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Summoning the Vast Power of Certification

Why spending the time and money to become certified in a particular technology is beneficial to your career.

· Agile Zone

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After many years squeezing study and exams around full time work, I finally managed to gain the Oracle Certified Master, Java EE 6 Enterprise Architect certification. My inbox now held this congratulatory message from Oracle:

You are among the elite 1% of certified Java professionals who have gone on to achieve the Java Enterprise Architect certification.

It’s funny, but I don’t feel that elite. Actually, some days I feel I have more in common with this Dilbert comic strip than I do with the elite 1%.

I’ve struggled with the notion of IT certifications. I think we’ve all worked with an MCSE who doesn’t know how to create a new user account or someone with an IT degree who doesn’t know how to use the command line. Or, on the flip side, we all know some college dropout who runs rings around us technically, despite only ever having been self trained.

Part of the disconnect between the certifications I hold and the way I actually see myself are the titles bestowed on those who manage to pass a multiple choice exam. Titles like “certified master” or “certified expert” are completely at odds with the reality that I’ll never be an expert. It just seems fraudulent somehow to claim to be an expert in anything in IT these days.

But, having now invested a few years into industry certifications, I can confidently say that they do actually have a lot of value.

Firstly, certifications give those above you an easy way to justify making decisions in your favor. When it comes to pay review time, those directly above you already know what your value is, and they probably don’t care what certifications you managed to rack up. But those above your boss don’t have any idea who you are or what you do. An impressive sounding certification is an easy way for your boss to sell the idea that you are a valuable employee to those who need to sign off your new salary.

Secondly, certifications put tools in your toolbox. It means that when you are tasked with a new project and have to decide what libraries or processes you are going to use, at least you’ll have had some exposure to the capabilities of those solutions that you have certified yourself in. It doesn’t mean that you are actually an expert, or that you have somehow found a way to short circuit the knowledge that you can only gain from practical experience. But it does mean you can make informed decisions when using, or deciding to use, a particular solution.

Thirdly, certifications give you exposure to best practices. Best practises are often vague concepts that can be hard to appreciate from ground level. Just being aware that there are best practices relevant to your given situation is often a huge advantage, and it means you can quickly find the information you need rather that researching what you don’t know you don’t know.

Finally, I think certifications go a long way to showing your colleagues and employers that you really do have a serious interest in being the best at what you do. Regardless of how you feel about the certifications themselves, getting them does involve a big investment of time and money, and few actually make that sacrifice. 

Born to Learn have a good blog post that sums this up nicely:

The certification tests do two things. First, it proves to your employer or contracting official at you have knowledge of the current trends. I may not have written a Windows Store App that needed Semantic Zoom, but I now have proof that I am familiar with it.

Second, and more importantly, it gives you the tools to quickly merge into new areas. I have often joked that 2% of my brain lives in my head. That 2% is the index terms into the other 98% of my brain, which lives on the web.

You may be mocked for summoning the vast power of certification, but after a decade of passing IT certifications, I can safely say that I have gained far more experience, pay and opportunities because of them than I have lost to those who see certifications as pointless.

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