Are certifications worthwhile?

by Niel M. Bornstein

I'm considering sitting for a certification exam.

Now, I don't know about you, but I've always considered those three or four letters after your name to be mostly meaningless.

Many years ago I studied Oracle administration and tuning, and Novell UnixWare administration. But I never sat for the exams.

With today's competitive job market, though, I'm starting to think differently.

I've got a couple of directions I can go in.

I could go back to Java and go for the SCEA, the Sun Certified Enterprise Architect for the Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition. Or I could stick with .NET, and try for a MCSD, the Microsoft Certified Solution Developer.

Either way, we're talking about a chunk of money and some studying. I'd like to avoid both if it really doesn't get me anything.

So I'm looking for advice.

Anyone out there who hires developers, can you say that a certification makes a difference when you're evaluating candidates?

And anyone out there who's got a certification, do you think it helped you land a great job that you might not otherwise have been offered?

Have you got one of those fancy certifications? Has it gotten you anywhere?


2004-10-10 14:25:27
I don't pay any attention to certifications
When I hire developers, I don't pay any attention to certifications. It seems to be common that the degree to which a resume plays up the owner's certifications is inversely proportional to his or her real experience.

Now, your book authorships would definitely be something I'd pay attention to.

But then again, I'm in IT within a higher education institution - it might be different out there in corporate-land.

paul decker
2004-10-10 18:51:33
Of two minds...
I used to be in the interview loop for my development group at the end early '90s tech downturn. Everyone was getting programming certs while they were unemployed. I thought of them as an indication that the person had a commitment to stay current while unemployed... an indicator of their seriousness about their carreer. It wasn't enough to turn an IBM mainframe COBOL programmer into a Unix whiz, but it could show that an experienced C programmer was learning Xwindows to broaden their skill set.

Now, no one seems to care about that stuff. I'm doing a couple of self-study cert programs just to keep my skills up while I'm sans employment. Since I've got Java/C/C++/Linux/Windows development experience, I figure it can't hurt to keep busy.

2004-10-10 21:43:53
Of two minds...
My thoughts exactly. The value of certification is not so much a measure of ability as of attitude. In terms of competence or mastery of the subject matter, the only thing one be sure of a candidate with some sort of certification is that he/she has the vocabulary right. Experience counts for so much more than a piece of paper. The certificate, however, speaks volumes about a candidate's desire to learn.
2004-10-10 23:47:32
I don't pay any attention to certifications
But do you see all applications?

In most companies (especially large one) HR will do the first (and most often second and sometimes third as well) screening of applicants and most often the first and sometimes second interviews as well.
Those people typically have no understanding of the technical topics and to them at least a certification looks like an endorsement from the technology vendor/creator that the person holding it knows what he's talking about.

So a certificate may not (indeed should not) land you a job but it might well increase your chances of getting an interview with someone who does know the technical stuff.

2004-10-11 11:19:49
Not so useful for people with experience
I have only recently payed attention to the certifications on a person's resume and that was when I was hiring a junior developer (right out of college... we had to fight to be able to do that). In that case, the Sun Java certification made the guy we chose stand out. It showed that he was serious about what he wanted to do.

With that said, however, I have glossed over resumes of more senior people who appeared to be "over-certified". These were the resumes from people who didn't just have several certifications but made them stand out as the key highlights on the resume. IMHO, there is a fine line between pursuing certs in order to stay up to date/show a commited attitude/etc and attempting to use them as a crutch to land a job you are not really qualified for.

Especially if you are sitting on the bench, a certification or two obtained while out of work would help me notice you better. It shows commitment and all of those other things we look for in employees. Then again, showing work done on Open Source projects during the time period can accomplish the same thing, and it would give me something more to go on, since I could (and have) check out the source code.

As for the big companies with over-bearing HR departments... I imagine that could be a challenge. I do see it mentioned in these conversations a lot. However, I work for one of those big conglomerates (I won't mention which one) and I know that my department always insists on seeing the unfiltered resume stream. It's a lot of work to filter, but we have managed to retain some incredible talent as a result of keeping the search for quality people close to home.

2004-10-11 23:23:49
Not so useful for people with experience
You're lucky to have the clout to see the raw data on ALL applicants.

I've been working on a project basis for an outplacement agency for years before they went bust last year (mainly doing short-medium term projects to fill out temporary lack of manpower on teams) and in my experience quite often the technical people don't see the applicant at all until HR has decided who to hire.
Worst example of this was a major airline. The technical staff had requested a list of qualifications and HR had translated that into their own jargon and posted it.
After HR had cleared my CV as being the best for the job, I was sent over to talk with the tech people to make final preparations to start working for them (on a 6 month initial contract).
During that talk we discovered that HR had done not only a poor job (I was the only person they'd sent over in months) but the requirements HR had sent to my company were completely different from what the tech department had requested.
Instead of a Java/C++ coder (which I am and what was asked by HR) they wanted a VB/MFC technical analyst/designer (which I'm patently not, especially the VB/MFC part).
The tech people didn't believe what we told them until we showed them the actual requirements sheet we'd received from their HR department. They thought we'd misunderstood their requirements or sent someone in an effort to sneak me in...
I believe some heads may have rolled in their HR shop as a result but I didn't stay to witness.

That's of course an extreme example but similar things I've seen more often (including rejection letters based on interviews that didn't take place until after the letters were sent but that's another story)...

2004-10-13 20:32:59
If you do, get certified for yourself

The downturn hit me hard in 2001, I found myself out of a job for an extended period of time. It is during times like these where people demand that you have a certification before you are even considered. When there are 1000 applicants for every one job, HR people will almost insist upon it. If you approach certification with the right perspective it can help round out knowledge gaps. In my experience, programmers (and more generally engineers) are fairly incapable of gauging thier own competence, and certification provides an essential baseline. If you do decide to get certified, do it for yourself, and aim to get a perfect score. This is the only way I can rationalize taking these tests.

I used to dislike certifications, but after working in this industry I've come to the conclusion that certifications do have some value. There is too much incompetence in the industry for anyone to have an attitude about proving they have even the most basic of skills.

2005-08-05 09:58:11
I don't pay any attention to certifications
I would not make such absurd generalizations. I know and work with some of the most sought after, highly paid, competent consultants in the business. Some have a very large list of certifications. When everyone else was out of work during the fall in the market for tech workers, they were still being offered more jobs than they could handle at fantastic salaries. I don't think anyone would make an inverse correlation between their experience and number of certifications.