Should You Get Industry Certifications?

Are certifications outdated, why are they there, and how should we approach them?

Over the years, when looking at job opening advertisements, I normally saw as part of the job requirements, a need for one certification or another. The certification was normally the type associated with Industry, not university - in general, I am referring to things like the following.

  • Cisco/Microsoft exams such as Solutions Associate (MCSA)
  • Solutions Expert (MCSE), and Solutions Developer (MCSD)
  • Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT)
  • Cisco-Certified Design Associate (CCDA)
  • Cisco Certified Network Associate Industrial (CCNA Industrial)

     

Certifications are generally designed to meet two functions - the requirements of an industry, and the requirements of a particular organization. Industry requirements are more obvious - an industry, such as Information Technology, identifies that there is a need for the betterment of the industry to have more individuals skilled in certain areas. To this end, they bring together specialist subject matter experts, engage perhaps with academia, and design and promote a course of learning that covers the particular requirements of the industry. Certifications promoted by organizations, on the other hand, may be more commercially driven. By this, I mean that the basic fundamental drive behind designing and promoting the certification is not necessarily the betterment of mankind and the industry in particular, rather, it is the long term commercial gain on the organization or company in question.

I don't, by any means, suggest that this is the only goal of the organization driven certifications, and there is absolutely a benefit to having people acquire good, relevant knowledge in a structured manner. I do, however, propose that this is not the true underlying core reason for certifications of this kind.


 
When you are growing a company/organization, there is a strategic advantage to be had from having more 'experts' understand and be able to work with, the products and services that you promote. If you can point to a body of people that have knowledge of the things you are selling, this adds a lot of credence and legitimacy to your offering. It makes things seem more solid, more established, more secure. If you are a decision maker - what are you more likely to purchase ... a new fledgling relatively untested thing that shows great promise but has a big learning curve and may be perceived as troublesome to support, or something legacy that has an established knowledge supply and support network built around it? ... as the old saying goes 'no-one ever got fired for buying IBM...'. 

While there is undoubtedly a lot of good coming from certifications, we must also question the industry surrounding it. An exclusive supplier of testing for a supposedly unbiased/community based organization is a monopoly, and this is not generally a good thing. Competition is healthy and promotes good practice - be wary of certifications that are one sided in this manner. The only exception I generally see is where a market is not large enough to support multiple vendors and there is the testing provider is rotated on a frequent basis as a result of competition. The provider of testing is not the only thing that comes out of certification - invariably for a large enough market, there are also official and unofficial suppliers of learning materials.



One of the kinds of materials you will see coming out of the certification industry is the 'brain dump'. This kind of product is generally the result of a poorly designed testing methodology. When you test knowledge, it should be meaningful and comprehensive.Testing should be designed to find out what the person knows, and have them demonstrate that in as meaningful and broad a manner as possible. Unfortunately, for the most part, multiple choice testing does not really achieve this goal - even more unfortunately, multiple choice testing is the primary method of testing employed by certification bodies. The problem with this kind of testing is that we are not really saying 'tell me what you know about X' - rather, we are saying 'here is at least one correct answer among many, pic the right one' - sure, if you know what the correct answers are you will pass the exam, but you also have a chance of passing if you *know nothing* ... literally, by having the random good luck of blindly clicking one of the options, or, by reasonable deduction in some cases, you can get certified when you are in fact not qualified - this is quite scary!

Brain Dumps are carried out by test participants who have just taken an exam - they emerge from the test center and as quickly as possible start making notes on what questions they were asked and how they answered - this is, then, turned into a set of notes that people subsequently taking the exam can use to help them artificially boost their certification score by having an 'inside knowledge' (as it were) on correct answers to the multiple choices given. Lets ask ourselves ... is it ethical to participate in a brain dump, to pass on knowledge of an exam? ... is it really helping others or is it actually hurting the industry by artificially allowing unqualified people pass an exam? ... do you really want a co-worker who doesn't know what they are talking about dragging you down? ... on the other hand, to those who use such materials, you really need to ask yourselves what is the point ... are you doing yourself a favor by cramming the correct answers to questions you don't know? ... really, the bottom line is who are you fooling, a potential employer, or yourself?

Sometimes with certifications, you have no choice. I know a very highly academically qualified and extremely experienced Microsoft MVP who has to re-certify two rounds of certification every other year for topics that he is clearly a world class subject matter expert. The reason? ... his company requires it. Despite the fact that this person is eminently qualified for the job, and brings volumes of insight to every piece of work he does, nonetheless, he has to sit down and mark those multiple-choice boxes every other year simply to 'tick a box' in his employers requirements list. In this case I am not referring to proper industry certifications that do serve a legitimate purpose, but those promoted by companies to further their own commercial gain.

As I stated before, I'm not saying that certifications have no benefit, I am pointing out however that if one has to take them, then consider the motive, and consider what you put in compared to what you get out. I don't believe that multiple choice is the best way to examine knowledge of a subject, and think its an easy way out for those settings the examinations. We have more innovative technology and experience of online learning today than ever before, there is simply no excuse to repeatedly fall back on ticking boxes to examine someones knowledge of a given subject. Its not rocket science ... we can use textual analysis, and test intelligently in a situational and contextual manner using both qualitative and quantitative measurement.

One certification body, that comes to mind, that uses this approach effectively is Offensive Security, which provides the 'Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) certification'. Like most of the good certification bodies out there, OSCP provide in-depth training material... thats almost a given... where they stand out, however, is in their testing for certification. To get certified, the candidate has to go through a series of virtual labs where their skills are put to the test in a simulated environment, where they have to really think for themselves, build on what was learned, and push that learning home to literally /capture the flag' and prove they have truly gained new skills. I think most will agree that there is a lot more quantifiable value in that certification than one resulting from someone getting the answers right to 200 multiple choice questions!

 

OK. So if I'm not totally in love with your run of the mill 'churn it out' certification, how then do I propose that the good people of the tech community (among others) prove their worth? ... simply, they should certify themselves.

WHAT?

Yes, certify yourself!

I know on the face things it sounds strange, but here's the simple logic .... there are certain things that as engineers we should know. Basic programming, language syntax, logic flow, database theory ... all these things are a given (or should be!). Beyond that however, some folk are more interested or inclined towards some things, and others towards other things. Some are better say at system optimization others are really hot at unit testing and SQL. In the same way that when a design artist goes for a job interview and brings along their sample portfolio of work, so too should the engineer! ... The majority of good jobs I have had in my career have been secured with reference to the work that I have completed and presented in public. By this I mean contributions to open source projects, writing articles, or simply putting my own sample code up on github/bitbucket or the web in general, for others to use (and sometimes abuse!). The power of 'doing your thing in public' should never be underestimated ... its a very powerful thing indeed.

By walking naked amongst your peers, you open yourself up to others finding holes in what you do, of being found out as an imposter - so, in order to safeguard against such terrible happenings, we tend to think about things that little bit deeper, we tend to cross-check the details more, we veer towards better self regulation, we... improve.... gosh, what a thing! ... the very act of opening ourselves up, makes us better at what we do. I find this an altogether better prospect than ticking one box over another in a multiple choice questionnaire!

I fully appreciate that this approach is not for everyone, I fully accept that in many situations you simply have to go with the crowd and get those dreaded certifications (I've done it, I know!). The message I want this article to leave however is that certifications may be something you have to do - but there is always more to be done, there is always a better way to prove yourself to the world, to prospective employers, and really, to yourself. If you want to get the recognition you feel you really deserve, then go further than certifications - float above the crowd, and do your thing in public! Humility is all well and good, however, you should always take both a pride, and a humble credit for your own good works, and then loudly praise others for theirs. Remember, people don't gravitate to students, they gravitate to teachers.

So go, certify if you must, but then teach ... write, speak, share your code, engage with your community. In my opinion, if you must certify, then it is critical that you back this up with a portfolio of work. In this way you can go to your prospective employer and say 'sure, here, I have the certifications you require, just like 1000 other people ... but! ... I also have a portfolio of work that will backup and verify that I can actually implement what the certification says I can'.

If you want to float above the crowd and have the best career prospects, you simply wont be able to do it with certifications alone! Now, go code, then teach someone about what you coded :)