If you’ve been reading our IT Leadership Web log, you no doubt saw my discussion of a recent survey from Foote Partners, which showed that IT professionals with valid certifications are now getting higher bonuses than those without certifications. The survey also reflected greater acceptance by IT managers of those employees who have valid certs.

Few topics are more contentious than the value of certifications. As you might expect, we talk about certifications a lot here at TechRepublic. However, we usually do so from the perspective of the network administrator or troubleshooter looking to get a certification.

Last year, I wrote a column about certifications that showed my own mixed views on the topic—I gave five reasons to be in favor of certifications and five reasons to be opposed to their widespread adoption. In this column, I’m going to revisit those reasons, and see how our industry has changed since last July.

Five reasons to love certifications
Here are the five reasons in favor of certifications from my original column, with my updated comments below each point.

  1. Certifications offer a renewed emphasis on vocational training. I can’t speak for other countries (and I’d love to hear from people from outside the United States on this subject), but in the United States, there has been an alarming decline in the extent and quality of vocational training. Now don’t get me wrong—I’d love for everyone to go to college. However, for people who don’t want to go to college, or who are looking to change careers, technical certifications offer an accelerated path people can take to enter high-paying, high-demand jobs.
    Update: Since I wrote this column, the IT job market has gotten much tougher—as has the general job market. Rather than seeing a flood of high school graduates trying to get their MCSEs instead of going to college, what I increasingly see are laid-off employees getting certifications as a way of changing careers in midlife. While I’m afraid this new generation of would-be technical workers is going to have a difficult time breaking into the profession, I’m glad that certification programs allow them to try a new direction.
  2. Certifications offer an alternative to computer science degrees. I may be stepping out on a limb here, but many of the college computer science degree programs that I’ve encountered don’t necessarily provide good real-world guidance, graduating folks with terrific UNIX skills but not necessarily ready to make the leap from .EDU to .COM. (Caveat: I haven’t looked closely at this space in a few years, and it’s possible that things have improved since then.)
    Update: Since I wrote this, the trend is for community colleges to offer their own line of certification classes, competing with regular training companies. I am still skeptical of many traditional computer science programs.
  3. Certifications demonstrate minimum competence. I’ll be arguing the other side of this point below, but here, let me just say that a person who completes a CompTIA or MCSE certification program has proved a basic familiarity with networking systems and computer hardware.
    Update: I think this is still true. In fact, I’d go further today, noting that most of the experts in this area agree that certifications have gotten tougher. (The sheer number of exams in the Microsoft programs is daunting.)
  4. Certifications demonstrate drive and initiative. I think everyone would agree that obtaining a certification takes work. Doing it on your own without employer assistance takes even more drive and perseverance. That is why I’ve said before that if I had to choose between two job candidates, with everything else being equal, I’d choose the one who had worked after hours and on weekends getting certified, as opposed to the one who received classroom instruction during working hours as a condition of employment.
    Update: This is absolutely true. In fact, the survey I mentioned earlier specifically mentions that many IT managers view employees who get their certifications, or keep their existing certs current, as demonstrating a higher commitment to their job. Unfortunately, in the current environment, this is more likely to help an existing employee keep his or her job, rather than allow a hiring manager to choose between two job candidates.
  5. Certifications offer a way for employers to “walk the talk” about employee training. Most organizations talk a lot about the need to provide training and career advancement opportunities for their employees. Certification programs offer one way for employees to find out if their employers mean what they say.
    Update: Sad to say, but most organizations are backtracking in this area, cutting back on tuition reimbursements for certification programs or no longer providing bonuses for employees who attain certifications.

Five reasons to hate certifications
Here are the reasons I originally gave to oppose the spread of certifications within IT. My updated comments are below each point.

  1. Certifications are part of the “creeping professionalism” of IT. This is tricky to explain. By “creeping professionalism,” I’m not talking about the need of technical workers to behave like adults (at least while at work!) or to have specialized training. Instead, I’m worried about the drive to treat technical certifications as somehow analogous to teacher certifications or bar exams. To me, one of the great things about IT is how low the bar to entry has been. A man or woman could get started at entry-level positions and move up, based on their talent and willingness to put in the effort. I’d hate to see IT become similar to other professions, where you have to have a certain credential before you can get your foot in the door.
    Update: I still believe this very strongly, but I think I’m losing the fight. I now believe that “creeping professionalism” is inevitable—and I think it’s a shame.
  2. Certifications can restrict the entry of new candidates. As I said earlier, I’m a big believer in vocational training, both for young people, and for those seeking a career change. If a certification helps that process, I’m all for it. However, if certifications become a way for people who have already “made it” within IT to pull up the ladder behind them in order to restrict others from having the same chances they did, then I’m opposed.
    Update: Unfortunately, I believe that my fears here are becoming true. Rather than allowing new candidates to enter the profession, certifications are increasingly viewed as a gating factor to new entrants.
  3. Certifications are confusing and don’t tell us enough about the person who has them. When Novell really got the ball rolling on NetWare certifications, the idea was that the exams were to validate a network administrator’s experience on the job. With the rise of the “paper MCSE” (a man or woman with a technical certification but little or no real-world experience), the situation is murkier. What does a certification really tell us about a job candidate? To use an analogy: Is a certification more like a driver’s license or a driver’s permit?
    Update: I’m not sure if we know the answer to this question yet. My sense is that there are still job seekers out there with certifications who have more knowledge about how to pass a certification exam than to actually build a server. However, one advantage of a tough job market is that it slows the flow of “wannabes” entering the field in hope of quick riches. In any case, I hear less about the problems of having to choose between platoons of “paper MCSEs” when hiring. Of course, part of that is that we’re simply seeing less hiring.
  4. Certifications hold IT professionals hostage to vendor manipulation. Look at all the furor regarding Microsoft’s decision to “retire” the NT 4.0 certification, and you can see the power that companies like Microsoft and Cisco have over the technical professionals who depend on their certifications for career success.
    Update: My sense is that companies like Microsoft and Cisco have become aware of the ill will they generate by randomly changing their certification programs, and are more sensitive to the needs of their certified professionals.
  5. Certifications create tensions between organizations and their employees. While this may be a temporary phenomenon, there seems to be a lot of confusion between IT professionals and their employers. Who should get certified at a company? Who should pay for the certification training? Should certifications trigger automatic bonuses or raises? Should employees get comp time to take classes or tests? Should organizations pay for the tests themselves? These are just some of the knotty questions raised by certifications. For employers, there is an even bigger question: Does helping an employee get certified make them grateful and therefore improve retention, or does it make the employee more marketable, and therefore more likely to leave?
    Update: When I first looked at this, experienced candidates still had the advantage over potential employers. Now the “balance of power” has clearly shifted, and employers can be much more particular about their hiring criteria. Employees and would-be employees just don’t have as much leverage. However, if an employer wants to keep its “best and brightest”, they still need to provide some kind of training.