Is There Any Point In Certifications?

In an industry where professionals are often most concerned with gaining practical experience, are vendor certifications still of value? The "Certification Table of Enlightenment" can help you find out.

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I've been working in the technology industry for over 30 years and in that time I've had to reinvent myself through many industry "paradigm" shifts, just like the shift to cloud that we are going through now.

I've sold mainframe emulators, installed acoustic couplers and worked on the IT strategies of major businesses. I graduated in 2009 from Manchester Met University and on a 30-year trip to get to that degree I picked up certifications in French fry production at McDonalds, an MCNE and MCNI by Novell, XT repair and OS/2 from IBM, an ITIL ticket, NT4, Windows 95, PowerPoint 2010…

My certification profile ebbed and flowed as the technologies and services I delivered changed. OS/2 certifications may be of no use today, but back then they gave me the confidence I needed to work with one of those newfangled graphical user interfaces. Maybe more importantly, it gave my customers confidence as well.

Are certifications worth pursing as an individual? My catch all answer is "yes", but of course it depends on your own motivation.

Would you leave university the day before the exam?

Ask yourself: would you leave university without doing the degree because you had learned what you set out to learn? If you've done the course you know your stuff. You've already done the hard part. Go take the exam. It will make a difference, especially if the day comes when your qualifications are being lined up against other people who didn't sit the exam.

Personally, I'm passionate about certification for a number of personal reasons. If I had to list my top five, I'd go with:

  • A way to demonstrate that I have the skills to get the job done
  • The personal challenge of me versus the vendor / me versus the technology
  • Bragging rights
  • I like certificates
  • Industry credibility. Actually, let's make that technology credibility

My boss says….

Many organisations recognise the bottom line value certification brings to the business. Some still hold onto the outdated view that if you get certified you'll leave. That is possible, but you'd leave anyway if you are not being challenged, or when you work out you are not being invested in.

Richard Branson has a quote I love: "Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don't want to."

I can't claim to know what Richard Branson's approach is beyond what I hear and read, but as a businessman it's clear he values training and certification. He also said: "If you look after your staff, they'll look after your customers. It's that simple."

Sadly not all bosses are as enlightened. Not all bosses own a spaceship either.

Is there any evidence certifications reduce costs?

Over years working with individuals and organisations about the benefits of certification, I've been able to create my Certification Table of Enlightenment. What's in it for you? For your organisation?

Benefit Organisation Individual
Show the world I know stuff Yes Yes
Helps the business attract further good talent Yes
Motivates and rewards staff Yes
Increased employability, greater career growth potential and networking opportunities Yes
Provides stakeholders with confidence in team / individual ability Yes Yes
Demonstrates capability to stakeholders Yes
Provides a tangible direction for professional development Yes
Mitigation of risk through lack of competency Yes
Decrease risk of poor implementation and / or poor ongoing support Yes
Improved staff retention Yes Yes
Motivation Yes
Reduced costs Yes
Improved productivity Yes Yes

Training ROI is hard to qualify, especially on a certification program with several training interventions and exams. How do you measure? When do you measure? In fact, what do you measure?

Fortunately, IDC frequently release the results of training and certification surveys. The most recent survey IDC conducted, of over 3000 people, was for Juniper. Their Network Management Survey from 2014 provides some reusable, fact-based stories. Like how more than one week of training drove an increase in router up time from 78% to 94%.

Key activity Key metric <1 day training >1 week training
Design and planning of networks and integration of devices % of time networked resources are available 72 90
  % of changes to network architecture complete 56 71
Installation and configuration of routers and switches Average % uptime of critical routers/switches 78 94
  % of installations completed to plan 67 80
Routing/switching protocol management % of architecture changes fully documented 57 68
Routing policy management % of implementations which worked first time 69 82

But that's training, not certification, so let's borrow another IDC stat. From a certification perspective, IDC found strength in numbers. The higher percentage of a team that had achieved a certification, the quicker maintenance activities completed on time. That translates into a bottom line saving — so that must impress the boss.

Whilst these figures relate to Juniper, back in 2008 IDC did a similar survey across all IT functions and the results are very similar:

We have to conclude from this that there is a tangible Return on Investment to be had by certifying the team. Making it part of the culture.

It is win/win

Certification provides the business with measurable benefits, such as reduced down time. It delivers non-measurable benefits in a motivated workforce. And the individual, you and I, are better placed for career progression and can show the world that we know stuff. Even if it is OS/2.

There is an analogy I like to use when making the case for certification:

Think back to the last time you flew somewhere. Was the pilot of our Boeing 747 certified to fly you across the country? If you could save a few bucks, would you be happy with someone up front flying where the skills were not validated? I wouldn't. I'd take the CBD every time (Certified Boeing Driver).

Rather like modern certifications, pilots have to be certified for each aircraft type they fly and they have to be revalidated from time to time. As we head for the clouds as well, maybe we need to adopt that same model.

A veteran of too many years in IT, Gary Duffield, at the age of 45, suffered a midlife crisis and moved his wife, dog and daughter to Australia. He continues to live the dream as national MS product manager for DDLS, this gives him a great team to work with and fantastic toys to play with. Based in Perth, most weekends you will find him on Whitfords dog beach with Biff, the rescue collie from Manchester.


Comments

    I'm disappointed you didn't touch on the de-valuation of some certifications due to so many (Not being racist, but generally, Indians) getting certified by ROTE / learning from answer keys. They often have the certificate, but none of the skills.

      The other issue I have seen personally is companies active pushing/supporting the answer dump (eg TestKing) and then exam approach so they make sure all their engineers are 'certified' and exceed partnership requirements.

      I don't think the problem here is race but rather how easy it is to gain such certifications due to the availability of the materials online. Anyone could easily emulate such ROTE learning and gain certifications.

      Neither should we deliberately make it harder for those less well off by making such certifications harder to get by making them pay for more courses.

      I realise there is less focus to need certifications here, with the stress on experience rather than certificates, which is we're less inclined to get it here.

      As a result I don't think it's too much of an issue. Where I work, if we see an applicant with many certifications but with minimal experience, we'll be treating such applicants with a bit of suspicion, despite what their background is.

        Definitely not a race issue, just a (poor) example on my behalf. I guess I'm thinking the problem is exacerbated by bad hiring practices / using non technical staff as interviewers for tech roles - It's quite easy to fake it past them with your 'knowledge' if you've obtained a certificate via rote.

    The one thing I don't like about some Cert's is they expire. How to setup a Cisco switch dose not change that much in 3 years!! At least MS let you keep your old NT and 2000 MCSE certs.

      Yeah they really should version the certifications like MS does. There's no need to expire them, if you've got certification on a 3 year old IOS version, that's still valid for that version. Of course the same is true in reverse, my Windows NT 4.0 certification doesn't mean I know the first thing about Server 2012.

      You just have to change the way you write it on your resume.

      After 3 years you can no longer say you are currently "CCNA Certified", but you can still list "2004 - CCNA Certification Acquired".

      The Cisco Certs expire because Cisco is a company that wants you to get on their training track and never get off. It's not about re-doing your CCNA every three years, it's about getting you to start on your CCNP.

    Good write-up. I find it difficult to study, be it after work or in a classroom. My attention for sitting there and listening dwindles even during 30 minute team meetings.

    I have absolutely no hope in getting certified. But I do learn quickly, I have an intuitive and constantly active mind, so I'm always trying to learn more about absolutely anything. But I learn hands on, not by listening to someone in a classroom or in videos (like CBT Nuggets).

    I wish I could have dedicated myself to years at Uni like my friends. All my teachers thought I would go to Uni but I never tried hard enough. It kinda sucks that I don't have much apart from a couple of TAFE certs and ITIL but I guess that's how it goes sometimes.

    I have a good job in the lvl 3 server team though so you don't NEED to get certs to be in the role I am in. But without the certifications to back me up I may find it difficult to change company if they don't have any baseline to measure me by.

    Also just noticed the last bit about you working at DDLS. I work at DD haha, small world. Just looked you up on Lync and there you are :P

      Hey DK_SON, just spotted this, you should of said hi, on Lync, of course :)

    Certificates that require a degree of experience or current responsibility before achieving them, such as CISSP hold a higher level of value. I've worked with many people who are certified - but don't understand the basics and the concepts. Admittedly, this is my experience!

      I've worked with a lot of people who aren't worth their certification. But I've got to say, I wish a lot more people in IT had at least once acquired a CCNA by rote. There sheer lack of basic networking skills in today's IT people is absolutely stunning. I've met a lot of CCNA's who don't know networking, but most of them have a basic grasp that they picked up along the way.

      As for pedigree of certs, I'm yet to meet a CCIE who doesn't know their sh*t.

    To those people who pass ITIL Foundation and consider themselves ITIL specialists - you're wrong! The ITIL Foundation exam is a pre-requisite for the far more testing and valuable ITIL intermediate exams which, in turn, lead to ITIL Expert and then ITIL Master. The level of accredited classroom-based training to achieve ITIL expert level alone can cost around $20k-$25k.

    Getting a C# certification earlier this year did really terrible things to my confidence. I realised that passing the exam and getting the cert didn't help me at all, I still felt like I knew nothing like Jon Snow. Without the proper experience at work, a cert is worthless. It benefits MS and the employer but not yourself, if you're not working on stuff that's relevant to your exam material. I'm 99% sure I won't bother again...

    Just a question to anyone, What are the best certifications to go for say i want to be system admin would it be better to look at server or windows 8 certifications?

      Windows Server certification always goes far! 20410, 20411 & 20412 are the MCSA in Windows Server. Huge applicability.

    As the author of this piece I would like to point out I had a 30+ year journey to achieving and academic qualification - and not 300. I'm old, not that old :) Good luck to those taking certifications going forward.

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