Are certifications worth the money?

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.