The value of tech certifications has been the topic of debate throughout my years in IT. Many believe in the value and validation attained by them, while others view them as a cheap display of supposed knowledge, with no real skill or experience to back it up. Some even go as far as viewing certifications as a money grab by their vendors. I still remember the days of the early MCSE and the perceived promise of a better paying job, which made this a hugely popular cert and created what many would call “paper MCSEs”. There was some truth behind this label since many were inexperienced or much worse, used brain dumps to get answers to questions before walking into the testing center.
I wholeheartedly agree that experience will always be worth more than the paper that comes with a passed exam. I’ve been at the interview table with candidates who had a resume full of certifications but could not answer basic questions. Likewise, some of the top talent we’ve had on our teams do not have some of the basic certifications. That said, I am still a huge proponent of certifications as I see some key benefits that come through both the pursuit and attainment:
- Structured learning path
- Exposure to new opportunities
- Personal growth
Over the next several posts, I’ll lay out some of my thoughts around these benefits and ways that I have personally benefited through the attainment of certifications.
Structured learning path
First and foremost, I believe certifications provide a well-structured learning path. Most vendors provide an exam blueprint for their respective exams, and even more training companies and publishers offer study guides and courses for exam preparation. By using these study resources and exam blueprints, key topics are identified and a road map for studying is conveniently laid out. To me this is one of the most efficient ways to quickly get up to speed on a particular technology. This gives one the guidelines on what to study to gain the widest coverage of topics with just enough depth to gain a solid understanding of the product.
There are certainly many training resources available that are not exam-centric, yet provide a similar structured learning path. But aiming for a certification provides an additional benefit: a deadline. Having a deadline by scheduling an exam invariably increases motivation, which helps prioritize study time. And this provides a timeline that feeds nicely into those time-bound SMART goals. By setting a time and priority to get up to speed on a topic, one can outline a schedule, and estimate the time required to attain a solid understanding of the topic. For me personally, that helps me see the light at the end of the tunnel when tackling new material.
There have been several turning points in my own career when I identified an area of technology where I had a gap and I leveraged the power of certification study to fill that gap. Notable examples have been networking, and more recently, AWS cloud. In each of these areas, I was lacking critical knowledge or experience that I deemed essential to my own career progression.
In a previous job role, I worked as a consultant on customer projects. I had a strong understanding in many areas in traditional infrastructure, but I was weak in my networking skills. Up to that point, even though I had managed a data center, I had relied heavily on network engineers on my team. But in this consulting role, it seemed every project demanded some level of networking knowledge, and without my old colleagues to fall back on, I felt terribly handicapped. Therefore, I set out to achieve my CCNA certification to gain a solid understanding of general Layer 2/3 concepts and router/switch configuration so I could do my job. And by doing so, my understanding was greatly enhanced, which helped my overall design and engineering skills. I was able to at last fill out the entire infrastructure stack and become a much better engineer. To this day, I credit my pursuit of this one certification as being a key turning point in my career. There aren’t many days that go by when I don’t employ some knowledge gained during this pursuit. In fact, I’m amazed I got so far in my career without this skill set. (psst… I think I really was an impostor. 😊 )
This year, I’ve focused on public cloud and decided to work on my AWS certifications to get up to speed on this fast growing technology. My company partners with AWS as part of our offerings, but I happen to spend most of my time on our on-prem managed hosting services, managing our large VMware environment. Earlier this year, I attained my AWS Solutions Architect Associate certification and I’m currently working on my Developer Associate cert. The latter has been especially helpful, not just for my understanding of new cloud services, but also in getting my mind wrapped around the developer mindset. I’ve been a solid infrastructure guy throughout my career and it’s just been within the last several years that scripting and coding have taken center stage for me. The leap into dev tools and understanding the way developers approach cloud services is a major step in my evolution as an IT professional.
In areas where I already feel fairly skilled, I’ve still used certifications to help fill gaps in my understanding of a product. I consider myself strongly proficient in VMware vSphere having spent over 12 years deep in the trenches designing and administering enterprise scale VMware environments. But there are still many components within vCenter or ESXi that I don’t use on a day-to-day basis. Pursuing VMware certs has helped fill some of those gaps by motivating me to study these lesser used aspects of the product. This was particularly true when I pursued and attained the advanced level VCAP certifications. For anyone who has taken these certifications can attest, “book” knowledge is not enough to pass those exams. Real world experience is essential. But by pursuing those certifications, deeper level concepts were uncovered and thus, my own understanding was increased. Having this deeper level understanding greatly enhanced even my day-to-day tasks as my horizon and visibility into the product was expanded.
There are clearly other structured ways to learn new concepts. Besides cold, hard experience, project-based learning and deliberate practice are incredibly strong avenues for learning, as they clearly provide an even deeper level of understanding and skill. If one truly wants to master a technology, those strategies are integral to the process. I plan to write about this in upcoming posts, but the purpose here has been to consider how certifications in particular still provide value in the overall plan for learning and growth.
In upcoming posts, I’ll share two other benefits of the certification game: exposure to new opportunities and personal growth. Stay tuned!