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Do Certifications Really Matter In Technology? – Yet, Be Careful!

This is coming on the heels of an excellent blog article I read a long time ago written by Jeff Atwood at the coding horror blog. Jeff Atwood starts off his article by saying:


Name any prominent software technology, and you’ll find a certification program for that technology. For a fee, of course. It’s a dizzying, intimidating array of acronyms: MCSD, SCJD, RHCE, ACSA. And the company offering the certification is quite often the very same one selling the product. No conflict of interest there.


There are all sorts of certification programs out there with all sorts of acronyms. As has been aptly noted by Jeff Atwood, the companies that offer the certification courses are quite often the very same ones selling the product. Are these certification courses just another means of generating revenue for the company offering the products? It might not be exactly right to say so. However, it definitely does not do any harm to their balance sheets.


The purpose of this article is not to incite an argument as to whether or not certification courses are just a rip-off. Rather, the concern to be addressed here is whether or not certifications are to be relied upon as a metric for judging the competence of their holders. Are they credentials that can be depended upon? And just like Jeff Atwood asked in his article, “Do people who have these certifications perform better than those who don’t?”

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It is funny how certificate-oriented our society has become. The average Nigerian employer of skilled labour (and in most other countries as well) seems to be easily impressed by people who have a dizzying array of certifications so much that they have a tendency to ignore the question of whether or not the persons holding these certificates can actually competently carry out the tasks required of such a technical position. Many people who have written some professional certification exams in such technologies as Oracle, MCSD and the rest of them, can probably testify to the fact that one does not really need a hands-on technical knowledge of these technologies in order to pass their corresponding certification exams. Now, the question is, how is it possible to pass a certification exam without actually knowing the technical nitty-gritty of the subject? Well, maybe we can blame it on the testing system. For many certification examinations, all you probably need is a good set of question dumps. Once you can master and/or memorize the question and answer patterns in these dumps, you already have a good chance of passing the examination since the examinations do not vary a great deal from the dumps you are likely to have already seen. In fact, the questions might be exactly the same. This is especially true of certification examinations that follow the multiple-choice question pattern.


This is not to say that certification exams are pointless. However, they have become slightly abused. It is necessary to note that whether or not someone actually succeeds in gaining or improving a skill after preparing for and writing a certification exam, is often dependent on the individual’s purpose for trying to get certified. If an individual actually goes through it for the purpose of acquiring knowledge and technical adeptness, there is nothing stopping him/her from actually getting the knowledge and skill he desires while getting certified at the same time. Unfortunately, it seems the intents of the vast majority of people getting certified are less than “noble”.


Why do some people go through the pains of preparing for and writing these exams if they know that it may not necessarily give them a comprehensive technical knowledge of the subject? Shouldn’t knowledge and skill acquision/improvement be the goal of getting certified in any field? Apparently, this is not always the goal.


From things that can be seen and heard, I have come to the conclusion that the the goal is often simply to increase one’s chances of getting a job. Who is to blame for this? And is this necessarily a bad thing? I would say it is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. However, I would love to go on to say that the problem primarily lies with employers who have been given the impression that certificates are an appropriate metric for measuring technical competence. This is an impression that has been made almost permanent in their minds without them even knowing it. The danger in this is that employment based solely on how many certification examinations you have managed to pass, would inevitably lead to employment of individuals who are less than competent in their various fields. In other words, the primary question employers need to ask, especially employers who hire programmers/software developers, is not “how many certifications do you have?” but “what have you done with the skills you claim to have?”.


Jeff Atwood put it very succinctly when he said:

Your credentials should be the sum of the projects you’ve worked on, and specificially how much you learned from your failures. Certainly, your actual experience, your portfolio, counts for a lot more than whether or not you passed some arbitrary, one-time test.


Truth be told, there are a lot of people who have bagged a large number of certifications, and still have close to no idea what they are doing. There are a lot of SCJPs, MCADs and the rest of them who cannot write the simplest of programs to acceptable quality standards. It is quite unfortunate really.


The debate on certification has raged on for years. Many people have different opinions on the issue and each argument has its valid points. The questions I might not be able to give satisfactory answers to are: What is the real rationale behind certification? Is certification something implemented for the benefit of society or for the benefit of the certifiers? Do people who have these certifications perform better than those who do not?


Conclusively, just like Jeff Atwood, I do not believe in certifications. He made the reason clear when he said:


The certification alphabet is no substitute for a solid portfolio; you should be spending your time building stuff, not studying for multiple choice tests.


Of course, certifications are not worthless, as long as an impressive portfolio can be presented along with them. I would rather hire the founder and creator of Gistcaster, than hire someone with all the certification acronyms in existence with nothing to show of it.

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