I was inspired to write something after reading this comic about certifications, which expresses a sentiment to which I heartily agree. Of the people I’ve met, those who are most adamantly opposed to getting certified in a field tend to be the sort of people who have the easiest time getting work in the tech industry. They often hold computer science degrees, got hired as engineers by their friends and progress in their careers through a network of other relatively privilege. These people have a commonality; they benefit from systemic discrimination. They will likely not struggle to get hired as someone else with the exact same qualifications might.
I’ve also known many great engineers who, despite not getting certifications themselves, acknowledge that it can be a great path forward for other engineers. But in general those who are telling you to ‘never get certified in anything’ are unaware of the privilege they have in the industry.
But who should get certified and in what?
After nearly a decade in this industry and devoting a lot of time mentoring people who are from underrepresented groups in tech, I have a few pieces of advice in the best certifications to get, how best to get them, and how to succeed.
Are you pursuing a field of growth?
Before you pursue certification, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Are the number of openings in the field growing?
- Do you know more than one person who’s struggling to find work in the field?
- What does the Bureau of Labor Statistics say about this kind of work?
When my friends are considering a career choice I always give the same advice: “healthcare or software.” Both are fields that are growing much faster than the number of new applicants.
Are you running downhill or uphill?
I’ve known some very smart people who, when complimented on passing a difficult certification test, have said “well thank you but I had to study quite a bit” as if time spent studying lessens the achievement. I’ll say this clearly: most certifications that are worth having will require study - even if you know the subject. To pass even the most basic AWS certification I had to study like a schoolgirl for a week!
Portfolios over certifications
I mentioned as an example a certification in React. I’m not certain there is a useful React certification, but even if there is, the first thing you should consider is a portfolio. In general if you’re seeking a new job or new responsibilities at your current job, an example project is a much better demonstration of your skills than a certification. Once you’ve built a couple cool demonstration projects, then it’s time to get certified. This does not apply if:
- You’re already being paid to do the thing. Lots of certification seekers are actually trying to get paid more for something they already do.
- The thing you’re trying to get certified in doesn’t lend itself well to portfolio projects, e.g. databases, erudite ops tools, or expensive enterprise tools with no free tier.
Not all certifications are created equal
I’ve seen several certifications with extremely general topics: “cloud engineering” or “operations” that all share the same warning signs. The description is nebulous, the organization is small and shifty about to whom they are affiliated, and the subject area is so broad it could be anything from writing python web apps to laying ethernet cable. Sadly, fly-by-night operations selling worthless slips of paper are all too common. It’s one of the reasons not to pursue certification in area that you (or your mentor) don’t know anything about: it’s easy to get scammed.
The Trailhead Course for Heroku Architecture Designer is the other side of the coin. Offered by the company that owns & develops the product, Salesforce, this certification is well recognized by those utilizing these tools.
These are not singular examples. In general it’s best to work on certifications that are closely related to a single product or service. Employers have reason to pay attention to someone with Salesforce certifications, but someone with an “operations” or “cloud” certification isn’t as obvious a fit. Do they have any demonstrated knowledge of the tools we’ll be using? You can imagine the other questions.
If you’re trying to get a raise, make sure they’ll pay for the certification
As I mentioned before, lots of people getting certifications are trying to get a raise or a promotion at their current job. Unless you work for a very large corporation there probably won’t be any official policy about rewarding certifications, so it can feel like a gamble to spend money on the certification and a prep course. It can be a gamble, and you should never be gambling your own money. If your employer won’t pay for the related exam, it’s a great indicator that they don’t respect the certification in the first place, or your ambitions to improve.
My advice in this situation is to get on LinkedIn and start talking to recruiters. Any organization that doesn’t invest in developing its workforce probably doesn’t value its workers. Find one that does!
Top comments (7)
This sums up my general point of view about certification. Never something I've pursued, but definitely something I'd be curious about in the right context.
I think certifications are mostly a scam which they are helped by recruiters and HR. It makes things easier for them. But by doing so, not easier for the person looking for a job, or the team looking for a new member.
I've looked through various certification exams and the level of questioning is mostly trivia.
Software development is a creative field, logic based art. Trivia doesn't show skill in problem solving.
In the operation field you generally want to automate everything which is based on trivia.
On resumes I always skip the education and certification parts. I always search for a person's blog, repos, contributions to open source. Because that actually shows what they can do.
But there is a fair chance I will never see the resume of somebody who doesn't tick the boxes of education or certification in the HR intake.
I haven't got any certs yet, and I've long thought that they weren't a good thing. I based that impression on seeing the certs offered in the late 90s, early 2000s and being very very cynical about ppl who we'd bring in for interviews with them, who didn't actually know how to use the tech they were supposedly certified in.
The other side of this, though, is that yes I most definitely am privileged in this industry- not just because of my education (B.Arts at good uni, with some CS), but also people taking a chance on me. I then managed to get a job with my dream company when I was relatively new to the industry and did work my way around from support to sustaining to development to architecture. I was mentored by and learned from some of the giants of the operating system and computer hardware communities and none of those people ever mentioned getting certifications.
I believe the certification market has well and truly changed, though, so yes, if you can get a certification from a reputable org, you really should do so. I've seen a lot of gatekeeping b.s. in the last few years which would have been a heckuvalot easier to overcome if the candidate had a cert.
Really appreciate this clear advice and honesty about your own experience! Thank you!
I don't know.. I always wanted to get a certification (ie: aws) but at the same time I kept relying on my experience with the subject and always excused me by saying "I have no time for this".
In my experience I've never seen someone getting a job because they were certified, but only because they had a good experience.. I am still in the middle
If you hold an AWS Pro and Specialty with 10 years in the industry and know Python well enough its 160K+ CAD. I talk to recruiters frequently.
If your a Bootcamp or community college grad and you hold a lower AWS Certification it will greater increase your job likelihood but you still won't see high salaries.
CompSci grads in manager positions tend to hire other CompSci grads and they are biased by using algorithmic testing or CompSci knowledge to gatekeep candidates even when the job doesn't require it. No reason to get mad, just learn the skills and hopefully one day if you are a manager you can change how things are done.
I totally see this. When I hire I use practical skills the position needs. Never have I see someone get a job as a front end developer, pass a algorithm exam, and still be somewhat decent with front end development. Too much craftsmanship.
I am not saying someone can do it. But I have a amazing team that I hired. None of them could pass the hard core algorithms exams, and that is ok.