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Certification Nation

Is a lack of certification really a hole in a developers resume? Are certificates become part of the way of life for software developers, or are we beginning to see the light?

Over the past few weeks an old friend of mine has been looking to change jobs, and was surprised at the number of applications that were knocked back almost immediately — apparently due to his lack of qualifications. This was a bit surprising, given he's got a Computer Science degree from the best Engineering Faculty in the country (at least according to their Web page and the Times London educational supplement in 2005) and good marks to back it up. Add to this experience in relevant technologies and you would have thought he'd have no trouble landing the job of his choice.

After finally finding a job that was agreeable to him and his employers, my friend was welcomed aboard, and told that the first item on the agenda was to address the hole in his CV: a lack of certification. I was dumbfounded when he told me — this was a young, up and coming firm, weren't we starting to get over this whole certification fad anyway? Maybe not, maybe I'm being too harsh. So let's take a brief look at the whole thing.

How many different kinds of IT certification are there? This site lists 127 different certifications, but doesn't include the latest luminaries like the elegantly named "Microsoft Systems Architect" cert, so we can assume it's a little out of date. The other thing to consider is just the sheer number of certificates issued, Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine places the amount of certifications awarded solely by Microsoft at over two million, which at an average of one thousand dollars US a pop has got to represent a nice little side business for the software giant. But the big question is: how can a technical certificate be a sign of distinction in the IT world if everyone's got one? I mean, how hard can it be if a nine year old can pick one up?

I was curious, why the huge push for certification? Being a journalist, I went right ahead and asked an expert in the field, and Google came back with the following. There's a whole list of reasons there, but basically they seem to fall into two categories: personal gratification, and because employers like them. As for the first, that's a reasonable thing for someone who wants to prove they're skilled in a particular area, but for people like my friend, it's really got to pale beside the three or four year computer science degree right? The second, well if certificates continue their level of popularity then having one isn't really going to be any kind of advantage over not having one, and the attractiveness will start to wane rapidly.

Those in the certificate business have clearly worked all this out well before I came along, and have a plan. Microsoft has already introduced a number of new certifications this year, from Microsoft Office Specialist (word processing and productivity software) for a mere $125, through to the aforementioned Microsoft Systems Architect, coming in at over $10,000. Likewise, virtually all major players, from Oracle, Cisco, Red Hat, Novell and IBM, among others, have introduced new certifications over the past year. The unfortunate fact is that many new certifications obsolete their predecessors, leaving certificate chasers with the choice of going through the whole thing again, or advertising the fact they're out of date to their employers — hardly the best of impressions. It's starting to look a lot like certificate awarders are trying to implement a subscription system.

So when my friend came to me and asked for advice on whether he should go for the Microsoft .NET Application Developer certificate, or the Sun Certified Java Programmer certificate you might understand why I gave him the not particularly helpful suggestion that he flip a coin. But after an afternoon's research, I feel confident that I can come through with the answer. Searching for .NET certification on it.seek.com.au comes back with 269 results, whereas the same search for Java certification returns only 134, with both technologies seeming to garner job offers at about 60k-75k for developers. .NET it is then.

What do you think, are you too railing against the certification nation or have I got things completely wrong? Is certification really the way to distinguish yourself from the herd? Fire off an E-mail editor@builderau.com.au and let us know.

Posted by Nick Gibson.

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