Is IT certification still relevant for developers?

Tony Patton believes IT certifications have evolved into an afterthought unless you are a business partner with certain vendor requirements. Hear why he has not soured on IT certifications, and then offer your thoughts on the topic in the article discussion.

I spent many hours learning through trial and error when I got my start in Web development many years ago. Since then, I have tackled several certification paths to prove my skills with specific technologies. However, certification doesn't seem as important these days for IT developers, and I've seen a few recent surveys that back up this point. I'm beginning to wonder what happened to the certification push.

Business need

One of the first certifications I achieved involved Lotus Notes development. Studying for the numerous tests to achieve certified status offered two benefits. First, it exposed me to many facets of the technology that I may not encounter on a daily basis, thus making me a more well-rounded developer (in terms of the specific technology). The second advantage was the fact that certification was necessary for my employer.

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Many companies like Microsoft and IBM/Lotus require that their business partners have a certain number of individuals certified in their technology on staff—this demonstrates a working knowledge of their products to prospective customers. Of course, the exams and training materials are another revenue source for these companies as well. While business partners and consulting companies need a way to gauge knowledge, other businesses seem to be relying more on real-world experience over paper certificates.

What have you done for me lately?

IT certifications are good, but I think nothing beats real-world on-the-job experience. After all, do you want a developer who can recite the specifics of dealing with ASP.NET page caching or somebody who has actually worked on it in a production environment? Developers with hands-on experience can point out where the documentation is wrong (and, let's face it, documentation always has flaws) and what workarounds (if any) they have to address.

The trend towards experience over certification is quantified by a recent survey from Foote Partners, a New Canaan, CT, IT workforce research firm. The survey says certifications are no longer attractive and real-world experience and non-certifiable technology skills rank high in the minds of hiring IT managers. Employers are bypassing certifications in favor of individuals that are more business-savvy with experience under their belts. With that said, should you bypass any and all certifications for good?

Why bother with certification?

While I have grabbed a few certifications over the years to satisfy business partner requirements, I usually tackle certifications with the mindset of familiarizing myself with the latest versions of products and technology. There are an overwhelming number of certifications available in today's market, so choosing the one for you can be confusing. The following list contains a sampling of available certifications:

I always had the mindset that telling a prospective client or employer that I am certified in a particular technology would impress them, but surveys show employers are looking for more than an individual who can pass exams—they want established business knowledge and expertise. At this stage in my career, this isn't a problem, but younger developers may have a tougher time demonstrating their skills beyond certification tests.

Keeping up with the technology

Another issue with certifications is the sheer number of products and product updates. After all, if you spend a chunk of money on attaining certification in a particular technology, then it is a bit disheartening when a new version is introduced by the vendor—along with new tests to prove your knowledge of the new versions. This has been especially true of Microsoft, as operating systems (along with development platforms) are always in the pipeline. You can update your .NET certifications to the 2.0 version, but 3.0 is currently in the works. It can be hard to keep up.

A hybrid approach

I have not totally soured on IT certifications. I am working on updating my .NET certifications from the first version to 2.0 because it gives me the opportunity to get a good look at the changes in new versions and it helps me focus. On the other hand, I am constantly under the hood with existing client projects, so I don't fall behind in real-world experience.

I find it rather interesting that a client has never asked me about my certification status—they always ask about past projects and client references. With that said, it seems like certification has become more of a personal achievement or goal.

Where do you stand?

The IT certification landscape has drastically changed over the years. It was once considered the measuring stick for IT knowledge, but it has evolved into an afterthought unless you are a business partner with certain vendor requirements.

Where do you stand on the IT certification debate? Do you plan on tackling any certification exams in the near future? Do you place any significance on certification or does real-world experience always win? Share your thoughts with the rest of the community in the article discussion.

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Tony Patton began his professional career as an application developer earning Java, VB, Lotus, and XML certifications to bolster his knowledge.

About Tony Patton

Tony Patton has worn many hats over his 15+ years in the IT industry while witnessing many technologies come and go. He currently focuses on .NET and Web Development while trying to grasp the many facets of supporting such technologies in a productio...

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