The conventional wisdom is that you can earn more if you invest in certification. You also risk thousands of dollars if you become certified in something that could be obsolete within a year. My experience suggests certification isn’t always needed, but it’s often a good idea. Whether or not you should obtain certification depends a lot on where you want to work.
Why do certifications exist?
IT certification was invented to fill the gap left when traditional educational institutions became unable to adjust the curriculum fast enough to keep up with the explosive changes in information technology. Software makers soon realized they wouldn’t sell many products if companies didn’t feel good about the people they hired to use them. Some marketing genius said, “Hey! Why not create our own curriculum and bestow ‘degrees’ on those who pass it? We can charge a fortune for it!” Thus certification was born. Cynics say certification is little more than a racket, but it was actually invented out of necessity.
Why obtain certification?
I can describe the types of companies that generally insist on certification in one sentence: The bigger the company, the more likely they are to require certification. There are exceptions, but the idea makes sense. Companies that have separate divisions for everything, like IBM, are all about covering their behinds. That’s how they got so big. They’ll spend the extra bucks just to protect themselves. Let’s say that my division director works in another town and has never met me. How do I convince her that hiring you was the right choice? Easy! I insisted that you be certified. Then, if you blow it, my response is, “It wasn’t my fault; the guy was certified!” That’s the essence of certification. If you want to work for the big boys, you really should get your shingle.
Warranties offer another reason for certification. Many large companies work out exclusive deals when they purchase their IT products. Such deals often come with warranties that can be voided if the product is serviced by anyone other than a certified professional. With millions spent on these products, companies can ill afford to risk a voided warranty to save a few bucks an hour.
A third but less common reason to get certified is the ISO certification many companies have. Simply put, ISO certification is what companies get to prove that: (1) they have quality control processes in place and (2) they really follow them. Why should you care? Well, ISO-certified companies often promise their customers that they will only work with other ISO-certified vendors. They might also mandate that all vendors and/or employees be certified in their fields whenever possible. Those not certified will be cut loose.
Smaller companies don't always care about certification
There’s another side to certification. Smaller companies, especially mom-and-pop shops, are less concerned with covering their bottoms and more concerned with the bottom line. In short, why pay extra for some fancy diploma when there’s a high school kid down the street who can do the job for half the wages? Smaller companies often lack state-of-the-art IT equipment, so there’s often no warranty to void. Smaller shops will sometimes hire non-certified employees if it saves them money.
Get it if you can
If you don’t have a strong preference about the type of company you work for, and the tool for which you wish to become certified seems fairly stable, get the certification. Few doors are closed to the certified. Just be careful, and read Jonathan Lurie’s Builder.com article for some specific certifications that work, and some that don’t.