Professional Certifications - Meh

Tuesday, February 12, 2008
In my industry, professional certifications are almost required if you want to be competitive. If you browse any certified testing provider's website, you'll find literally hundreds of exams for everything under the sun. Seems like every technology vendor in the world has certification programs now, and each one requires one (usually more) proctored exams in order to "earn" the certification. My certification program uses Vue, and man, do they have an awesome business plan. All they do is administer the computer-based tests under controlled conditions. They don't have to write any of the material - all they do is give the computer-based test as given to them by the vendor, then provide the results to the organization who has controlling authority over the certification. Did I mention the exams are $125.00 each? Yeah...quite the racket.

I blame Cisco and Microsoft. Evil bastards.

So my organization requires System Engineers in my pay grade have a certain level of certification as a condition of employment. This is really not that big of a deal, in my opinion. The lower level certifications are ridiculously easy, and anyone who claims to be an SE in telecommunications should be able to pass the exam cold. Because, really, if you don't know what an OSI model is or how many channels are in a T-1, then you really have no business attempting to design communication solutions. Just sayin'.

The more advanced certifications are somewhat harder. Most of the material is information I use in my daily job, but there are certain things that I do have to study simply due to a lack of daily exposure, such as Command Line Interface (CLI) syntax. I usually cram for a few days, pass the exam, then do an immediate brain dump.

This year all of my professional certifications expire. I'm not sure how I managed that, but here I am. I have to take and pass two advanced level exams in order to maintain my current level of certification, and two more if I want to "double down" and have two expert level credentials. I've taken two exams so far (one from each subset), and passed them both. I have one more due in May. I'm not too concerned about that one, as the material covered in that exam is very close to the work I do every day.

The last one, however, may take a bit more effort. It's on a product set I'm not as familiar with, and have very little interest in. That makes the force-feeding of CLI, capacity tables, traffic engineering, storage requirements and all the other testable knowledge a lot less pleasant.

However, I like being employed, and if there are layoffs in my team's future, I want to make sure I'm not on the list. Being employed is good for my stress level since I enjoy being able to afford food, shelter and transportation. So I'll put my nose to the grindstone and do the work, just to prove what a fabulous employee I am.

The thing about it, though, is that I really don't think these professional certifications are very indicative of how competent a person is in terms of their ability to execute and their attention to detail. Anyone can pass an exam if they study the right material. It doesn't make you a better engineer, or a more dedicated employee. It just means you took the test and passed.

I don't know if there's better way to set measures and hold people accountable. Since I test reasonably well, I suppose I shouldn't bitch about it.

But you know I will anyway.

18 comments:

Michelle K said...

Wow. Four different levels of certification? BLETCH!

In theory, I was supposed to become Microsoft Office User Expert (or whatever) certified for my job, but as the exams were to be paid for by my boss, she never got around to scheduling the exams, so I've never gotten certified.

And since the certification won't change my salary--who cares.

But I bet I could totally kick ass on the certification exams, all things considered. (I can answer some questions without even looking at my computer.) I just have no interest in taking the exam, since I won't take another tech support job if I ever quit this one.

The Mechanicky Gal said...

I'm glad that my job is one of the "if you can speak like you know what you are doing, you're good to go!" variety. There are some quals, but because the government only requires that a subcontractor have an ISO compliant system, we don't need to get that certification. Whew.

Jim Wright said...

I got professional certification as part of my CompSci MS program and ended up with the MCSE-I, MCSD, and A+ certs, along with a number of certs in programming from the ACM. I've let all of them lapse since leaving the Navy - and in my current status as a writer and woodworker I don't see much need for them, and truthfully I'm not sure exactly how much they helped me in a professional capacity - on the other hand I never worked in the field in a civilian capacity.

But, I will say that the days of an IT 'professional' being some kind of self taught wizard down in the company basement are mostly over now. Just like any other profession, companies want a certified professional who can designed solutions around industry standard architecture. And rightly so. I can't tell you how many times I had to dig through code and schematics that worked, but looked like they were designed by a talented chimp rolling the I-ching dice. That costs time, manpower, and major money - certification helps to standardize the process and provides at least some minimum benchmark of your skills.

In a tightening economy, those certifications can make the difference between employment in your field or working at Home Depot - or worse. Plus, certification gives an HR department or management a measurable when determining placement an/or promotion (which are decisions often made by people who don't have a detailed understanding of IT) and can serve to off-set the 'good old boy' mentality in the promotion and employment arena.

All of which I'm sure you already know :)

And I agree with you, if you don't know the OSI stack model in nauseating detail, you probably shouldn't be in the IT field.

Janiece Murphy said...

Jim, I do understand why it's in use. I just don't think it's necessarily a good measure of someone's skill.

But, yes, I'll continue to maintain my professional certifications because I'm so very fond of earning a living. I'm narrow-minded that way, because my mortgage company is, too.

Tom said...

Please, do not throw sausage pizza away.

I, on the other hand, after 37 years of working in computers, don't have any certifications, or even a simple college degree. I've also had less than 5 courses over the years. Almost completely self-taught.

This is not to say that I wouldn't want to attend some, or that I wouldn't benefit from some. Just that mostly there wasn't time. For a long time I was the ONLY person to support the complete PACS system. It was hard to take a weekend away, much less days during the work week. Now there's 2 guys, plus various vendor support, so it's easier, but still, if there's a problem, and nobody knows why, they call me. I can pinpoint the area, and either fix the problem, or tell somebody else what the problem is so they can fix it.

Would I like some certifications? Sure. But I'd rather have other people with a wide range of experience, some detail knowledge, and a lot of common sense. As Janiece says, that's hard to test for.

Janiece Murphy said...

"Please, do not throw sausage pizza away."

Non sequitur much? :-)

Really, this is all about marketability and hiring managers attempting to find a measurable metric against their employees (as Jim points out). I'll maintain my certs as long as I work in this field for that reason - not because I think they add value to my ability to engineer a viable solution.

Vince said...

Really, this is all about marketability and hiring managers attempting to find a measurable metric against their employees (as Jim points out)

I would agree. You do need some way to try to measure proficiency, and the certifications give an employer a baseline. But if you're self-employed, depending on where you live, certification may be less important.

Like Tom, I have no degrees and no certifications. I'm a self-employed computer generalist with over 25 years of experience. A lot of what I do is self-taught, although I've taken my share of computer classes over the years. I'm currently taking a class in digital forensics. However, living near the Canadian border in northern Minnesota, my clients in this sparsely populated area don't care if I have any certifications, and won't pay me more because I have them. They just want the work done, and done correctly.

But if I ever decided I wanted to work for someone else as an employee again (yuck!), I would get the certifications.

Janiece Murphy said...

Vince, yep, it's all about bringing in the dough to pay the mortgage. Because I work in a large enterprise, this crap matters.

If I was self-employed, then not so much.

Anne C. said...

Coincidentally enough, I'm taking my professional exams right now. There are 9 exams in different areas and all of them need to be passed in order for me to get a license. There is talk about having a "continuing education" portion of renewing the license, but I'm told it's fairly easy to work into one's schedule.
The exams are expressly a "competancy" exam. You don't need to excel, just pass. In fact, no scores are given, just a pass/fail and if you fail, a listing of areas of the exam that you need to work on. (I haven't seen any of those yet, thank goodness.) They average about $120/exam.
I'd agree with you, Janiece. I've met complete dunderheads who have a license and so must have passed those exams. I'm just not sure how. ;)

John the Scientist said...

A lot of this is CYA by HR tyes so that they can point to a qunatifyable reason why X was rejected if X brings suit against the company. But it's also part of a larger trend of relying on paper education too much and valuing what's measurable versus what's important. My co-blogger David Foster has a bunch of posts about the phenomenon he calls "Hunting the 5 Pound Butterfly".

I think its also related to my post on Pig's Ears. There is just somehting fundamentally flawed in the way we measure aptitude, skill mastery and intelligence.

Shawn Powers said...

I'm quite irritated by the "qualification" a college degree earns someone, but I do understand certification in the IT fields.

To a point.

Experience sure does trump the crap out of a cert though. In *function* anyway. The problem is often that bosses don't have a friggen clue regarding abilities, and so certification requirements become the rubric. I understand the reasoning, but it certainly doesn't reflect the best person for the job by default.

I'm also annoyed by the COST of certification. Especially Cisco certification. Holy crap on a cracker.

I could go on and on, but maybe someday I'll vent on my frustrations with certified idiots on my own site. They're almost as annoying as idiots with Masters degrees... Ugh.

Michelle K said...

Shawn,

My husband got his CCNA when he was last job hunting. He took the CCNA classes at the local vo-tech center, and things ended up costing a fraction of what they would elsewhere.

Of course he never renewed his certification, which is ok, because he doesn't need it for is current job.

Shawn Powers said...

That makes sense. Part of the problem is that I had to get CCNP training, CCNA-Trainer's thing (don't remember initials for that), and then some weird "super quick" training session stuff.

Basically, learn the OSI model, especially the parts that you don't need to remember by name, and we'll test you on your rote memory. Oh, and charge you absurd amounts of money through our fancy dancy training center.

But, we're offering CCNA training now at the high school, so I guess I'm not complaining. ;)

I was tempted to re certify, but like your husband, I don't need to, so there's really no point. (My ego is fine with being all lapsed and stuff)

Janiece Murphy said...

I can't wait to be "lapsed." It won't happen anytime soon, since I've got that whole "condition of employment" thing going on, but when I can - I am so lapsed.

Tom said...

Janiece, I wasn't non-sequituring. That's Every Good Boy Does Fine for the 7 layers.
Physical
Data
Network
Transport
Session
Presentation
Application
It's deep within me, and surfaced when you mentioned OSI.

I don't have the certs, but if I can network (socially) past the HR, I can show that I know what's what.

Soon enough I may only have to worry about smiling and distributing shopping carts.

Janiece Murphy said...

Tom, my Smart Man pointed that out to me yesterday, then laughed at me, saying I played myself.

True.

I used a different mnemonic when I was learning it...

Jeri said...

Too hilarious! I used "All People Seem to Need Data Processing" for mine.

Janiece, I hear you on the certs! Long ago lapsed I made great inroads on my MCSE. I did earn my project management PMP (yes, we're called pimps) about five years ago. You know, there are just as many idiots with PMPs as there are fine project managers without. Sad.

Mostly, it's of help when my company submits proposals, and in some cases when differentiating between applicants with otherwise similar credentials.

My project team - the one that works on the same platform you do - would love to pursue technical certification, but classes at their level are few, far between, and often in places like Sao Paulo or Munich.

Janiece Murphy said...

Jeri, if memory serves, your folks work on the same platforms I design, yes? If so, they really don't need the classes to get certified. Send me an e:mail (first name dot last name at comcast dot net) and I'll send you a list of documents to study in order to pass the exam.