Certification

Certification means different things to different people. This confusion can sometimes harm your employment opportunities for some careers while improving them in others. A network engineer who has a CCNA is clearly at an advantage, while a Software Engineer applying at Microsoft or Google with a programming language certification might not get the job just by listing it on their resume (as this threaded discussion illustrates). The answer to the question, “Should I certify?” is “It depends, a lot.”

UPDATE 6 Mar 2018: I decided to drop the term “certification” entirely favoring “certificate” instead. The word certificate has come to imply much more than a multiple-choice exam for which you pay Pearson. Colleges and other educational organizations use “certificate” to denote structured learning with demonstrable results that is not quite as much as a “degree” but significant all the same. This exactly matches our approach. Much of this article is now outdated (in terms of SkilStak). A list of our certificates and the requirements is not public and being maintained at cert.skilstak.io (where it is still in development).

Types of Certification

There are several types of certification:

  1. Taking a multiple-choice test (ex: LPIC-0)
  2. Completing a working lab in a certain amount of time (ex: OSCP)
  3. Completing courses, assignments, and tests (ex: teaching)
  4. Completing #3 plus a number of project hours (ex: freeCodeCamp)
  5. Presenting a “package” of career work to a board (ex: IBM)

These differ radically in the amount of actual work required to obtain the certification. One reason many in the industry look down upon most certifications is because you need only get a number of answers correct on a single multiple-choice test. For example, A+ certification is 60 multiple choice questions. People can (and have) received these certifications doing nothing more than reading the right book (usually the one sold by the same company providing the test, usually Pearson).

The best certification is one that involves a lot of actual project work over time as well as some done in a lab environment with a limited time constraint. This is how the Offensive Security Certified Professional certification is administered and has quickly become one of the leading certifications because of it. Another example is freeCodeCamp which requires a minimum of 2000 hours work on non-profit projects — real work — in addition to completing their online assignments and tests, which have very few multiple choice questions.

SkilStak Certificates

SkilStak has chosen to provide educational certificates that are simply marks of achievement for having completely a certain amount of actual work combined with timed exams administered entirely from git repos and written in vim. This way those leaving SkilStak have the option* of listing their work in whatever way they choose. Perhaps to take the place of an AP CS course you might list the certification by name to catch the eye of a college review board. Perhaps when applying to work at Google you list it simply under the education section and highlight the specific work you did to get the certification as work-related bullet points in your main work history and projects section. The option is yours.

Essentials Certificates:

This level is enough to explore and work with the technology at an entry level enough to decide to go deeper into possibly later.

  • Bash Command Line
  • VIM
  • VSCode
  • Secure Shell Client
  • Git
  • GitHub
  • Python
  • Go
  • Web
  • Coding (Python + Go + Web)
  • Computer Science

Fundamentals Certificates:

This level dives deep into the technology in projects and concepts that would be required to work proficiently with it.

  • Python
  • Node
  • Go
  • Web
  • Ruby
  • Linux (+ POSIX Shell)
  • Network
  • Database
  • Engineering (Raspberry Pi, Arduino, C)
  • Secure Shell Server

Software Certifications Can Actually Harm Your Chances

In this threaded discussion, Gayle Laakmann McDowell, once in charge of hiring for product teams and software engineers recommends against a certification as follows:

The “elite” software companies — Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc — are generally not neutral about certifications for software engineers; they’re actually negative. Yes, that’s right. If you have a certification and you’re applying to one of those companies, just don’t list it on your resume.

Operations Certs Seem OK

Several take Gayle to task over the claim citing that this may apply to those in the software field, but definitely not operations, administration, and security. The consensus seems to be that in the operations and security field certifications are generally good, but a programming language certification is dubious because you could actually have programmed or worked on an open source team to certify what you know in a way that demonstrates an actual contribution.

One specific example is the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification. This is not only a specific area of operations but a specific vendor hardware. Becoming certified on certain equipment and trades is very common (welders, electricians) so it is reasonable that in these areas certification is not only viewed positively, but often required. In fact, everything that does not fall in the software engineering umbrella seems to be ok with certifications, at least not negatively.

Experience is Always Better

Whether or not you agree about technical certifications being of value, one thing is always better: experience. Most of the best certs out there actually involve 24 or more hours of lab time actually doing something besides picking one of four multiple choices.

A not so obvious value of experience is that you are doing things you will remember and love. You can work on projects that matter to you, be they programming or operations.

If eventually you see you need an external certification it should be no problem once you have the proper amount of real experience.

Keep a Record

Here’s the thing with experience. You have to be able to prove you have it. That is the illusion of a certification.

The challenge to using the experience approach is that frequently you are so into doing what you are doing that you forget to capture what you are actually doing. Then when you go for that job or need to justify a promotion you can’t remember all the amazing things you did and the challenges you faced in a way that you can discuss them intelligently.

The answer: keep a tech journal. It can be actual paper or online (Google Doc, GitHub Gist, or Private Repo). By keeping a journal you always have the source material to look at when writing that resume or updating your linked in.

Sample Employer Interview

Certification:

“So I see you have a certification? Tell me about that test.”

Experience:

“This server micro-services project looks interesting. Tell me about that.”

The interview with the experience will always lead to a better conversation — and better opportunities.

Who Do You Want to Work For?

This might seem like an odd question for a page on certifications, but it turns out certification can be a good indicator of how a potential employer views you and will potentially treat you going forward.

Certifications, to a less-than-stellar employer, serve as an easy way to just hire you. If anything goes wrong with you they can point at the certification and blame that, “But he has a cert”

The really good employers want to know you as a person and technologist and will not only see certs as mostly just something to talk about but will give you an opportunity to work on the job for a trial period, 2–4 months so that both of you can see if that position is for you. This way they can actually see you in action. When and if it does not seem like a good fit it should be obvious to both parties.

💬 Absolutely no company that gives you a “whiteboard” interview or other esoteric test deserves your attention. Take that as a huge warning sign.

Put Certifications Under Education

If you do have a cert, you should put it under the education section of your resume showing you supplemented whatever main education you received.