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Your Certification is Meaningless

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Just for the record: your certification, the one you paid four figures for, is meaningless.

Sure, it might mean something to an employer somewhere, but not to the employer you'll love to work for. After all, if your employer values certification above actual ability, it's probably not a great place to work. They're likely to value TPS reports and other meaningless formalities just as highly, and guess who's going to get stuck writing them? Do you think that love of paper over ability suddenly stops when you waltz through the door? And if they do value ability over paper, your certification won't be why you got hired. (Actually, the people I respect most say that certifications actually reduce their interest in a candidate.)

Sure, it might mean that you learned something. It certainly means you passed a test, if there was one. But the certificate didn't get you to learn--you got you to learn. And you'd better believe that you can find good training cheaper when there's no certification attached. In my survey of the courses offered at Agile University last year, Certified ScrumMaster courses typically cost $200 more than comparable courses without certification.

(I'm not trying to pick on Scrum here. It's just the certification program I know best.)

Sure, it might mean that the person you learned from knew what they're talking about. It probably means the course materials were vetted by someone who knew what they were talking about. But that doesn't mean the instructor really knew what they were doing. Certification makes a lot of people a lot of money. It's far more lucrative than hands-on coaching, although the latter tends to be more effective and requires more practical ability. As a result, even the most principled among us tend to gravitate towards providing certification, and the field is awash in bottom-feeders. Many professional trainers have no real-world experience in the subjects they teach. Even the best typically haven't worked in a development shop for years.

A good employer is important. Learning is valuable. Good mentors are priceless. And I'm afraid to say that your certification means none of these things. At best, it was a side effect. At worst--a waste.

PS: This rant inspired by Cory Foy's recent essay and "Uncle Bob" Martin's comments on that essay.

PPS: If you liked this, you may also be interested in Why I Don't Provide Agile Certification.

Published at DZone with permission of James Shore, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)


Derrick replied on Mon, 2010/04/05 - 2:55pm

This is an excellent article, and I can't agree more! I've seen some of the most horribly written code come from people with various certs.

Carl Lajeunesse replied on Mon, 2010/04/05 - 11:55pm

Thank for the article. I think the only case where a certification can be good to have, is when you didn't have any college/university degree in IT.  Certification prove that you know the basic of the subject. Knowing the basic of something doesn't mean that you're good at it.  I believe that employer must look at candidate's code, everytime...


Jigar Shah replied on Tue, 2010/04/06 - 12:18am

Point you mentioned here is true. Certification != practical Hands on. I have interviewd lot of people with SCJP and don't know if we can use try{}finally{} :) :)

 I never gave any certification exam, but now i am giving one. SCJP. I find it useful to brush up knowledge about new things which you havn't used for long. (I don't remember i used multi threading since long. All Enterprise java) So certification can help a lot to make you clear about those unused muscles. Secondly,hands on training is expensive. time taking. And never covers all aspects. It teaches you most important aspects to be used daily. Certification helps to makesure atleast basics you know so atleast while interviewing i know what to expect. Hands on might not have tought those things....Certification is a way employer want to reducehis intervieing efforts. (Atleast for big organisations.)

Jakub Holý replied on Tue, 2010/04/06 - 2:02am

I can't agree with you, James. You have certainly some good points and it is absolutely true that a certification doesn't prove the person to be good at the subject. For example being a Sun Certified Enterprise Architect doesn't mean at all that you are an architect (this can only be proved by years of experience on real projects).

But I'm rather sure that certificates - at least some, such as SCEA - have some value. They prove that once upon time you had a good overview of the subject and thus should know its possibilities and where to start learning when you encounter a particular problem. Some of them also prove that you have practical experience with a particular tool because they simply cannot be passed only based on learning a theory. Both of these help an employer, who otherwise only has your CV, to make a more objective picture of you. Surely any employer should value actual ability much more of a piece of paper, which might be gained after three days of intensive study with most of its forgoten immediately, but assessing one's ability is difficult and expensive.

A certificate also tells you something about its holder - for example that s/he wants to work on him/herself and is ready to go through some difficulties if it helps him/her professionally, i.e. s/he is likely an ambitious and goal-centric person (which may or may not be good for you).

Finally, for me a certificate is a good thing because it helps me to force myself to learn. You know, having a goal and a fix date helps to concentrate on what's important to do instead of on what's a pleasure to do :-)

To sum up, certificates shouldn't be overestimated and an employer should always try to assess the candidate's actual abilities. But they are not completely meaningless though they usually don't prove all of what they claim.

 Best regards, Jakub

Disclaimer: I do have some certificates. And I admit that some of them are completely meaningless :-)

Jose Fernandez replied on Tue, 2010/04/06 - 12:54pm

I completely agree with Jakub, but I'll elaborate on one point:

"Actually, the people I respect most say that certifications actually reduce their interest in a candidate."

I've heard this more than once and I can't help but shake my head that people would be so obtuse. Where is the logic behind this? "Oh, you went out of your way to invest in yourself and to try and gain additional expertise in your craft? We're sorry, but we're not interested in hiring people like you."

Then from the comments: "some of the most horribly written code come from people with various certs" What's your point? Do the certifications somehow make them stupid? There is no logical correlation between having a cert and writing bad code.

Ram Ravuri replied on Tue, 2010/04/06 - 1:36pm

I disagree. I have done several certifications in J2EE, and I think the preperation itself shorpened some of my concepts.

I am not saying it prepared me for real world projects. The way I see it, you are attempting to master the subject, just the way you would in any school. You may not specialize it unless you gain some real world experience. 

 I have scene lot of people who 'hate' or think certifications are meaningless. As an employer I may not give any weightage to certifications when selecting a candidate, but when introducing new technologies or methodologies I prefer my team to get trained and certified by proper means.


Please don't say it is meaningless as long as you are gaining knowledge. 

David Lee replied on Tue, 2010/04/06 - 3:37pm

This is nonsense. And if the scrum cert is the one you know best then you should have posted this on a scrum website. Certifications most certainly have value, but they don't indicate one's level of competency. They should, but people can cheat and other people just have excellent memory and/or are good test takers. But for some, the process of studying for a test for months and taking a test to prove what you've learned, actually forces them to learn something. Combine that with experience, and it most certainly has value.

I'm studying for the OCP, and I know more now than I did before I started studying. That's what certs are supposed to do.

Utter nonsense.



Sindy Loreal replied on Sat, 2012/02/25 - 9:07am

I think the certifications, classes and awards I've taken are not meaningless. Now I'm not saying I'm different then everyone else, but when you look at a programmers resume, you usually see programming certifications. In my case, I've got the A+ (which is crap but I've heard a programmer refer to a computer as a hard drive before), Net+ and some Cisco awards. So I still list them on my resume to let the employer know that I know the difference between TCP, UDP, IPX, SPX and what the heck a routing table is. Did this ever come in handy at my current job, it did. I just helped with a data center move and had to throw that out to prove that my application wasn't breaking, it was the network. Because of that now, I've got a copy of my review with that listed as an exceding expectations from my boss. 

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