Saturday, January 8, 2011

The value of technology certifications

The subject of technology certifications comes up quite frequently in many of the discussion boards that I've visited that are either job- or technology-related.  The responses are almost always varied, some arguing that certifications should be avoided because they won't get you a job or because they don't test useful knowledge, while others arguing certifications are desirable for the knowledge gained and increased opportunities made available.  There is a bit of truth in each argument.

Unfortunately, most people asking about certifications on these discussion boards are asking because they are looking for the certification(s) that are virtually guaranteed to get them a job.  These don't exist.  The certifications that I have encountered test for specialized knowledge in a particular area but don't test for skills that are needed to do a job.  I think the test writers believe that anyone with specialized knowledge is bound to have the more general day-to-day knowledge, but the result is that the job market is flooded with certified "professionals" with little more than book knowledge.  Because of this, most certifications are looked upon with suspicion by a significant number of people in the industry.

On the other hand, getting a certification can get your foot in the door into a company, especially if the company has an incentive to hire certified employees.  A certification can show that an employee was motivated to learn the details about a particular technology, which can only be a good thing in an ever-changing field.  An employee should take advantage of the closer look provided by the certification and expect to prove that the certification provided more value than memorizing a bunch of facts.

For the same reasons, employers should look upon employees with related certifications more favorably than those without, but it cannot be the sole, or even primary, determining factor in choosing the right person.  An employee with a small amount of knowledge who can apply that knowledge in solving a wide variety of problems is more valuable than one with a large amount of knowledge but who can't utilize it in a meaningful way.  Certifications usually merely only test for the amount of knowledge, not the ability to apply it.

So in the end, certifications hold some value for the industry, but they seem to have fallen short of their goals.  In a future post, I will suggest a way to design a certification exam that would be more useful to both the certified and the talent evaluators.

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