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Are Technical Certifications that Important to Have? an Informed Opinion on the Topic

My standpoint on technical certifications is a mixed one, and it mostly depends on several factors. Does your industry require you to have it? Is your company asking you to get certified? Is it the pursuit of knowledge or merely just compliance with a component of peer pressure? Are you sure you’re getting the most value out of it? I’ll do my best to answer these questions in this post today.

Let’s first start with your reasons for getting a technical certification.

Does your industry require you to have a certification or is your company asking you to get certified?

It happens that you might be under the impression that your industry requires the person to become certified, but it might not be necessary. I’m using “industry” here as a broad term. I know mostly about IT Security certifications, but I have some insights about Scrum certifications and similar.

If you happen to look for career advancement or merely just looking for a new job, you’ll need to check if in their job openings they have specified any desirable qualifications or certifications required. If you’re so confident without the certifications you can get the job, any strong achievements you may currently have will certainly speak great volumes, as you can get the certification later during your employment.

A red flag to watch for is if the company you’re joining during the hiring process on the technical interview asks you about the certifications, but don’t ask any technical questions about it. If you don’t get “tested” on your certification, that company is likely to make you hold the certification only for bragging rights, which is a doomed path to lose it. If you don’t use your certification knowledge, you will make it very difficult for yourself to renew it when you get re-tested years later. Example: The CCNA and CCNP certifications are famous to challenge you, both on a fundamental level and with exercises that would make anyone sweat. The answers that got you certified previously will not make you certified the next time, and there’s a real risk to lose your continued certification record.

Another red flag is if your company takes your certifications at face value, or if you have used soft language to enhance your professional marketability and this got you through. This means the HR Recruiter is easily fooled by the paper or false advertisement, and not ready to hire for proven competencies. A recruiter (whether technical or not) that doesn’t challenge you, diminishes the possibility of you having strong co-workers, which in turn, is not good for your career advancement. A highly qualified work environment is bound to make you grow professionally.

I have to admit I’ve been careless about my certifications. When I applied for IT Security jobs, I got asked about these, but it was never a showstopper for me. I’ve never held a SANS certification or similar. However, I’m in a position such that, if someone talks to me, I’m confident that my knowledge will get me through, even if I don’t have the papers to back it. Of course, this places me in a specific situation, where a simple screening will discard my CV to most of these companies, as some have these filters on entry, but I also believe they miss on me. My tool to shine under these circumstances is the Cover Letter. The Cover Letter, hated by most, but in reality, is your friend. I have to acknowledge, I’ve been very lucky in this sense.

Are you getting certified merely for compliance or is it truly the pursuit of knowledge?

So, let’s say a certification caught your eye. What’s the reason behind it? And don’t fool yourself. I’ve heard enough people are about to become certified with the hopes of improving the chances of getting a promotion or getting paid better. What I’ve seen that happens is that getting a lot of certifications can get you overqualified, missing the employment opportunity completely. HR Recruiters might see you as “too expensive” and not even attempt to ask you what your expected compensation is.

When I was a Manager with hiring rights, I witnessed certified people that are unable to reason about the acquired knowledge. They deeply knew the theory, but they seemed to be unable to make judgment calls on the certification contents. That’s where I got the impression that being certified or even having a degree doesn't make you a qualified professional, no matter what’s on the paper.

Another turn-off I experienced as a Manager with hiring rights, is that when candidates shove you in the face with certifications, I figured out this person values more quantity over quality, and has sought certifications for the sake of it. If I were to go through a verification process of these certifications, most of these are bound to be unverifiable at worst, and of low quality at best. Some certifications and degrees do harm your employability. I've seen job offerings that claim “If you have a degree from Contoso University, don’t bother applying.”

The reality is that if you seek certifications for bragging rights (and improving the CV is a form of this) or merely just for compliance, you won’t experience the benefits of certification, which are mostly about being able to apply the acquired knowledge for real-life business requirements. Wouldn’t it be great if you increased the profitability of your company thanks to the direct impact you’ve had on the organization?

For most of the certification courses I’ve taken, I’ve either ignored the certification PDF or didn’t sit the exam, at all. I know this is a form of waste and shouldn’t be like this, but all I’ve cared about is to grasp the knowledge in such a way that I become the go-to person at the company about the topic. If you help others and lead the way of the study group, it is almost guaranteed that you’ll become the most knowledgeable one among your peers. It’s funny in an ironic way that people with degrees and certifications ask you the fundamentals, and you don’t even have the PDF certification file to show for it or misplaced it. That’s where the thin membrane of prejudices breaks, as paper validations of knowledge don’t necessarily match professional competencies about the topic.

What is the right way to get certifications then?

It boils down to determining who claims the officialness of a certification. For vendor certifications, this means certifying by the vendor’s academy or the vendor lets you know who certifies for it. For industry standards certification, this means certifying by going to the creator or origin of the standard.

Certification is not about “who I claim to be” but it is about “who asserts I hold specific knowledge” or “who asserts I (as a company) have correctly implemented the standard.” Therefore, the dynamics of trusted peers play a role in this aspect. You or your company become certified in regards to an organization that presents some specifications or standards, just make sure you’re getting certified by the right one. This means you’ll have to assess not only if it’s a trusted organization, but if it’s going to provide you the expertise and perceived value you’re looking for.

Let’s use one of the most controversial examples out there: Agile and Scrum certifications. I’m not certified in these methodologies (hell! I don’t even know the methodology itself!), but if I were to do it, I’d know where to go. So the process goes like this:

  1. Find out who these people are.
    • Scrum is a methodology created by someone or a group of people.
  2. Find out the track history from a trusted source (Their LinkedIn accounts, Wikipedia, etc.).
    • What were these people doing back then and what are they doing right now?
    • “Oh, at some point they founded an organization called Scrum Alliance and one of the founders diverged into Scrum.org”
  3. Find out the official website for it
    • Skip the search ads on the results page! It will not be the very first one you click!
  4. Find out indicators of trust. What are some good indicators of trust?
    • A comprehensive “About Us” page, with history.
    • A members directory. Both Scrum Alliance and Scrum.org allow you to search members to find out if they are certified for real. They even have a FAQ entry for it, which exposes the very problem this section is providing a solution for.
    • A trusted partners directory. The website lets you know where you can learn more about the methodology by purchasing courses from themselves or elsewhere.
    • Has cost transparency. You’ll know the price of the voucher for the exam right on the website.

I picked the Agile and Scrum certifications as an example, but I could have picked any other: Project Management, DevOps, Ethical Hacking, CloudOps, etc.

I don’t trust any company that says “We are certified at XYZ” and shows a badge for it unless the badge happens to be clickable to the certification authority and verifies the validity of such a badge. For example: “Contoso, Inc. is certified as a Scrum Trainer by Scrum Alliance” (shiny gold and silver badge stamped on website’s footer). In such a case I’d go to Scrum Alliance’s website, “Certification” menu option, and click the Search courses icon. Then, and only then, I’d see if Contoso, Inc. appears in that list. If it doesn’t, you can safely determine for your purposes that the certification offering from Contoso, Inc. is rubbish. It often comes with a lower price tag, but don’t be fooled by the offer, or you’ll become a fool as well.

The same applies to IT Security vendors that claim to help you at certain PCI DSS compliance requirements related to scanning and attestation of results. Let’s say an IT Security vendor claims to be a PCI Approved Scanning Vendor. What is the right thing to do? To never take their word for it. Go to PCI Security Standards Council (the certification authority for PCI DSS) and search in the “Assessors & Solutions” menu for the Approved Scanning Vendors option. This will allow you to find out for sure if the IT Security vendor claims to have the scanning and attestation feature they're selling you. “It helps with PCI DSS certification” is not the same selling point as “Our scanning results can be consumed by a proper PCI DSS auditor.”

Standards (except for ISO ones) are almost always free and open to the public. The owner of the standard almost always is a sort of an industry chamber, where the members (both people and organizations) are listed, they make official announcements. If this trust is broken, the trust of the standard breaks with it, and this is when forks usually happen.

Make an informed decision. Never take their word for it. It’s in their best interests to make sales, and it’s in your best interest to conduct proper research, for the benefit of your professional career. These days almost no certification improves your income directly or in a perceivable way, but if you choose to do it, at the very least do it the right way.

Results and determination are the only things that matter. Tangible results product from relentless determination beats any certification your peers may have. Sure, they get a headstart, but it’s just that.

Until next time.

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