Are certifications worth the money?

Are certifications worth the money?

Summary: The key problem with IT certification is that most of them are so hard to fail they aren't worth their weight in paper - and yet employers, acting under SOX and related presures, continue to demand them.


Here's an email I got last week:

Hi Paul,

I am a graduating senior in MIS, so I'm starting to look at different certifications. Although the windows stuff is available and clear, I think I want to focus more on UNIX and server-end.


That's a good question -and I think the answer is that "it depends."

Basically, I have both taken certification courses and given them, but I've never seen the learning value to the students - and when evaluating a stack of resumes to see who might be worth talking to, I tend to ignore non academic qualifications like a Sun or Oracle certification while weighing more than two or three MS certifications against the candidate as much more likely to mark a careerist than a techie.

However...there are a couple of other factors to consider.

First, back in the 1920s when data processing was just getting started, it inherited the "one man, one role" rule from its clerical operations predecessor - and that rule, now embedded in the CoBIT standard, most recently led to strengthened demands for IT role certification by SOX compliance auditors. As a result the rigid role separation that was starting to break down a bit with the merger between the Wintel and mainframe data processing communities got an organizational shot in the arm from auditors interpreting the SOX legislation in their own favor - and, yes, it's a terrible way to treat people and it doesn't make business sense either; but it is what it is, and if you're job hunting you either get the certifications they require or apply elsewhere.

Second, my general rule is that you should never spend your own money on IT certifications - but there is at least one exception. The community developed exams administered by the Linux Professional Institute are cheap (typically exam fees amount to $155 each for the first two, and $255 for the third one); more credible than most; and, can be studied for at home with no more than a Linux PC and internet access.

LPI certification can, in other words, get name_withheld out of the catch-484 trap created by the fact that it takes Unix system administration experience to get a Unix system administration job - and of course you need the job to get the employer to pay for the certifications you need to get the job.

So here's my bottom line advice to name_withheld: check out LPI certification - if it looks like something you want to do and can afford: go for it. Then, if you still want to work in Unix systems administration, go get a job some place big enough to have an employee training program for Red Hat or SuSe and get some serious, hands on, experience working with Linux and the people you'll find in that environment.

Once you know Linux - and I don't mean from a book, a class, or your own PC; I mean in real, live, working environments with the usual random surprises - moving up to Solaris is pretty easy. Start by using it at home, and then grab the training credits your employer gets, or can get, with almost any significant purchase from Sun.

Bottom line? Use LPI certification to get your foot in the door, study the people and the problems they deal with more than the technology, and from there bootstrap your way up to Solaris certification using the employer's money, the employer's gear, and the employer's ability to throw experience building people and problems your way.

Topics: Collaboration, Enterprise Software

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  • agreed

    I've been working in IT for over 10 years, professionally, which spawned from my early love of computers. I have to agree that in many cases you'll find hands on experience will trump a degree or cert. I've been hired over degree and cert holders a majority of my career, and I myself have no degree, cert, or even a GED for that matter.

    But before anyone starts a flame war, I do have to agree that in the current market and the major shift to open source is bringing back good reasons to get certs in specialized areas, such as Linux/Unix.

    I've currently been unemployed and looking far and wide for a job, which should be no problem with the amount of knowledge I have obtained over the years. But many IT departments are scaling back, even HP is about to fire a major chunk of it's workforce, and the IT industry is looking for people who want to progress their knowledge for not only their own benefit but also the companies benefit, so they're going to lean towards those with areas of special interest and training to build on and keep within the ranks.

    After reading the article, I myself am considering wading back into the Linux pool and possibly getting an LPI cert. It's reasonably priced, and let's face it, open source isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
  • Two Reaons to get a Cert

    Certifications, like other forms for formal education, are simply weak substitutes for experience. Employers generally do not want to hire someone that is completely green. This presents a chicken-and-the-egg problem for the prospective employee. You can't get a job without experience, and you can't get experience without a job.

    But you can get education.

    So why should you obtain a certification:
    1. Your employer thinks you should have one, and is willing to pay for it.
    2. You want to enter a field but cannot because you lack specific experience.

    Now, if you're a graduating senior in MIS, theoretically you already have education. I find the idea that a few weeks training is somehow more valuable than four years of college somewhat disconcerting.
    Erik Engbrecht
  • RE: Are certifications worth the money?

    Project Management certification is worth it.
    • PM certification: Why?

      I know a lot of companies love to be able to check boxes, so I understand the possible financial incentives, but... my experience having PMI certification is a good sign that you aren't much of a manager. The people that get it tend to focus on the technical aspects of project management (not technical as in IT, but rather on detailed methodologies) and ignore actual management. It's usually a personality thing. They are kind of like engineers.

      These folks make good adjuncts to a good project manager, so they are valuable. But in general it's their personality that's doing that. They could have learned the methodologies in a weekend. The certification is just a badge. They like it, because if someone questions what their doing they can point it and the PMBOK, but again, that's just their personalities making them need the crutch.
      Erik Engbrecht
  • Getting through the door.

    The purpose of the initial screening is often to exclude as many people as possible. When many applications are expected, the process is often automated. Automation can work most simply by keyword. And certification lends itself well to keywords.

    Far better than any certification is a robust network of employed people. Who would anticipate hiring you. But if it's necessary to come through the front door, a certification may be essential.

    So checking which keywords often appear for a job listing may be the best answer to the question of whether to obtain a specific certification.

    And I suggest that a necessary new employment is often not the appropriate time for a career path change.
    Anton Philidor
  • I dislike "proprietary" certifications.

    I know from personal experience that the Microsoft certifications are not that demanding, and I have heard many times how easy it is to cheat. I don't know about other programs, but I doubt they are much better.

    Other professions have respected professional institutions, which provide credible qualifications and levels of membership. In IT, these are sadly lacking or ignored.

    Right now, I'm doing my MSc at a respected university. It takes 2 years, and so far has been up to date and relevant. The only downside is that it costs a fortune.

    No doubt I'll be "over qualified" by the time I'm done.
    • That's my thinking too


      note intentional ambiguity... <grin>
    • Microsoft Certs....

      Just curious, when did you take your last test?
  • RE: Are certifications worth the money?

    not yet ... How I become?