What’s the best way to learn the skills you need?
It’s a common question, especially among tech pros just starting out or those thinking of making a career change. Do I look to the programming boot camps that seem to be all the rage, or pursue a certification that many employers view as a stamp of approval?
Boot camps and certifications are designed to accomplish different things, and each will impact your career in different ways. If you’re looking to learn a new language or framework, or want to pursue a tech career when you have no technical background, boot camps are probably your best option. But if you’re an established tech pro with a solid set of skills, especially in technical services or infrastructure, certifications should always be a priority.
“I think the difference between certifications like CompTIA’s and coding boot camps is the type of person considering these options,” said Liz Eggleston, co-founder of Course Report, an organization that reviews boot camps.
Coding boot camps are perfect for career changers because they offer guidance in the classroom, job placement services, and a network made up of instructors, students and alumni. But “once that person graduates and gets their first job,” she added, “they may find that they need to learn a new front-end technology or get really sharp in a certain skill, and perhaps that means a certification.”
James Stanger, the senior director of products for CompTIA, the Downers Grove, Ill.-based industry group behind a number of highly respected certifications, agrees with that idea. While programmer boot camps focus on relatively new languages and frameworks, he said, certifications are “the best shorthand way to prove someone has real experience, not just theoretical knowledge.”
Know the Technology Landscape
To put the discussion in its proper context, you must understand a fundamental distinction in technology: It’s an industry with two sides to it—one that builds products and another that operates and maintains them. Boot camps are all about giving students the tools they need to build, while most certifications focus on the infrastructure that allows the software to work.
“Most certifications are about infrastructure,” explained Brian Pugh, the Folsom, Calif.-based vice president of Kelly IT, which provides technology recruiting and consulting services. “They’re for people interested in becoming a subject-matter expert in the area they’re focused on. They want to go from Geek Squad to corporate support. With a CompTIA A+, they become masters of their craft.”
(CompTIA describes the A+ certification as a credential that “validates understanding of the most common hardware and software technologies in business and certifies the skills necessary to support complex IT infrastructures.” Stanger points out that some boot camps will include a CompTIA component in their curriculum to help students tailor their skill-set to specific infrastructures or roles.)
Employers Know the Difference
Employers are well aware that certifications and boot camps do different things. So if you’re applying for a programming job, certifications may not mean very much. When it comes to hiring programmers, companies want to see your code, and boot camps “will leave you with code you’ve created,” Pugh noted.
“An employer would rather see a solid portfolio, like your GitHub profile,” Eggleston said. “Jobs in older stacks like Microsoft .NET can sometimes look for certificates, so if you’re specifically looking for a .NET job, then you may need to sit for that exam after you graduate, but that shouldn’t require more training to pass it.”
For candidates pursuing roles working with systems or infrastructure—such as networking, security, or the cloud—certifications show that you can apply technical knowledge “in the real world,” Stanger said. “That’s the whole idea behind them. They’re the best shorthand way to prove someone has real experience, not just theoretical knowledge.”
Think for the Long Term
Whether you’re learning to program or have set your sights on running more complex networks, remember that technology is a field that’s all about continuing education. Though programmers don’t usually have to pursue certifications to prove they’re keeping up with evolving languages or frameworks, Pugh believes that recruiters and employers—especially enterprise companies—like to see infrastructure and service professionals keep their certifications up-to-date. “Don’t underestimate that,” he said.
It’s a little trickier for developers, who don’t have as many credentials available to them. Still, “I think anything that shows you’re hungry to continue learning and growing as a developer is beneficial,” Eggleston said. “It sends the signal to your current and future employers that you’re passionate about software engineering beyond the paycheck.”