To Get Certified or Not to Get Certified – that is the Question

In the fast-moving world of technology, currencies change quickly. What was once considered solid gold, can turn into an artifact holding no value within a few short years. Think about the value of tech skills relating to IBM’s Mainframe or a certificate that announces John Doe as a Professional MS-DOS Specialist. Could it be that technology certificates themselves are losing their value and appeal? I would argue that this is in fact the case.

The Golden Age of Certifications

Take, for example, IT certifications like Microsoft’s MCSA and Cisco’s CCNA Routing and Switching. These certifications were once the golden ticket to employment in the extremely competitive technology sector. By holding such a certificate, you were considered competent and qualified to work on specific vendor-related products.

Aspiring IT professionals knew that with the right certification in their hands, their employment was guaranteed. For years, such vendor-issued certifications helped people land jobs at companies that used products from the world’s leading vendors. A Microsoft/Oracle/Cisco certification was the best way to demonstrate a candidate’s proficiency in the vendor’s products and their ability to add to the value chain.

As IT certifications became more popular, HR professionals started including them as a basic job requirement for IT positions, even in companies that didn’t use the vendor’s product. By using IT certifications as a barrier of entry into IT employment, HR professionals used certifications as a filter, reducing the number of job applications they had to review and ensuring a steady stream of qualified candidates.

According to CompTIA, a non-profit association issuing certifications for the information technology industry: “HR professionals felt that certifications made it easier to help find the right IT pro. By including IT certifications as a requirement in job listings, employers reduce the number of unqualified resumes they receive.” CompTIA’s research on the subject showed that:

  • 72% of employers require IT certifications for certain job listings
  • 67% of employers use certifications to measure candidates’ willingness to work hard and meet a goal
  • 60% of employers use certifications to confirm subject matter expertise

Certifications Become a Commodity

With their rise in popularity, IT certifications soon became a commodity. Suddenly everyone held an IT certificate or was studying for one. With so many people flocking to pay good money for a certification, additional bodies – such as associations like CompTIA and training centres like John Bryce – quickly jumped on the bandwagon with preparatory courses aimed at attaining the desired certifications. Certifications were no longer about proving real competency; they were about passing a single test.

Then came another issue to deal with — “certification fraud.” For a hefty fee, shady businesses around the world began offering what seems like a valid certification with no time investment or knowledge required. This was enough when HR uses certifications mostly as a filter, real knowledge wasn’t necessary. Many employers fell for this sophisticated ruse. In fact, IT certification fraud has become rampant to the point that groups like IT Certification Council (ITCC) were formed specifically to combat this phenomenon. Some estimate that 15% to 25% of IT certification exams show indications of cheating.

With the proliferation of certifications, tech industry brands like LinkedIn and Coursera also began offering online IT certification. Each of these brands offers a wide array of courses that vary in their length, quality, and usefulness, and are taught by instructors that do not necessarily answer to these brands or any higher education institution.

Admittedly, the value of the certificate today is derived from the brand whose platform is used to deliver that online course, regardless of the course’s quality. With IT certification becoming commonplace, plagued with fraud and marketing spinoffs, it began to lose its prestige in the eyes of true professionals and savvy employers.

Is There Still Value in Certifications?

Fast-forward to now. In an industry defined by an incredibly fast pace of change, IT professionals and software engineers must learn to adapt their skills constantly, instead of relying on certifications in products and technologies that might quickly become obsolete. To remain competitive, you need a skill set that draws on your ability to learn and find your way in any programming language or platform, rather than a certification in a specific programming language or product. While a certificate may look great framed on your wall, there is a fair chance that within a few years it won’t be worth much.

This is not to say that certifications have no value whatsoever. Certifications draw on the reputation of the institution issuing them and the difficulty in obtaining them. Think about gaining a diploma or Bachelor’s degree from a well-known university. Likewise, “elite” certificates from well-respected educational institutions are still a sign of quality learning and strong capabilities.

Local certifications might also hold some value. If an employer recruits in a certain city, and a tech training centre in that city is well-known for the quality of its trainers, its studies, and its graduates, then a certification from that centre – although not internationally acclaimed – might bear significance when appraising a candidate for a job. The perceived value of certifications, even global ones, changes from one location to another and each candidate should thoroughly explore and understand the situation where they live and work well before deciding on any certification.

Smart employers today know that certifications mean very little, and experience matters a lot. Rather than hiring a candidate based on the mere holding of a certificate, more employers lean towards testing potential employee’s skills and capabilities. By asking them technical questions during job interviews and giving them homework assignments to demonstrate the knowledge they claim to hold in real lines of code, employers can learn much more about a candidate’s skill set.

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