect some peer recognition. But certifications are to the real world of IT as HR text books are to corporations: They provide some familiarity with a subject, but are no substitute for experiencing the real thing.
I moved on to a much friendlier (non-branch) office and buried those certs in a bookshelf at home. They belong only on my resume. They’ll get me the interview, and discussing how I recovered a server caught in a reboot cycle will get me the job.
I recently earned my college degree, which frankly I found easier than studying for certifications. The diploma hangs nicely in my home office where I don’t have to prove my knowledge to my wife. She already knows I don’t have any.
— Dino Londis
Dino Londis is an applications management engineer in New York.