Want to start a fight here at TechRepublic? It’s easy. All you have to do is go to our Discussion Center and post a thread about certification. The funny thing is, it doesn’t much matter what you post. No matter which side of any certification argument you care to take, you’ll find plenty of people all too eager to question your motives, breeding, and intelligence.

I understand their pain. In fact, I can argue just about any side of the great certification debate myself, because I’m conflicted on the subject. (I was originally planning to title this column “Contrarian and contradictory thoughts…” but it was just too precious.)

I’m looking for your help to settle my thinking on the subject. In this column, I’m going to present five reasons for and five reasons against the rise of certifications for IT pros. As you’ll see, some of my reasons are not only contrarian, but also contradictory. After you look at them, you can give me your take on the subject. I think I have a pretty good idea how network administrators feel about certs—I’m interested in learning what their managers think.

Five reasons to love technical certifications

  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.
  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. Again, let me know.)
  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.
  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.
  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.

Five reasons to hate technical certifications

  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.
  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.
  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?
  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.
  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?

What’s the answer?
Is the rise of certifications a good thing or a bad thing? As you can see, I’m torn. Let me know what you think by posting a comment to this article. I’m anxious to see what technical managers think about this question, since they confront it every day.