21 April 2010

To get or not Certified?!

    To get or not certified?! That’s a question I asked myself several times along the years, and frankly it doesn’t have an easy answer because there are many aspects that need to be considered: previous education, targeted certification, availability of time, financial resources or learning material, required software, hand-on experience, certification’s costs, duration/frequency, objectives, value (on the market) or requirements, contexts, etc. In many occasions when I had most of the conditions met then I didn’t had the time to do it, or I waited to appear the requirements for the new set of certifications, referring mainly to SQL Server 2005 and 2008 versions, or I preferred to continue my “academic” studies, so here I am after almost 10 years of experience in the world of SQL without any certification, but, I would say, with a rich experience covering mainly full-life cycle development of applications, reporting, data quality and data integration, ETL, etc. Enough with the talking about myself and get to the subject. I’ve seen recently this topic appearing again in 1-2 professional groups, so I’ll try to approach this topic from a general point of view because most of the characteristics could apply also to database-related certifications like Microsoft MCITP (Microsoft Certified IT Professional) or MCTS (Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist) for SQL Server.

    Naturally, in what concerns the certification, the opinions between professionals are split, an often met argument against it is the believe that a certification is just a piece of paper having a limited value without being backed-up by adequate hand-on experience, while the pro-argumentation is that some companies, employers and customers altogether, are valuing a certification, considering it as a personal achievement reflecting not only owners’ commitment to approach and take a certification exam, but also a basic level of knowledge. Both views are entirely correct from their perspective, weighting differently from person to person, community to community or from one domain of expertise to another, and they have positive and negative aspects, many subjective aspects as they are related to people’s perception.

    From a global perspective an IT “certification fulfills a great need by providing standardized exams for the most current and important technologies” [3], allowing judging people’s knowledge on the topics encompassed by it[1], being thus a way to quantify knowledge especially related to general tasks. Certifications offer a path to guide the study of a domain [2], are developed around agreed-upon job tasks [3] and consider a basic knowledge base made of vocabulary, definitions, models, standards, methods, methodologies, guidelines or best practices.

    Given the fact that a certification covers most of the topics from a given domain, in theory it provides a wide but of superficial depth coverage of the respective domain, in contrast with the hand-on experience, the professional experience accumulated by solving day-to-day tasks, which provides a narrower (task-based) but deeper coverage of the respective domain. Therefore, from my point of view the two are not necessarily complementary but could offer together a wide and deep coverage of the domain, a certification needs somehow to be based on a certain number of years of hand-on experience in order to get more value out of it. On the other side the variety in hand-on experience could offer wider coverage of the domain, though I suppose that could be accomplished fully by had-on experience but in a longer unit of time. These suppositions are fully theoretical because there are many other parameters that need to be considered, for example a person’s capacity of learning by doing vs. theoretical learning (this involves also understanding of concepts), the learning curve and particularities of the technologies, methods or methodologies involved, the forms of training used, etc.

    A certification is not meaningless, as several professionals advance (e.g. J. Shore, T. Graves & others), even when considered from employers’ perspective, and the fact that it doesn’t count for some employers or professionals, that’s another story. A certification could be considered eventually useless, though also that’s not fully true. Maybe the certification itself is useless for a third party, though it’s not from the point of view of the learning process, as long the the knowledge accumulated is further used and the certification is not an end in itself.  A certification is not or it shouldn’t be an end in itself, it should be a continuous learning process in which knowledge is perpetually discovered, integrated and reused. Most probably in order to keep the learning process continuous several certifications, including MCITP, require to be recertified after a number of years.

      There are professional certifications that require provable experience in the respective domain before actually being accepted for a certification, it’s the example of PMP (Project Management Professional) and CAPM (Certified Associate in Project Management) certifications from PMI (Project Management Institute) that require a considerable amount of hours of non-overlapping direct or indirect PM experience, and the example is not singular, if I’m not mistaking also the CISP (Certified Information System Security Professional) certification requires a certain number of years of experience. This type of requirement allows in theory to make most of the learning process being facilitated the integration of knowledge with experience.

     How useful is a certification for the certified person?! It depends also how much a certification succeeds in covering the knowledge, skills and abilities required by an actual job, how much of the knowledge acquired will be later used. There are people who focus only on taking the exam, nothing more, though I would say that might come with other downsides on the long term. There are even organizations that encourage and even sponsor their employees’ certification either by providing training material, courses, partial or full-expenses, such initiatives being often part of their strategic effort of creating value and a knowledge-based environment, the professional certification being also a form of recognition, being valued in what concerns employees performance, eventually associated also with a form of remuneration.

    I think that a certification could be beneficial for a person with relatively small or no professional experience in a certain domain, the certification bridging to a small degree the gap to hand-on experience. It could be interesting to study whether the on-hand experience could be compensated to some degree by attempting to (re)use the learned concepts in self-driven applications or several examples. When learning something new I found it useful to try writing a tutorial or a blog post using a well-defined example, though this won’t replace entirely the on-hand experience, the difference between the two being the limited vs. the global scope of handling tasks, in dealing with real-life situations. Most probably it could be also useful to learn about the use of a technique/technology in several contexts, though this equates with lot of research and effort spent in that direction. Does it worth to do that?!

   A certification is an opportunity to enter in a “select” circle of professionals, though now it depends also how each vendor or group of certificates takes advantage of this “asset” and what other benefits are derived out of it. For example by publishing domain related content certificates could be kept up-to-date with new features, trends, best practices, etc., the professional network thus created could benefit of the potential such networks offer especially when considering problem solving, the creation, propagation and mapping of knowledge, etc. Of course, such networks could have also side effects, for example the creation of exclusivist networks. I would say that the potential of professional networks is still theoretic, but with the evolution of the Web new possibilities will emerge.

    A person taking such a certification arrives in theory to cover most of the important topics related to a given domain, however this doesn’t guarantee that the person is actually capable of applying (successfully) the concepts and techniques in real life scenarios, the many “brain dumps” and other easy ways of taking a certification decreasing certification’s credibility and value. There are domains over-flooded by people with certifications but not having the skills to approach a real project, a company that gives too much credit to a certification could end up stuck with resources that can’t be used, this aspect impacting negatively other professionals too. I’m coming back to the idea that a certification is subject of people’s perception and I have to say that the most important opinion in this direction is not necessarily professionals’ opinion activating in the respective domain, but of the people from HR, PM and partially headhunters, because they are the ones who are making the selection, deciding who’s hired and who’s not. Considering that there are few professionals from HR and PM that are coming from the IT domain, there are lot of false and true presumptions when evaluating such candidates, people arriving to come with their own methods of filtering the candidates, and even if such methods are efficient from the result perspective, many good professional could feel kind of “discriminated”.

      In theory it’s easier to identify a person who has a certification than to navigate through the huge collection of related projects and tasks, or to search in a collection of CVs for the various possible combinations or significant terms related to a job description. Somebody (sorry, I don’t remember who) was saying that a manager spends on average 20-30 seconds for each CV, now it depends also how eye-catching is a certification in a simple CV scanning. From a semantic point of view I would say that a certification is richer in meaning than any type of written experience, though now it depends also on reviewer’s knowledge about the respective certification. Sure is that when choosing between two professionals with similar experience there are high chances for the one having a certification to be hired. In addition, considering that there are hundreds of applicants for the good jobs on the market, I would say that a certification could allow a candidate, between many other criteria, to distinguish himself from the crowd.

    Given the explosion of technologies from IT, domain’s dynamics, segmentation and other intrinsic characteristics , the IT certifications are more specialized, more segmented and less standardized, making difficult their evaluation, especially when domains intersect each other or when the vendors emitting the certifications are competing against each other. Compared with other domains, an IT professional needs to be always up-to-date, cover multiple related domains in order to do his work efficiently, for example in order to provide a full-life cycle solution a developer would have to be kind of expert in Software Engineering, UI and database programming, security, testing, etc. The high segmentation in IT could be seen also in the denominations for the various roles, lot of confusion deriving from this, especially when matching the job descriptions with the roles.

   Must be considered also the bottom line: in IT as also in other domains, the knowledge and experience is relative because it depends also on person’s skills and ability of assimilating, using, reusing (creatively) the knowledge given in a domain; a person could in theory accumulate in one year same experience as others in 2 or more years, same as a person who got certified could in theory handle day-to-day tasks without any difficulty, same as in theory a student with no professional experience could handle programming tasks like a professional with several years of experience. At least in my country, there are many domains in University that provide also IT-related curricula within non-IT domains (e.g. Mathematics, Economics, Engineering), a number of programming courses being thought also in high school or even lower grades, the theory learned and the small projects facilitating theoretically the certification for a programming language (e.g. C#, Java or C++) or of directly handing day-to-day tasks. It’s true that in school is insisted more on the syntax, basic features and algorithmic nature of programming, but this doesn’t diminish the value of this type of learning when done adequately. Such educational experience is not considered as professional experience at all, even if it provides a considerable advantage when approaching a certification or a job.

   It must be highlighted that taking a certification comes with no guarantees for getting a job or being successful in your carrier/profession. You have to ask yourself honestly what you want to achieve with a certification, how you’ll use the learning process in order to get most of it. You actually have to enjoy the road to the final destination rather than dreaming about the potential success brought by such a certification. It could take actually more time until you’ll recover your investment or you’ll see that the actual invested time worth, and, as always some risks need to be assumed. Consider the positive and negative aspects altogether and decide by yourself if it makes sense to go for a certification.

      There is actually a third choice – continuing the academic studies, for example pursuing a bachelor, masters or why not, a doctoral degree. The approach of a such a degree imposes similar questions as in the case of a certification, though academic degrees are in theory better accepted by the society even if they come with no guarantees too, require more effort and financial resources.

[1] K. Forsberg, H. Mooz, H. Cotterman. (2005). Visualizing Project Management: Models and Frameworks for Mastering Complex Systems. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN: 0-978-0-471-64848-2.
[2] D. Gibson (2008). MCITP SQL Server 2005 Database Developer All-In-One Exam Guide. McGraw-Hill. ISBN: 978-0071546690.
[3]  L.A. Snyder, D.E. Rupp. G.C. Thornton (2006). Personnel Selection of Information Technology Workers: The People, The Jobs, and Issues for Human Resources Management. Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management, Vol. 25, Martocchio J.J. (Ed.). JAI Press. ISBN: 978-0762313273.

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