Leadership

What's better—An IT degree or tech certifications?


Frankly, it would be easier to solve the age-old question "Which came first the chicken or the egg?" than to ever reach a consensus on the question of whether it's better for an IT pro to have a technical degree or certifications.

It may be one of the oldest, yet most hotly debated, issues ever to post on TechRepublic.

It's constantly debated because there are no clear-cut answers. So I'm not going to throw out any concrete facts and I can't hope to change anyone's mind on the matter, but here are a few things to consider when weighing the benefits of a degree vs. a cert.

First of all, keep in mind that the degree/certification matter is only a part of what you should concern yourself with when you're marketing yourself for a new job or a better position. Degrees and certifications may comprise the bulk of your "calling card," but you should not depend on either to be the overall marketing strategy for what you're selling to potential employers -- yourself.

Once you get into a job, above anything else, your employer will want to see you as a person who can get the job done and do it in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. No one is going to temper your good results because you lack credentials.

However, this is IT, one of the most constantly changing industries there is. Keeping up with technology is important, and certifications demonstrate that.

Who's going to see your resume?

Another variable in this equation is whether an HR person or an IT manager is the one looking at your resume. Unless specifically instructed otherwise, the chances are that an HR person is going to respond to the presence of a degree before a jumble of Microsoft acronyms. In this way, "Bachelor's degree" is a universal language. Is that a reason against certs? Not at all, just something to keep in mind.

The flip side is that if you have an HR person who does a lot of tech hiring, you might get someone who knows all of the certifications and simply uses that as a criterion to filter candidates. For example, if you are applying for a job as a Windows administrator, you must have an MCSE to be seriously considered for the job.

If a technical person, however, is vetting the resumes, it helps if you have some certifications. It's a language a technical person speaks.

And another possibility to consider is that if the person doing the hiring is an "academic" sort, he may be of the mindset that if he suffered through getting a degree, it's the very least he would expect from you.

Like I said, there are really no hard-core facts here, just things to consider.

The perception

There are lots of good reasons to get a degree, both personal and professional. In the eyes of some employers, a completed four-year degree shows that you can finish what you start. It gives them an idea of your dedication and work ethic. And, as an article from DataStronghold.com says, "Through the courses covered in a four-year degree, students are given the opportunity to learn a variety of skills in different portions of the major they have chosen. Technical as well as analytical talents are developed and tested."

On the other hand, degrees can become dated. Certifications have to be renewed as technology evolves. You may have earned a computer science degree 10 years ago, but that doesn't ensure that you've demonstrated proficiency recently. A certification does.

The timeline

The timeline is a very important factor in the degree/cert question. Let's say you've been in a job for five years and you haven't been promoted because of a company policy requiring managers to have degrees. Then, by all means, you might want to explore the option of going back to school. But if there is no formal policy and you haven't been promoted, it may be because of something that neither a degree nor certification would have any influence over. In other words, don't waste money on a four-year degree if the problem is you're a general pain in the butt or don't show any initiative in other ways.

A solution may be to pursue a goal that could be achieved in a shorter time span to show your desire to better yourself. And that could take form in a certification.

The power of specificity

We've all heard stories like the guy who has a Masters degree in Computer Science but can't figure out a simple problem that anyone with an A+ cert could. That could be an issue of specificity. Some IT shops only have the budget for a "Tech of all Trades" so to speak. But some have the luxury of being able to hire those with specialties and that's where a cert does some talking.

I asked Ramon Padilla, an experienced IT manager, what he looks for in a job candidate -- a degree or certs, and he said it depends:

"If I am looking at a highly technical position (DBA, network engineer, etc.) then I lean more heavily toward certification. Someone with experience and a CCNA or CCIE for Cisco equipment or Oracle certifications for database admin goes further with me than someone with a generic IT degree. However, if I'm looking at a managerial, administrative, or analyst type position, the degree is more valuable."

Renewable knowledge

As I said, degrees can become dated. Certifications have to be renewed as technology evolves. Degrees can prepare the foundation for dealing with technology, but you can't generalize everything. Let's use a car analogy: You may be a mechanical person who is used to taking apart muscle car engines with your eyes closed. But that may not help much if the electronic sensors fail in your new car.

The answer to the age-old question of degrees vs. certifications is "it depends." Depends on the specifics of the job, on the person doing the hiring, and on your capabilities in general.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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