The Scariest Thing About Certification Is...

4 min read

There’s no reason to waste time: the second scariest thing about certification is the process of getting certified itself.

For many people, there’s an insane amount of pressure to be certified, and for many others, they turn up their noses at it, especially in the IT industry. For those that have been around for awhile, that comes with good (and strong) reasons. For those of you new to technical certifications, allow me to enlighten you: they used to be worthless - and some still are.

I’ve been in the unix/linux world for a long time, but have you no fear, I spent a fair few years supporting Macs and Windows desktops as well. I’ve been through multiple “training” courses, but there was a time where I spent most of my days on school campuses, roaming from classrooms to labs to libraries troubleshooting situations that could only be created by children and barely-computer-literate adults.

It was during this period that certifications were on the rise, with the premier certifications being Cisco’s on the networking side and Microsoft’s on the tech side. This was long before Red Hat and SUSE had training programs, several years before the LPIC-1 was introduced in 2000, and long before CompTIA introduced Linux+ in 2002. I started talking to professionals online and most were of the opinion that the MS exams were a joke. At the time, I don’t think they were even adaptive. It was like Jeopardy - if you can memorize the info, you can do the exam.

This was confirmed one day when I was talking to a coworker about how he’d completed two exams over the weekend. I laughed and said he had to be joking, the exams would never be that easy. The next week he showed me the proof, and it wasn’t as funny. It secured in my mind that IT certifications were worthless. Too easy to game, to easy to get, and certainly too easy to invalidate if you really asked questions. I told him all of this, but this guy was significantly older than me and while he was an american, his parents were immigrants. He told me specifically, “it’s not what you can do, it’s what you can show.”

It took a really, really long time for that to sink in. “It’s not what you can do, it’s what you can show.”

Twenty-plus years later, I look back on that with my 20/20 hindsight, because it impacts everything. Shortly after that, my coworker finished his MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) and left, doubling his salary. I will say that to his credit, he probably had a fair amount of knowledge that helped, but when I asked him if having the MCSE helped, he said that he got asked nearly nothing about MCSE material, but the only thing that got him in the door were those four letters.

These days I hold a variety of certifications. The quality of IT certifications has (in some cases) risen, because the validity of the certifications themselves started to become questionable. Why hire an MCSE (or CCNA or A+) if it’s not a valid test of knowledge? I think it became a more prevalent question when the people who got their jobs because of the letters started managing others, and could actively question the validity of the knowledge base.

How does that impact the current IT thought process? Well, certifications have gotten better. Basic certifications tend to be adaptive, in that if you show to be good at something in a few questions, the focus changes. If the questions show you’re failing an area, they tend to move on. Some certifications are practicals - you have to perform a complete set of steps from start to finish and than you are graded on the state of things at the end of the exam. And some are still trashy, random, multiple choice questions that require rote memorization. From my point of view, it seems like a lot of the CompTIA exams fall in to that category.

So why is all of this “scary” - well, in some cases because it becomes mandatory. There’s time pressure combined with knowledge pressure to make the process of certifying for something very stressful. I have no doubt that comes in to play for my team at ICF Olson - while we pay for training (and certification) the basic expectation is that you’re capable enough to complete the work and earn the paper. It can be a lot of weight to carry, especially since our partner status with companies like Microsoft, Adobe, and Amazon is reliant on us using certifications to show we have trained professionals.

Let’s add some professional pressure in as well. If someone were to join my team at ICF Olson, the expectation is that if they weren’t already meeting our minimum certification requirements (necessary for our partner status with a variety of companies), there’s a minimum expectation of certification within 90 days, and depending on the role, there may be 180 and 270 day expectations as well. That’s a lot to heap on someone, especially if they’re coming from a traditional corporate background where training and certification is not emphasized.

In the end, however, I like to refer back to what my former coworker said, because it applies to not just individuals, but organizations as well. Certified Partnerships open doors, but they don’t make sure anyone gets in, just as certifications for individuals open doors, but don’t make a sure one gets in.

So what, then, is the scariest thing about certification for most people? In my opinion, it’s being told to prove out the certification and demonstrate that the knowledge you claim is the knowledge you have. It is tough to go through the effort of certification only to be told “prove it,” but the fact is that if the work was done, the knowledge is there, and demonstrating it to others should be a very straightforward affair.

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Stephen Sadowski

Leader focusing on quality, delivery, technical debt management, and leadership education about DevOps and SRE practices