Certifications are a Bonus, Not A Path to Employment

I’ve never been terribly shy about my beliefs about IT certifications. I sincerely believe they are largely a waste of time. I do recognize that one thing they do provide is a documented learning path. Having gone through that learning path, you will gain knowledge. Knowledge, I very much believe in. Unfortunately, certifications are not an actual demonstration of knowledge.

I also know that for some organizations, having certified individuals gets them partner status and all that entails. Again, this means that the certificate is a bonus, not one of the major qualifications for a given position. If I worked for one of these organizations, I’d go and get certified. Otherwise, why bother?

Which Certification Will Get Me a Job in IT?

If you’ve never seen this question before, you clearly don’t talk to people at SQLSaturday events (or any other event), or go to any of the Q&A sites on the web. This is one of the single most asked questions (right after “My database is slow, which button do I click to make it go fast?”). People want to break into IT and certification looks like a path.

The appropriate answer is: None of them.

However, you frequently see people, usually the ones with 47 certificates, going on and on about how, just one more cert, just one more, this time, I’ll get the job I want.

Nope.

Let me break the news. Experience, a proven track record, and knowledge are what get you jobs. And yes, I understand, how do you get experience without first getting a job? That is indeed the hurdle. I’m just telling you that certifications are not the rocket in your bottom that will throw you over that hurdle.

So, What Do You Suggest Instead?

I’m glad you asked.

Instead, I recommend you build knowledge and understanding and experience. Sure, you can do this in part by following the certification learning path and maybe even passing the test and getting the certification. However, you need to go way beyond that. Build your own systems. Build databases. Back them up. Do all the work as if it was real so that you learn what it is, not simply study enough to pass the test (or worse yet, memorize the answers from one of the ILLEGAL question dumps). Volunteer with local charities to work on their stuff.

Which brings up my next suggestion. Network. Go to the local user groups. Meetups. Go to the SQLSaturday (or whatever) events near you. Talk to people. Ask questions. Engage. Find out who needs what kind of knowledge? What kind of work? Where are there internships? Heck, if you hit it off with someone experienced, ask them to mentor you through some growth into a real job.

Conclusion

I’ve really enjoyed my 30+ years in IT. I thoroughly recommend it as a field of endeavor that is financially rewarding. I do NOT want to put obstacles in the way of anyone getting this job. However, I also want to paint a very realistic picture. Certificates appear to be a shortcut. Get this piece of paper and I’m employable. Unfortunately, no matter what you hear from the certifying bodies (might they have an interest in this?), that alone won’t get you a job. It’s an extra for some employers. They still want to see that you’ve done the work, have the experience, have the existing knowledge. Certificates just don’t provide that. I’m sorry. I dislike being negative, but this word needs to be spread around.

12 thoughts on “Certifications are a Bonus, Not A Path to Employment

  • Great post as always Grant. I 100% agree. I was thinking at the end “Getting a certification can’t hurt” but it really can. If you have a certification and can’t back it up it will absolutely hurt. And I promise you, if you have a certification on your resume then you are going to get questions in an interview to see if you earned that certification or if you bought it (illegal dumps).

    Personally I like certifications. I like to use them as a learning path (as you mentioned) and for the personal satisfaction of “Hey! I passed!”. In that respect I think they are great. I’ve never thought they were all that useful as a tool to get a job, or as a tool to determine who to hire.

  • Hi Grant,

    I totally agree to your post. And it is true that you need to get a base of knowledge. After that you will find that any re-certification (for a later release) is a waste of time.You do not get enought new information there. Then, the time is there to go to all the SQL Saturdays and conferences as much as you can to gain knowledge, network and finaly to lean something (again).

    Thanks for this nice sum up Grant.

  • Sean Redmond

    Unfortunately, in the world of HR (or Personnel, if you’re old enough), these certifications make a very big difference. If you don’t have the Master’s degree in Computer Science [1] or If you are starting off and want to get a foot in the door, the presence of an MCP can be enough to avoid the HR drone chucking your application into the Recycling pile.

    Secondly, we are in a world of ‘Always be Learning’. They make a great tool to prove to managers, HR as well as to co-workers that you have been upping your skill-set, that you know what you are talking about. Ostentatious learning, if you will. It also makes it easier to start a project on a unused techology if you have a good foundation in the subject matter and credentials to get it going.

    Finally, it’s most useful at its simplest level: learning. There are new features and improved features coming out with each release every 2 years. It’s often the case that you have to run to stand still. I’m learning for the 70-761 exam now and I’m planning on making the case for system-versioned temporal tables to the other DBAs & management in the coming months on the strength of what I have learnt about it so far.

    [1] or if you don’t have the 5 years’ experience in the technology that’s only 2 years’ old.

    • Yeah, the HR stuff is very difficult to deal with. However, especially just starting out, with zero experience, the certs alone will not get you past HR. As you say, 5 years of experience on 2 year old technology is in job descriptions frequently enough that the silly cliche has a basis in reality (I’ve seen it). So they are going to look for (and never find) that experience just as much as multiple sets of letters after your name.

  • Jonathan

    We’ve had candidates for jobs with over 90% score on Microsoft Certifications, when ask a few not too in-depth questions it was clear they knew next to nothing. All the questions and answers can be downloaded from various brain dump sites which makes them next to useless. Whatever employers do they should not take these certifications as a definite indication of the suitability a candidate. Unfortunately the same can also be said of degree qualifications, you can go to various sites and employ someone else to write your thesis. A 1st will cost a bit more than a 2:1. Often the people will write the documents are lecturers/research-students at Universities earning some extra money on the side.

  • Tim Ford

    I have to agree with Sean. With so much change in the role of the DBA and Data Engineer, legitimate certifications can be a solid way for lone DBAs to gain the knowledge they need to keep up. Nothing can replace real world experience, but when you don’t have all the latest tools available in your environment, certifications like ones from Microsoft can provide a great way to stay relevant and ensure you don’t get left behind. Essentially, cheating is worthless and hard work isn’t. Legit certifications are hard work.

  • Miguel Ramirez

    2 reasons for myself….Been a DBA for a while now and I think it help show that I am staying current with technology. Also my company will get a discount from the vendor if the DBA is MS certified.

  • Great article, Grant. The certifications themselves don’t necessarily mean anything – just as my college degree doesn’t actually mean anything (I could have had the smart kids take my tests for me). I do agree with Kenneth though. If you take the certification seriously and study for it, it can be a great path to increase your knowledge. Getting the certification is just a bonus to following that learning path. So while I don’t think that you need to be certified to get a job in IT, I think that studying for certifications is a great opportunity to continue your IT education

  • Anonymous Idiot

    “It depends” also goes with certifications. A Security+ certification helps if you’re looking to get into DoD or federal government work – or into businesses that interface with those entities. It’s damned near a requirement,

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