A Hung Jury on Certifications

When it comes to enhancing skills, the most often-asked question is about certifications: Are they worth the time and money? Do they really help you get that new job, or do hiring managers just shrug them off?

CertifiedOnce upon a time, the right certification was a ticket to job security, but more recently the tech industry has reshaped its attitude. While some employers still require them, a growing number are giving more weight to experience.

Some certifications are still in vogue. Cisco’s remains highly desirable. The Project Management Institute’s PMP — which requires three years of experience, 4,500 hours leading and directing projects and 35 hours of project management education — also commands respect.

So what about you? To help you decide if you need a certification, we talked to several people in a position to know how tech executives feel, because they’re tech executives themselves.

One person who values certifications is Brad Hobgood, IT director at Orion International in Cary, N.C., who says they’re one of the first things he looks for when he’s hiring an IT professional.  They tell him something about the candidate’s determination and character, he says. “It’s a good indicator in the sense that you know this person is motivated, willing to go the extra mile to show they’re capable and can go to the next level of knowledge.”

On the other hand Mark Herschberg, chief technical officer of Madison Logic, a New York City-based data firm, has a much different perspective. “The paper knowledge is useful but experience is critical,” he believes. “Paper is not going to help you estimate well. The first thing I look for is intelligence. The second thing I look for are people who communicate well. Software is a communication issue. ”

A Professional’s View

Before graduating from college, Jessica Williams, a network engineer with Chicago-based systems integrator SDL, became a Cisco Certified Network Associate. “I wanted them to see I was serious,” she says. “It proved my commitment.” And, she says, the certification has proved helpful.

Indeed, since then Williams has acquired six Cisco certifications. She knew her employer would be carrying out significant projects that used Cisco products and gear. Also, one of her company’s clients actually required CCNA certifications as a condition of its contract.

Some companies aren’t so stringent. Steve Stewart, technology practice leader for search firm Charles Aris, Inc. in Greensboro, N.C., says that even when he recruited entry level and mid-level IT workers, he’s never had employers ask for certifications.

“Ninety percent of them aren’t worth their salt,” he says, adding that a lot of organizations that offer certificates are boot camps. “They bring you in for just one week and drench you, barrage you. There are a lot of paper developers out there.”

So, obviously there’s no consensus. But one indicator of how much a company values certifications may lie in its size. Demand for certificates is more likely to come from human resource departments at larger companies, while startups are less likely to require them, observes Winter Wyman’s senior staffing manager Avik Patel, whose specialties include recruiting software engineers.

“Hiring managers value experience over certifications,” Patel says. “The way I look at it, work experience should validate certifications and not the other way around.” He adds that when hiring managers do ask about certifications, they are more likely to ask about niche certifications. (One of the most sought after, he says, is the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, or CCIE.)

The trouble with a lot of certifications, say many hiring managers, is that much of the material is dated within a few months of course completion. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself having paid for information that’s no longer useful. The industry changes so rapidly that many of the vendors who set up the programs and sell the certificates aren’t keeping current with developing technology.

If you decide to go for a certificate, vet the educating organization carefully and weigh the cost-effectiveness and employment value of that extra piece of paper. Then, as the old saying goes, you pays your money and you takes your chances.

14 Responses to “A Hung Jury on Certifications”

  1. The biggest problem I have with certificates is that they are primarily about memorization rather than understanding process.

    While it’s important to know enough to tap into your brain for where to start (like what the difference is between an “IF” statement and an assignment statement) much of this can be learned through a google search.

    The real key is how you use your knowledge and, ultimately, can you tap into that knowledge to figure out a unique problem that is inevitable in any tech job. If you don’t have the capacity to problem-solve, you might as well go work on an assembly line where you never have to think.

  2. Cicut

    ROBS….I could not have said it better myself and you’re right on the money. I am a retired engineer, and I mean a real engineer who has worked in huge projects with aerospace and defense companies where I learned about computer systems on my own…in those days the engineer did it all and certifications were non-existence; after all computer systems need only common sense and not memorization of 3000 commands or more, which no one on earth can do or remember.
    Certifications take a two weeks seminar and then memorize the book and after a few months the individual has forgotten most of the commands. The key to IT is to know what to do logically and surface the Internet for answers and for that no one needs a certification. I see certifications as a mean, for a companies, such as Cisco, Microsoft, etc., of making money and that is all.
    Also, most engineers with a university degree have the ability which certifications don’t provide…logical thinking and the ability to solve problems which most certified people do not have.

  3. Vincent J. Lalli

    I disagree with the two posts/authors above. For me, Certifications gave (and still are) me the practical hands-on knowledge/real-world experience which formal education did not provide. I will admit, I did not go to college/university for Electrical or Computer Engineering. But in any event,
    Certifications have brought me success in getting a job, and being successful in the workplace with the knowledge that I learned. They too have brought a great deal of pride in achievement. And the exams WERE NOT EASY. I am a CNE, MCSA, N+, A+. (The latter two were actually not too bad, but the Netware and Windows exams were difficult).
    Getting back to formal education vs. certifications:
    Case in Point – In 1997, I achieved the CNE (Certified Netware Engineer), and I can and will tell you the only place to learn Novell Netware Technology back then was at a specific computer vocational school. Back then it was the “hot” technology and yet it was only found in certain schools.
    Here in NY, Organizations still seek I.T./Computer individuals with Certs. I have read countless job descriptions whereby they do state,MCSA/MCSE required, or CCNA required or preferred.
    I will also say it depends on what area of Computing you are in, Infrastructure, Software Development, Security, etc. In the Infrastructure arena (where I am), Certs are still valuable and sought after by I.T, Pros and requested by the Organizations themselves.

  4. Wildstar

    I always love to read articles related to IT certification! One article is 51/49 yea/nay and the next is 51/49 nay/yea. I’m trying to get into IT after a successful career in biotechnology; I’ve managed to earn two M.S. degrees (Microbiology/Virology and I.T. (w/a grad cert in Information Assurance), a couple of older Microsoft certs (MCSA and MCDBA), CCNA, CCNP (R/S), Security+, A+, and SANS GSEC. Built my own networking lab (4 Cisco 2600 routers, 2 Catalyst 2950s. 2 Catalyst 3550s with L3 images, and a few PIX firewalls) all cabled and punched down myself after returning to community college to take classes. I worked as a software validation analyst before being laid-off in February 2009 when the economy tanked.The article mentions commitment and motivation of the applicant, good communication skills, etc. My focus is network security.

    So, knowing a little bit of my background, any suggestions about finding a job?

  5. Richard Monreal

    I do realize that there are many people who do not take the honorable route when working toward their certifications. Some can afford and use those boot camps or even rely heavily on brain dumps to pass these tests. I have never taken the easy way and it has paid off for me.

    I’ve never held onto the illusion that certifications were the end all be all in judging an IT professional. I’ve always been told that there were three aspects that really impressed employers; experience, certifications, and education were all equally important.

    I truly believe that in IT, certifications can at the very least get you that interview. For any IT professional looking for a job, this is so crucial. If you can make it to the interview process and you can demonstrate how can leverage all of your education/experience topped with your top-notch Customer Service skills, then this is the difference between getting into a great place or a crappy one.

    So long story short, certifications are important. They do not define an IT professional but, they do help show you have the willingness to keep learning in a very competitive field of employment where change is always around the corner.

  6. mark b

    To me experience should count more then a certificate. It it like college vs. real world experience, some people are good at memorizing but have no skills in the real world.
    It is one of the biggest issues I have with IT, where if you are good you should be able to learn anything, and every company does things a little different so sometimes having every word on your resume isn’t that important. It also that to me no one is a Guru/Expert if you have to look something up at anytime then you are not an expert.
    When it comes to Project Management nothing has really changed since I took a course 30 years ago in college. Looking at my old text book it is no different then what the PMIbok course teaches.

  7. Brian Endgate

    Many certification are worthless and don’t prove that the holders are capable of performing the duties they are supposedly certified for.
    Having been in the IT field for almost eighteen years and worked for some large companies, I have come to the conclusion that most American companies (large ones) are primarily staffed by “connections” or “who you know” and not necessarily by qualifications or certifications. Once in, the individuals then tend to learn the skills on the job and gain the required experience.
    Other than hard to fill skills, most jobs posted by large companies are already filled by Insiders or people connected to Insiders before the outside world gets to see the postings. These postings are simply there to give the appearance of “conducting an extensive search”.
    Large companies tend to require Certifications more than smaller ones probably due to the fact that most of their HR departments are staffed by individuals who have been there for countless years and therefore tend to believe that Certifications are a measure of proficiency. Their over reliance on these is because they are completely out of touch with what is happening today and are in no mood to learn. The majority have Liberal Arts background (I am NOT knocking Liberal arts) which were the requirements when they got the jobs, but today, they are required to interview and hire Individuals for Technical positions. Certifications therefore serve as a validation point, by some “Accrediting Organization” that they believe have done their work.
    On the other hand, smaller companies tend to be startups run by individuals fresh out of college and more in tune with rapidly changing Tech field. They tend to rely more on what they saw in college campuses than relying on Certifications as a cure all.
    A study I would like to see is one that actually looks into the Education background of most HR folks and their hiring managers. You will be shocked to find that most lack technical backgrounds and worse still, they sometimes write the job requirements for potential new hires. I have seen job skills requirements asking for years of experience that pre-dates the existence of the product or tool they are interviewing for.
    While certifications are great, I believe that a proven proficiency in a field should be the deciding factor. For most American large companies, they should, perhaps take a closer look at who they have in their HR departments if they really want to get talents and not overly rely on certifications which many boot camps offer these days.


  8. Such a worthless conversation.

    If you are doing well with a company and plan on staying there, you don’t need them. If you are on the market, they are key to getting past the screeners and getting to the first interview. Simple as that.

    • I spent 32 years with 1 company, they decided to downsize. I had certifications, but 9 of my peers did not. I am the only one employed 3 years later. So yes, Certifications do matter. I have PMP and SPHR certifications, many years experience in Telecom and am currently working in the IT industry

  9. I have been in software development my entire adult career. I have seen people pursue certifications, pay the money to take the classes and pass the test, only to have Microsoft come out with a completely new technology three months later that makes their certification obsolete. And seriously, I have never found that learning what combination of keys to press to use a certain shortcut in a code editor has any influence on how well you can solve problems. In software development anyway, I think they are a scam.

  10. Chris Mills

    I just finished my Cisco CCNA certificate program at the local college and will be taking the cert. exams soon. After looking around for work and then reading these comments I am pretty discouraged. All places want experience but how can I get experience without a job? Same old question.

    • Vincent

      Chris – don’t get discouraged and don’t listen (or read) to all the idiots on here who regard certifications as a waste. Take it from me – In the Computer Infrastructure realm.Certifications are quite important and requested by organizations for their respective open positions. They show an employer you are dedicated to your profession, constantly keep yourself on the cutting edge of technology, and you go above and beyond the call of duty, whereby you are highly motivated to go to a boot camp, training or even self study on your own. Certs give you the knowledge you need to perform the practical hands-on day-to-day tasks on the job.