Is there any value in certifications?

The last few months there has been a massive amount of voices speaking out against any form of certifications. Today this was actualized in a twitter discussion with a Cornerstone (training company) and Emil Cardell. Emil argued that certifications basically are worthless and all you need is a little problem solving and google.

I’ve been working several years helping everything from individuals to large enterprises maximize and capitalize on the competency  they have and are reaching for. In this work I’ve come to realize that I do not agree with Emil’s simplistic view of the value of certifications, I find the issue more complex.

These are my thoughts on the subject.

Certifications outside our little sandbox

There are several areas where certifications are used outside of our industry, we are not unique. There are majors ones like doctors and electricians and minor ones like “transporting dangerous goods”. As with the certifications for devs, these will never single handily guarantee that the person holding it is competent; or even the right man for a specific task. But on the other hand, you would probably avoid letting a plumber without the right bathroom certifications rebuild it for you.

The classic example is people with drivers licenses, how many times have you wondered how they passed the test? But they still did, and you can’t drive a car without one.

So why do we rely on these certifications here but disregard them for software development?

State of today’s certifications

There is several types of certifications for software developers today and the major once can be categorize into three types that each have questions of validity raised against them;

  • Knowledge tests  (aka multiple questions / answers) – can be crammed.
  • Attendance (e.g. SCRUM Master) – Only measure attendance not knowledge.
  • Reviews (Arguing for a solution in front of a board like the MCA) – Risk being based on friendship or contacts.

Does these doubts make the certifications worthless? They will certainly make it hard to guarantee competency, but that’s not unique for “our” certifications.

So why the outcry against certifications in our industry?

Reasons of outcry

I’ve come across several, more or less well founded, opinions why certifications fail us. Some more admirable then others as well.

The “I’m better then you” mentality
This is based on the same feelings that people get from others driving their cars like mad men. The simple rhetorical question of “how did this guy get certified?”. The interesting thing is that there are millions of people that never judge people outside of their car, likewise it seems that when we start writing code, some start to judge others.

Simple criteria’s
Some criteria’s can be very simple to complete. So simple that the value of the certification itself can be questioned. “Should it really be enough to attend a two day course to get certified?”

“Everybody got one”
This ties in a little to the two earlier outcries, if everyone in the industry got one. What worth are they?

This is an objection I find very interesting, since no electrician can work without a certification. It’s not the fact that you hold one that’s the value, it’s that if you don’t, you shouldn’t work.

They are only on X, not on Y.
This is a very popular argument and it usually comes from people not agreeing that X is the technology to use, anyone competent uses Y! This arguments springs from the view that it’s “my way or the highway”, a view that almost brought down the ALT.NET movement completely. Is a certification on X worthless if it is X you will work with and not Y?

So is the value only in how “hard” they are to attain, how many people got them, or  what technology they are based on?

This is the real value.

The value of a certification always lies in the perception of the people it’s presented to. In our industry; MCP certifications held a huge value when they first where introduced. But as more people attained them, the perception of it’s value faded. There are still some that are well respected, most of them have few people that’s passed them. So it seems that we only value certifications as a proof of “superiority”, not as a measurement of basic knowledge in a job role.

I’d like to argue that there is value, even though it doesn’t prove your “superiority”. There is value from a lot of different perspectives.

Value for individuals

The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition speaks about 5 levels of competency. Going from one level to another needs different tools depending on where you are on the scale (Johan Normén will speak about this on devsum10). Today’s Certifications are such a tool.

It will not take you from competent to proficient or proficient to expert, but from beginner to advanced beginner. It’s often a measurement that you grasped the basics and are ready to move on. It forms a baseline for your claims to be competent.

And most importantly, it tells people that you put in the dedication and effort and those without the certification didn’t. It doesn’t tell that you are an expert but it tells a lot about who you are and what areas you studied.

Value for organizations

There is value beyond the individual in certifications. Organizations can use them as a tool in many aspects of their business model. They can be used to inventory competency, as a measurable goal for bonuses or as an argument for higher prices. For businesses the two strongest areas of use is first a mean for steering the business direction and secondly in relationship to their vendors.

Steering

If I as a corporate leader wanted to move my business in a certain direction I will have two challenges to handle. First I need to know where I am, I can’t plot a course without having a starting point, secondly I need to know that I got there. Depending what my ambitions are, certifications can help in either one.

Relationship

It’s easy to claim that you have 100 developers that know a certain vendors technology and is a strong candidate for partnership. But how do you prove it? A showcase isn’t enough, in theory everything in your showcase could’ve been produced by one person. Certifications are a great tool here. Since it’s neutral and not based on your own perception, vendors tend to trust certification numbers as an indication. It’s usually not all that’s needed, but it’s one component in a validation of your organizations worth to the vendor.

This need of a “neutral” verification is truly visible in many organizations job-ads as well. They wish for a “engineering degree” for their applicants, not because engineers by default make better developers, but because there has been a third party involved in validating your credentials according to a baseline that can be compared to others.

Do I think that certifications are ideal to achieve these two values? No, but it’s one tool, one step towards something that will be.

What does the future hold?

I don’t think we’ll see less certifications. I don’t think we’ll see “certifications” as a concept devolve in value. I think we’ll see different forms based on work and not solely on theoretical knowledge. I also think we’ll see better tools for organizations to get a solid overview of where they are. Does it mean that certifications as they are today will disappear? I don’t think so. They do fill a basic need, much like the theoretical test for your drivers license tell whether or not you are ready to do the “real test”.

I’ll tell you what I would like to see happening.

  • I hope that basic certifications get a little bit more unpredictable, so that pure cram session will require you to learn stuff (much like university tests).
  • I would like to see an apprenticeship form that has basic competency requirements and certifications and makes you a craftsman.
  • I would want for people to stop calling themselves “seniors” and instead work with their peers and earn the title “senior craftsman” not just print it on their business cards. This could be similar to how you gain your doctors hat in the universities.

We are working in a knowledge industry, we use our brain everyday to deliver our work. There will be a need to measure what we can do and there will be times that your individual competency has to be judge along side others. For us to be able to call our self a “profession” we don’t need less certifications, tests or titles. We need the ones we have and then some. We need to make a strong statement that Software Development is not for everyone, you need skills to call you a Developer. You need to understand that’s it’s serious work, not toying around with computers. Raising the bar with certifications, tests and titles will do that.

3 thoughts on “Is there any value in certifications?

  1. Great post! I fully agree with your thoughts on certifications and their importance in our industry. There is no reason why more individuals having certifications that they will be devalued. It would be positive for our industry to have more certified individuals.

    I’ve always said that the way we handle education will have to change in the near future. Keeping yourself updated on practices, technology and products is extremely tough and it takes many hours a year. We probably should cut down on the initial education for a job in our knowledge-heavy industry and be more inclined to set aside 20% of our position for education and certifications.

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  3. Great article, Patrick. Thought provoking and some well argued points.
    I personally believe that if you want to restore value to the certification model you also have to look at it from the buyers (read employer) perspective as well.
    I believe that for many Employers’ there is a real credibility issue. Some of the key issues, I believe, are
    • Standards.
    Certifications are vendor centric and there isn’t any uniformity. To get certified you learn what Vendor X wants you to learn and if you answer the way Vendor X wants, hey presto, you’re done! It doesn’t come close to guaranteeing the individual can perform to a professionally high standard, as you’d expect from most industry certifications.
    • Churn and Expense.
    Certifications are like yogurt. Exams are refreshed every few years and unless you’ve got a lot of time and cash it’s impossible to stay current. Cash strapped enterprises aren’t interested in funding certification studies for employees who might leave tomorrow. So you’ll learn what you need on the job, on your own time or through a tailored training program that your company runs.
    • It’s a sketch, not a portrait.
    I disagree with your assertion that “it tells people that you put in the dedication and effort and those without the certification didn’t”. If that were the case then employers would insist, without exception, on everyone holding a certification. Because we know that you can pass the exam without knowing the technology (brain dumps etc.) certification doesn’t provide anything like what you’d expect from it as to a true insight into the individuals capability to perform effectively.
    It may be that Certified is the wrong term to use for these exams. When I think of that word as it is applied to other professions I assume that some form of ‘apprenticeship’ has occurred where the certified individual has spent a number of years working alongside experienced professionals, gained real-world experience and passed an exam at the end to prove it. There is a standard of performance I’d expect from a Certified Professional be they a doctor, lawyer, plumber or electrician.
    With their natural bias, Software Vendor certifications don’t deliver any assurance as to performance capability and remain primarily theory tests. You’ve no idea whether the holder is capable of turning that knowledge in performance and incorporate the practice into their daily work.
    It would be great to see some type of Vendor neutral standard developed, a classification which highlights aspects of competency, takes into accounts real-world experience, contributions made to tech sites, articles & books published and peer comments. Something that remains current, telling you about that person’s passion to learn, acquire new skills and make contributions. It would make certifications a lot more relevant than they are today.

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