Why IT certification matters - TechCentral

Why IT certification matters

Matthew French

[By Matthew French]

It is one of those inevitable facts of life on a technical mailing list that one day someone will post a job advert. It is another fact of life on a mailing list that nobody will respond to the advert itself.

Instead, half the responses will criticise the advert for requiring the prospective candidate to walk on water for a salary that a penniless student wouldn’t accept. The rest of the responses will be complaints about why the position requires certification.

Most of the people on the list taught themselves. Who cares about a piece of paper?

If we look at job advertisements, the answer is just about every employer.

In IT we can categorise certification into one of two groups. First we have vendor certification, where a company that sells a product certifies people to use their product. The second category is a general certificate, which essentially means a university, college or technikon degree or diploma.

In the case of vendor certification, vendors will usually explain that the benefit of their certificate is that customers have a pool of trusted individuals who know how to implement and support their product. But the cynical among us might say the primary motivation for vendors to provide certification is so that they can show customers the product is widely supported while earning revenue from hopeful candidates. If we extrapolate this view, we could say the incentive is for the vendor to get as many people as possible to pass, and not to worry too much about quality control.

Unfortunately, there is some truth to this. Too many vendor certificates require the candidate to memorise answers with no comprehension of the subject matter. And this is one of the reasons why many technical people are hostile to vendor certification — it conveys authority to people who might have no understanding of the subject matter but who are able to memorise often inconsequential facts.

The good news is that not all vendor certification is like this. Some certificates have a strong practical focus, requiring candidates to complete a number of simulations in a laboratory test. Other examinations don’t rely on rote learning but ask candidates how they would solve real-life problems, requiring the candidate to demonstrate an understanding of the product.

Certification is not always controlled by the vendor. The LPI Linux certification, for example, doesn’t focus on a specific version of Linux and is not tied to any specific vendor. Independent certification has the advantage that the examiner’s goal is to create a certificate that people will trust. The disadvantage is that vendors will push their own certification first, which means independent examiners have to work hard to get recognition for their certificate.

There are other problems with vendor certification. For example, in its very early days, Microsoft’s MCSE was seen as a tough test and anyone who passed it had to be good. Sadly, the popularity of the MCSE became so great that at one point it seemed that every school with a computer was offering it. As so often happens, some teachers started coaching students on how to pass the exam instead of understanding the content, which in turn ended up devaluing the certificate.

Another problem is the decision by some vendors to allow their certificates to expire. On one hand, it is understandable that in a fast-changing field it is necessary to stay up to date. On the other hand, it doesn’t say much for the quality of a certificate if the examiner is not confident the graduates will be able to translate their skills to new versions of a product. If a certificate doesn’t indicate the capability of the candidate, what exactly is the point?

This brings us to the other category of certification: the university degree. Universities don’t teach a single specific subject but instead use a shotgun approach to learning. For example, at one point engineers were required to study labour relations and economics. The reasoning was that many engineering graduates would end up in management roles where people skills and the ability to do cost-benefit analysis would be more important than third year maths.

The downside of the shotgun approach is that someone with an engineering, computer or business science degree often enters the IT world with little knowledge of the tools they will be using. A computer science graduate might know about the fifth normal form in relational database design, but have no idea how to calculate the number of days between two dates in an Oracle database.

The irony is that while graduates might know less, a degree carries more weight than a vendor certificate. There is a good reason for this — when university students are studying abstract ideas like compiler theory or double integrals, they are learning about the process of learning. So while university graduates might not know about a specific product when they are released into the real world, they should have the confidence and the ability to go find the answer out for themselves.

Unfortunately, the idea that you can teach learning doesn’t do justice to those many self-starters who figured out how things work without needing a degree. This exposes the problem with both vendor certificates and university degrees: there are plenty of capable people without a single certificate to their name who can run rings around people with fancy degrees and gold embossed certificates.

Small wonder technical mailing lists inevitably erupt with indignation when certification is required. Most people on these lists are self-starters, who are on the list to learn and to share the experiences of others. To then imply they are not capable of using the tools they work with every day because they lack the certification is an insult.

Which brings us to another point: experience is more important than paper. No amount of lectures and exams can substitute for using a product in the field. Knowing the command to recover a database, and executing it with senior managers breathing down your neck because the production database has died are two very different scenarios.

So does this mean certification is a waste of time? Not at all. What certification does is demonstrate to employers that a candidate has a certain level of skill. It makes it easier to choose between  prospective employees. Of course there are people with doctorates who should never be allowed to roam free, and independent geniuses who have no degree but would be an asset to any company. But they are the exceptions.

We need to remember a degree or a vendor certificate is just a starting point. They don’t tell you anything about how much initiative a person has, how good they are at solving problems or how well they work in a team. Certificates don’t even guarantee a person is knowledgeable about the subject they are certified for. However, they do give the employer a better chance of finding the right candidate. And this is why certification matters.

  • Matthew French is an independent consultant with more than 20 years of experience in the IT industry


  1. I my day of doing A+ etc., Microsoft kept on re-arranging the goal-posts. They deliberately made it extremely difficult for anyone having to pay for the exams themselves without company assistance to afford to sit the qualifying tests. While some may say that certification matters, it has been my experience that experienced, non-certificated people know a heck of a lot MORE than those with the certificates. One of my supervisors with two PhDs told me that with my experience I could teach the lecturers and this was borne out to be true when I attended the A+ course. There is NO substitute for experience that definitely NO certificate can provide.

  2. Michael van Dijk on

    Unfortunately, capitalism has changed the nature of education, with most higher level education institutions geared on generating higher revenues (not superior education) and sponsored by corporate entities.

    These students are great at regurgitating the text and their memory skills are superb.

    However, the candidates that have completed these degrees / diplomas can seldom apply their learning in the real world and most seem rather arrogant in their attainment of a piece of paper; as per example – I have yet to come across a person that is successful in business due to the completion of a MBA.

    I rather employ a person with self-taught knowledge and a self-starter, than someone with all the book knowledge that cannot apply this in the real world.



  3. I agree that certification matters up to a point, and experience trumps it every time… certification is only relevant if the candidate has no other outstanding qualities – usually this will be an entry level grunt applying for their first job. For me as a smallish business owner of a coding house, that hires very technical people, my order of importance for qualifications are

    1) Enthusiasm – if someone’s hobby is their job and they’re passionate about what they do, experience will come easily to them, and they’ll teach themselves far more than a course ever would

    2) Experience – judging people by their past work is quite a reliable method

    3) Qualifications – Proves nothing about a candidate except that it’s possible for them to parrot learn stuff. Practical exams are a lot better, but harder to mark objectively, so are usually just an adaptation of the theory asked in a different manner so as to easily quantify results.

    Suffice to say I hardly ever care about qualifications when hiring a candidate – they seem to be used more in larger corporate environments where managers and interviewers aren’t qualified themselves to spot a great candidate amongst the chaff, and “…but he was qualified, he came top of his class, I had no idea he’d be useless when I hired him!” is a safe fallback position.

  4. Well, shall I extend this a little? I am totally self-taught, and have spent nearly 30 years in the IT industry. I started on DOS2.0 (if that), PC-DOS (IBM DOS), then moved through everything up to Systems Development level. I was running an HTTPD on Win3.1 before the Internet was available in South Africa. I am a self-taught network administrator on both Banyan VINES and Novell NetWare (20 servers, over 800 users); designed and installed the network. I build PCs from spare parts. I set up my own home network of 5 PCs. I do all my own troubleshooting. Certificates? Who needs them? But as Matthew French writes “However, they do give the employer a better chance of finding the right candidate. And this is why certification matters”. My answer to this is CRAP! Holding a certificate seldom means the employer has the “right” candidate, just a “qualified” one, and that sometimes is totally meaningless.

  5. I’ve got to agree with Ian on this. Me, myself have been in the industry for 20 years and I’ve only got a computer programming certificate. I passed the CUC exam 21 years ago with B average. Out of the 20 years I’ve been a contractor for 15 years, so I’ve attended very little courses, but have rather taught myself everything I know. Currently I in BI / Data Warehousing and doing well for myself. If a company asks me for certificates or to write a in-house exam, my response is normally; “How would I have survived for 20 years if I’m not a good developer?” They could have asked for a degree, but the only place where I see that a degree would really help at this stage for myself, is if I was looking for work outside the country’s borders.
    I’ve also seen people working for very well know DW software companies, who’s got the certificates for the vendors software, but doesn’t understand how to apply the knowledge in the real world. (I must also admit that some of them have been in IT for 5 plus years but still can’t even work Windows correctly!)
    I’ve been send on a course recently, first 1 in many many a moon, and got bored after the second day out of 5 days. The person presenting the course had about 20 – 30 vendor specific certificates hanging on the walls, but I’ve realized that the person had the book knowledge but not of the real world. The lecturer could not supply me with a answer to a certain course question, but I figured it out the first day back at work.
    All in all, I would go for real world experience any day above certificates and degrees.
    PS, I think that a company must ask you for a piece of your own coding and you need to explain why do you think this piece of coding is exceptional.
    They will get a idea on how you code, what your understanding is of the subject matter, and also what you consider good code.
    And even if the person doesn’t submit their own code, the interviewer would still get a idea on what you consider good coding, which is a good start at least

  6. comment threads on articles always seem to follow the same pattern 🙂

    I think this was a balanced article, well written and while the commentary is valid the hiring process differs for every business and every sector. To take a single position on this doesn’t really work in reality (like most things)

    I’ve been lucky enough to work across a broad range of business types in some varied IT roles. Corporate, SME, professional services at a junior, mid and senior level – and the needs vary. Certification in corporate environments DO work – the infrastructure and services are very vendor driven, and they invariably require certified individuals with some experience who can do a narrow scope of things with a narrow scope of products.

    It’s rote, it’s standards driven, and it’s not that exciting. Still needs to be done, though.

    For higher level IT positions, corporates know people with 3/4 year degrees statistically deliver and – as the article says – have ‘learned to learn’, hence the usual minimum standards. At no point do they need exceptional IT cowboys, they simply want what gets the job done using the methods that are set as best practice in a Sybex book somewhere, and planning that can be done using tried and testing planning methods.

    I find it frustrating – I have no degree, I do have post matric qualifications and I do hold certifications – and I find the artificial limits in the hiring process to be shortsighted. But I’ve worked with these companies and departments, and I’ve come to understand that the end result justifies the means – they get the services and infrastructure they need, in a planned and methodical way, supported the way they need it supported using the vendors and vendor certified resources they want to use.

    To say that a certification doesn’t give an employer a better chance of hiring a useful candidate shows that you either aren’t working in a corporate or big business environment, or you haven’t really thought the entire process through. It is an indicator. One of many, including experience. some are worth more than others.

    there have been so many attempts at finding a golden mean measure of potential success as an employee – certification, the “[do you have a home network | develop software for fun | run ETL processes against your stored pick ‘n pay till slip data] at home” questions, degree minimums, the joel test… the list is endless. Each ecosystem develops (or should develop) methods that help select the right candidates most of the time – and certifications, experience and all that other stuff forms part of it.

    Some stupid people are very well qualified and some clever people aren’t. Some politicians are honest. Pink Floyd had some crap songs. Exceptions are what make us interesting, but standards make people comfortable.

    Indignation on the part of non-certificate or degree holders may be justified in isolated cases – there will always be those with aptitude and potential that hasn’t been ratified with a piece of paper – but it mostly attempts to deny the validity of the broader population of an IT industry that has moved away from enthusiast to commodity career choice – regardless of if we like it or not.

  7. I have a number of meaningless certifications, I can program in languages I’m not likely to encounter again, manage IPS devices which are so high end they’re rarified and best of all, can run the administration tool for various UNIX’s. Certifications, I can say this of them, they have their uses, they tell me a candidate has the groundwork.

    And that’s it.

    I’ve seen people more qualified than I get stuck at 2am in a maintenance slot. Over trivial things.

    Several things are important in a good administrator, in order of importance:

    a) Absolute calm.
    b) General experience.
    c) A telephone.

    I don’t care that you don’t know every single flag to the BSD version of the ls command (and I assure you that you don’t), but I do care that you don’t panic and you have the courage to get on the phone and provide the *correct* information to someone who can help.

    I don’t care what you do weekends, I care that when the box isn’t coming up you have the presense of mind to take a breath and fix it.

    Having done a fair number of interviews where I was either on the receiving end or the giving end of a technical test of some form I can say this of them:

    Receiving: They’re a great way of determining the team you’re going to work with
    Giving: When the candidate gets stuck, which they will, how they respond to a prompt if they actually ask tells you a lot about them.

    Technical certification is great, but it’s nothing without experience. My windows are too tight. You need to know when you have a problem and when to ask for help. Only experience will tell you that you can’t fix something fast enough

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