Should you get a tech certification? It depends.

Are IT certifications a waste of time? An article about the worthlessness of IT certifications recently made the rounds on the front page of Hacker News. The author dismissed the validity of Java certifications, equating them to Hamburger University diplomas. While I disagree with the author’s view, I’ve also heard – and said – various arguments for and against certifications – “certifications are a total waste of time” or “anyone worth their salt definitely gets certifications!”. I think the answer is a lot more nuanced, and like many things in life, the answer is “it depends”. 

To be fair, the Certification Industrial Complex churns out a ton of lousy and worthless certifications. I’m sure a lot of people waste a ton of time pursuing useless pieces of paper. The decision to pursue an IT certification is not binary. Some people should get them, others have no business getting them. Sounds a lot like college, but I digress…

I’ll focus on cloud certifications, since that’s my experience (I currently hold certs in both AWS and Google Cloud). The “it depends” argument applies to other IT certifications, cloud or non-cloud. If anything, one needs to very clearly discern the objective behind getting a certification. Are you getting a certification to pad a resume? Are you doing it to supplement your real world experience? Both?

Real world experience trumps everything else. When evaluating candidates, the first thing I focus on when is whether you demonstrate (preferably deep) experience in a particular domain. Have you actually done the work and earned scar tissue from solving hard issues?

For example, if you’ve got 6 years of experience architecting on AWS, what are some highlights – and low points – that you walked away with? Is your experience 6 years of continuous learning, or are you simply a person with 1 year of experience, going through the ions for 6 years? My favorite line of questioning is along the lines of “tell me more…”. 

The second thing I look at is your capacity to quickly learn new things. Technology changes fast, As Stewart Brand said, “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”

It’s best to stay ahead of the steamroller. You stay ahead by adapting to new trends and continuous learning. So, even if you’ve got 6 years of AWS experience, what are you doing to stay current, both with AWS and advances in other clouds? What about new trends in open source? And what about reviewing the fundamentals? How much time do you devote to keeping your skills sharp, as well as keeping up?

But, real world experience doesn’t tell the whole picture either. In particular with the cloud, I’ve seen “seasoned professionals get stumped on seemingly basic best practices. I’m talking about cloud architects claiming several years of experience who cobble together insecure and overly complicated architectures.

I’ve often said that “each cloud has its own way of doing things”. That’s where certifications are invaluable. It’s highly probable that a person working in a cloud will focus on her specific problem, and miss the bigger picture of that cloud’s best practices. Certifications help provide the bigger picture, best practices, and understanding what technologies and design patterns apply to a specific situation.

The old adage – “Invest in yourself” rings loud and clear here. Your decision to pursue a certification really comes down to how you want to invest in your career. I suggest first getting real world experience in a domain you’re interested in. Really get to know this domain. Once you feel competent, test yourself and pursue a related certification if it makes sense. Obviously, make sure the certification has market value. I guarantee you’ll learn something new along the way.

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