I often get asked, “What certification should I get next?” There is no right way to answer this question without a deeper analysis of why a certification is being sought in the first place. I’ll focus specifically on IT certifications and direct this article more towards technologists/engineers/tech entrepreneurs. In my opinion, there are too many IT certification hoarders jumping from one certification to the next; I have some friends who definitely fall in this category. I also have my share of certifications as well (Cisco, VMware, etc.), although by no means is IT certifications my first priority or even my second priority. These days it seems like just about every vendor and third party is coming out with some sort of certification and cashing-in on this ‘IT certification’ phenomena. So, do IT certifications really help and should you invest the time and money to get one?
Like most things, the answer to whether you should get an IT certification varies by person and desired goals. Some certifications are definitely valuable to break into the field and show potential employers you have a grasp on the technology. Although this same information can be found out at a job interview, it gives an extra step of reassurance outside the limitations of a formal job interview.
If you have no IT certifications, I would recommend at least getting one or two in the specific field of interest. For example, for networking, Cisco CCNA would be a good start or, for Linux, you may want to consider CompTIA Linux+. Again, this is mostly just to get some certifications under your belt and help with the job search, credibility/marketability, but don’t expect to have people knocking down your door as soon as you get a new certification.
Most good employers know certifications don’t compare to true experience and battle scars from years of experience in the field. For the most part, many certifications can be passed with relative ease without the student even having a true solid grasp of the technology – this really depends on the specific certification. I would argue that a Cisco CCIE most likely knows his stuff as that well-known certification consists of not only a written exam but a grueling 8 hour lab with actual physical equipment. With that said, I have seen some CCIEs in my lifetime that I would never hire; I have even interviewed several who did terribly on the technical interviews. Also, a CCIE certification from the very early days with drastically different technology that has not been renewed for certification with at least somewhat current technology, in my opinion, is practically useless.
Another problem with IT certifications is that they don’t measure creativity, ambition, drive, innovation, or really how great a technologist/engineer someone can be; I would argue these are the most valuable skills to have in any technical field. Many of the best engineers/founders/entrepreneurs I’ve met in Silicon Valley have just a few certifications or none at all. In fact, the people I see with the most certifications are usually the people who lack theses characteristics and thus their dependence on proving themselves by endless IT certifications. Let me use some extreme examples to help make my point – how many certifications do you think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Larry Page, or Mark Zuckerberg had? Do you think Larry Page would have thought, “Hey, I can’t start Google yet; I need to get a few certifications out of the way to make sure I know my stuff”? Remember, getting a certification in anything has an opportunity cost where that time and money could have been spent on something more beneficial to your end goals.
Now, if you’re not spending the time and effort to get IT certifications to help shape your career, what are you doing? If the answer is, “I have a job and thus I’m building experience”, I would state that you’re not really maximizing your potential for building or shaping your career. In this case, getting more IT certifications probably would be a good idea. Let’s face it, having a job and some experience is not a huge differentiator in today’s competitive landscape. Many people will say “I work to live”, “I don’t live to work”, and that’s fine. No one is saying work has to overtake your life. At the same time, and probably where I fall, others would have a hard time differentiating work and life at all. For me, I love technology and what I do so much that it doesn’t seem like work for me, so I don’t have to make time for it. Work, spare, and personal time all just seem to blend together with little distinction other than formalities. Of course, as one starts having more family obligations the lines becomes a little less blurry.
After having stated the above, I recommend to also be cautious or stay away from job opportunities that seem to over-value IT certifications. If you are talking to a potential employer who seems to be extremely focused just on IT certifications as a way of measuring you as an engineer or potential employee – stay clear from this opportunity. The reason I say this is that it shows that the employer is relying too much on a certification to judge your ability as an engineer. How do you expect them to measure your performance and accomplishments – will they have you take another certification test? Further, it may be a sign of a non-creative, narrow, and career-limiting opportunity at an uninspiring work environment.
As mentioned prior, I have several IT certifications myself and have nothing against them. They can be a good complement to your resume and sometimes a good source of knowledge. However, in my humble opinion, you should let your passion for what you do shine through by your own creativity and ability to engage with others in the field and solve real world problems – get involved in a open source project, write a book, file a patent, do something different …. BE CREATIVE! You have vast amount of resources at your fingertips, there are many interesting problems to solve, technology is opening exciting new doors every day, and the sky can truly be the limit! Don’t just become a drone and ‘that IT guy’ who has ‘that IT certification’ and probably knows how to do ‘that one thing’!
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