“In the early days of the Indian Territory, there were no such things as birth certificates. You being there was certificate enough.”Will Rogers
During my many years of working in IT, I have been approached by family and friends regarding working in the industry. I was also recently approached by one of my cousins and he asked me the following question.
“So, I want to start working in IT but I am not sure where to begin. I have heard that getting certified in AWS is very much in demand these days. Do you think I should get certified in AWS?”
Just like the true measure of being born is not a birth certificate but actually existing, the true measure of being qualified for a job is actually doing the job. However, certifications do have their place.
In this post I will go over how certifications have helped me in my career, how certifications are weighed in the hiring process as well as what certifications you should pursue and when.
In this post, I will be answering the question many new entrants to IT and even seasoned pros have. Are certifications necessary and if so, what certification should I pursue? In my 15 year IT career, I have come across many competent people who did not have a single certification while I have come across people with multiple certifications that simply were not right for the job. So what role does a certification play really in your career and what certification do you need? First, let’s get some basics out of the way. What are certifications?
What Wikipedia Says About Certifications
Let us ask the sage of sages: Wikipedia
“Professional certifications in computer technology are non-degree awards made to those who have achieved qualifications specified by a certifying authority. Depending on the particular certification, qualifications may include completing a course of study, proof of professional accomplishments, achieving a specified grade on an examination. The intention is to establish that an individual holding a certification is technically qualified to hold certain types of positions within the field.”
Let’s break that down bit by bit. There are two key terms/phrases in that definition that you must understand in order to understand certifications: certifying authority and qualifications.
In the context of IT certifications, this is usually the non-profit organization, consortium or corporation that issues/awards the certification in question. For example, if you want to become certified in AWS, your certifying authority will be Amazon Web Service and if you want to get a certification in Azure, your certifying authority will be Microsoft.
The certifying authority and how selectively that authority awards the certification, how well the individuals with said certification are able to perform at their job and how well that authority manages/administers the exam and credentials all have a major impact on how worthy a certification is. If a certifying authority has strict criteria for qualification, monitors the exam content/exam providers and keeps up the quality of the training, the certification is likely valuable. While if a certification authority has lax standards, the certification they issue will essentially be worthless.
The value of the certification depends largely on the certifying authority and not all certifications are worth pursuing. So in order to get certified, you must first do the due diligence to make sure the certification you are pursuing is from a well recognized and respected certification authority. Here is an excellent article from Robert Half about the most valuable IT certifications. So how do you do this due diligence? Speak to hiring managers and ask what certification they look for in potential hires. Speak to friends and family who are in IT and ask for recommendations and finally, Google is your friend. Be sure to thoroughly research the certification and the authority before you make a commitment to pursuing a certification.
Next, we move on to the qualification.
In order to achieve any certification, you have to prove that you are qualified to hold said certification. Some certifications require you to have education credits, some require you take proctored exams while others even require you to have professional experience in the field in question. All or some of these combine to become evidence of your qualification.
Some certification authorities require you to maintain continuing education credits and others require annual fees for certification renewal. Once you have submitted your qualification (many times, the actual certification exam is only one of many requirements for certification), the certifying authority will award you the certification. Again, it really depends on the certifying authority what qualification you need to possess in order to be awarded a particular certification so if you decide to pursue a certification, read about its requirements first. Here are example requirements for a certification I am currently pursuing: Certified Cloud Security Professional.
That was a quick primer on certification and certification authorities. Now, on to the meat of this post. Should you get certified and what certifications should you pursue? The first answer is yes and the second answer is it depends. Let me elaborate.
As anyone who has tried applying for IT jobs knows, your first interview for any position is rarely with someone that has any actual hiring authority. The HR department and recruiters of major corporations serve as gatekeepers for the managers. Managers are busy people and it is the job of HR to weed out candidates that are not suitable. This also means that rarely does a candidate get to talk to the executive who will be making the final hiring decision.
What HR and recruiters do is use certifications as a filtering mechanism for candidates. The rule of thumb many HR departments employ is that if a candidate is not certified in the technology, then she is probably not right for the job.
No matter how rage inducing that last statement is to technical folks, HR has to have a filtering mechanism and most HR personnel are not intimately familiar with technology so they have to use some kind of system to eliminate candidates. Certifications can prove useful evidence for HR departments and therefore can help you get past the gatekeepers and to the people who will make the final hiring decision.
So now onto the fun part. What certifications do you need? Let me explain using my personal example. When I started my career, I started by getting 5 certifications and these certifications were instrumental in helping me break into the IT industry.
My collegiate training was not in the tech industry. So when I decided to pursue technology as a career, certifications were a means of showcasing my skills and gaining an industry recognized credential. For me, certifications went a long way in mitigating some of the lack of experience I had on my resume and they can do the same for you.
Shortly after I started my career, certifications started to get devalued for many reasons. Chief among them was that certification authorities were not keeping a close eye on the credential quality and due to the prevalence of brain dumps and cheating, certifications became far too easy to achieve for anyone. Therefore, from the time I got my first 5 certifications to the time I got my sixth certification, there was almost a 6 year gap. During those 6 years, I changed jobs 5 times but never once was I asked for a certification. I usually interviewed based on past experience and if the technical team and the manager gave me the thumbs up, I got the job.
During that time, I kept on training and kept studying and honing my skills but I never really pursued any certification. Then one day my supervisor asked me to get certified in a technology I was working on at the time and I did. Then came another 9 year drought during which I did not get any more certifications until this past year when I achieved 3 AWS certifications at the request of my boss and am about to achieve a fourth certification in cloud security.
So what exactly is my story meant to illustrate? It illustrates the fact that depending on where you are in your career, your supervisor or even circumstances out of your control, certifications might be valuable or not valuable but there is no one size fits all. I know multiple professionals who have never held a single certification and they have been working in the industry for decades.
After all that prefacing, here is a rule of thumbs you can use. Choose your certification based on your career aspirations. For example, if you want to become a project manager, the PMP certification and the Agile Certified Practitioner are really great credentials.
If you are a system architect, there are many certifications you can pursue to highlight your skill including AWS Certified Architect Associate, Microsoft Certified and Azure Solutions Architect Expert etc. If you are a developer, you can pursue the developer level certifications for the same.
I cannot possibly cover all certifications here but understand that pursuing a certification in your chosen technology and career path can only help you and not hurt you.
Also, certifications at the beginning of your career tend to be more valuable than if you are mid-level or senior. For example, if you have no professional experience to show for, one way to compensate for that is to get certified in the area of technology that you would like to work. That way, even if your resume is light on the experience section, you can stand out with one or more certifications.
If you are mid or senior level, then I have mixed feelings about the value of certifications for you. I have noticed that people who are good at their jobs are good at their jobs with or without certifications. So speak to your supervisor and see what certification he wants you to pursue to advance your career.
So in conclusion, you have to do research on the certification and certifying authority before pursuing it. This is part of your professional due diligence so that you don’t end up pursuing dead-end certifications.
Certifications can help you get past the gatekeepers such as HR departments and recruiters so getting certified can help you in getting your foot in the door.
Also, one size does not fit all when it comes to certifications. A certification that is valuable in one organization may not be in another. Which certification you should pursue also depends on your personal career aspirations. Certifications tend to be more valuable if you are starting your career but getting certified at any stage in your career can only help you and not hurt you.