Are Certifications Worth it?

It’s the year 2000 and we are all celebrating the turn of the century (and also panicking a little bit about Y2K). In the last ten years, both Comptia and Cisco have released the first version of the A+ and CCNA certifications respectively. Over the next three decades these two certifications will go on to be the entry point into a world full of training, testing, and certification of an individual’s technical abilities.

While certifications exist for a majority of mature products these days (think Google, Salesforce, Microsoft, Cisco), they have also morphed into something entirely different as well. The question is, are certifications still relevant in today’s job market?

The Certification Debate

If I were to think back on when I first broke into pre-sales, there was a pretty even split on the certification debate. If you worked for a vendor, it was pretty much expected that you either have a specific certification (relevant to them) or you obtain it within the first year of employment. If you didn’t work for a vendor, well then certifications carried little weight. Why was it split this way? Well for three reasons actually:

  • They were an easy way to weed out talent
  • The type of certification said a lot about the individual
  • It was a great marketing play for many organizations

Let’s explore each of these a little further.

No Cert, No Job

Before the year 2010, certifications were a great filter for HR teams. Instead of trying to train HR teams on keywords to look for in resumes, they could simply look at the certifications listed and know whether or not they should pass along a candidate. Because the number of certified individuals was still low, and the costs for training and taking the exam high, certified individuals were held in high regard. Without certain certifications, you were either barred entry from specific roles or your ability to advance in your career was capped. Of course as more people started to acquire them, they also lost some of their luster.

Fast forward to today and there are tens of thousands of certified individuals. Not only that, but the cost for training, labs, and the exams themselves have all dropped significantly. Today, many hiring managers don’t look for specific certifications as a requirement of the job; they are considered “nice to have”. Additionally, most employers will cover the costs associated with getting trained and certified, which is another reason why they are no longer mandatory in most places. Because of this, many will go through the motions of getting certified and then use that as a stepping stone to a slightly better offer elsewhere.

Note: There is an old saying that you can find around the internet that sums up this problem nicely. One person says, “What will happen if we spend all of this money to train our people and then they just leave?”. The second person says, “What happens if we do nothing?”. Morale of the story, train your people. Period.

Quality (Certs) Matter

As certifications started to grow in popularity, each type of certification started to be “categorized”. See twenty years ago you could only ask simple questions like true/false or multiple choice. Unless you ran a dedicated lab facility there were no such things as labs, coding questions, or anything more advanced. So, just like any test that has been around long enough, people started to write down answers, cheat guides, and basically anything they could share or sell to help others pass the certifications. These early certifications began to lose their value and unofficially became known as “paper certs”.

Not all certifications fell into this trap though. Cisco and Red Hat still maintained several lab facilities around the US where you had a questions component and then a lab component to pass the certification. Because the lab component required real hardware, you couldn’t easily pass on the answers and the time constraints required you to know the material “cold”. These lab based certifications still exist and are still very difficult to pass which has kept their value high throughout the years.

Note: Cisco’s CCIE certification is still considered one of the hardest certifications to obtain in the world.

In 2013, AWS changed the (certification) game again. As the fastest growing cloud platform, they launched a series of certifications to help get people trained on how to architect, deploy, configure, and operate their cloud environment. These certifications (to this day) are not easy to pass because of the amount of material they cover and the scenario based approach they take.

Cost vs Value

So are certifications still worth it in the year 2023? For the most part, they are. But it really comes down to a question of cost vs value. For example, if you can find an employer that is willing to pay for the training, lab materials, and the exam itself…then go for it. It will not only show some growth, and most likely help you in your current role, but you don’t have to fork over your hard earned cash to make it happen.

On the other hand, once you reach a certain level of experience or seniority, particularly, in the pre-sales world…certifications won’t take you as far as when you were first starting out. Sure they still help from a “vendor knowledge” perspective, but if you are looking for a pay bump or role advancement, there are other avenues you might consider that could help you get there. So ask yourself, is the value of the certification worth the cost (in time and money)? Only you can answer that.

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