Why Tech Certifications Are a Waste of Time and Money
So, you want a tech certification…
If you’re a tech professional, you know that there’s a tech certification for just about anything out there these days. From Agile to Kubernetes, to your favorite cloud provider. You name it, there’s probably a certification for it. You might’ve seen posts on LinkedIn from someone in your network boasting about getting a shiny new certification. And comments from their connections showering them with compliments. I bet some recruiter is on their radar now. You might even be a little jelly. Maybe you’re pondering whether or not it’s worth getting a tech certification yourself.
Certifications can definitely be tempting. After all, if you’re just starting out in a particular field, certifications seem to provide you with a tantalizingly well-mapped path to better understand the ins and outs of that tech. Studying for a certification exam seems to provide you with exactly what you need to learn so that you can “master” a given technology. Some companies and some recruiters might prefer a candidate with a tech certification over one without, when weeding out résumés. Seems pretty win-win on paper, doesn’t it?
So, the question is, is a tech certification worth it? The short answer is NO. Allow me to elaborate.
Screw the certification. Do these things instead.
Listen, a certification may seem all nice and shiny on the outside. Unfortunately, studying for a certification exam boils down to just “learning” what you need to know in order to pass the test.
Sure, you passed an exam (or two or three or…), but how do I know that you actually understood and continue to understand the concepts covered in the certification exam(s)? Does passing an exam tell me how good a problem-solver you are? How do I know that you passed the exam without cheating? And what if you barely passed the exam? What does that tell me?
Unfortunately, your certification tells me nothing about your skills and mastery in that area. Before you start feeling all deflated, fear not, my friend! There’s good news!
Want to get real street cred and stand out in the tech world? Do yourself a favour and save yourself the time-consuming and emotional stress of writing a certification exam. Save yourself the costly fee of maintaining a tech designation. (Because you have to renew/re-certify/re-whatever every so often just to keep the designation.)
You want a leg up in the tech community? Do the things below instead.
1- Come up with a problem that you want to solve
Tech courses and tutorials are a great way to get into a new piece of tech, but oftentimes, the material is so high-level and simplified that it barely even makes a dent into real-life use cases. There’s no better way to delve into a real-life use case of a given technology than to come up with a cool problem that you want to solve.
I’ve found that solving a problem that’s near and dear to my heart makes me excited to keep digging deeper into a technology. I also find that the various inevitable mistakes made while digging into said technology can be a valuable learning tool. Much more so when things go perfectly.
2- Blog about your solutions
A blog is a great way to share your knowledge and document your tech journey. My dad always said that the best way to demonstrate that you understand something is to be able to explain it to others. And he’s totally right. When I can’t articulate something that I’ve learned to something else, I know that I don’t actually get it.
Another reason to blog is that many of us techies heavily rely on blog posts to help us through various tech pickles. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to pay it forward and give back to the tech community by sharing your learnings? Whether you write blog posts on Medium, DZone, InfoQ, or on a personal WordPress blog, the key is to share your knowledge with the world!
Keep in mind that you shouldn’t feel the need to be perfect in your tech blog. Full disclosure: I tweak my tech blogs as I find better ways of approaching a problem. The point is to document your approach to solving a particular problem. It’s quite possible that someone else may have solved the same problem in a more elegant manner. Personally, if there’s a better solution out there, I want to know! So soliciting feedback from your readers is a great way to open up some collaborative dialogue, and learn a thing or two more!
Finally, blogs provide others with a window into your mind. This is so valuable when you’re interviewing for a job, as most of the time, you can’t effectively get your personality and problem-solving skills across in the timespan of an interview.
3- Share your solutions on GitHub (or Bitbucket or GitLab)
Have you learned some cool stuff that you think others would benefit from? Have you put together a cool little utility that others would find useful? Why not open source your code and share with the world on your favourite Git provider? This is a great way to both share your knowledge and to solicit knowledge from others to help improve your code.
So many tech job sites encourage sharing link to your personal GitHub profile. What better way for a potential employer to see your coding style and understand how you solve problems that to see your actual code?
Two Personal Stories
Still on the fence? Allow me to tell you two personal stories.
The Scrum Master Certification
About 5 years ago, I took a Scrum Master course. I then took a test online and got my CSM designation. I barely passed the exam, and while I was taking the exam (more like a piddly little test) I resorted to looking things up online because I couldn’t remember stuff from the course. The sad truth is, I didn’t fully understand what it meant to be a Scrum Master. And so, in spite of having the test and having a CSM designation, I couldn’t bring myself to put that designation on my LinkedIn profile. It just felt so disingenuous, because I didn’t actually know what I was doing.
Ironically, having had actual experience working on an Agile teams (practicing both Scrum and Kanban), I’d feel much more confident as a scrum master than when I got my (now expired) CSM designation.
The Java Certification
In the early 2000s, when I was a Sr. Java developer, the company I was working at declared that it was paying for all of the Java developers to get Java certified. At the time, it was called SCJP or Sun-Certified Java Programmer, back before Oracle bought Sun Microsystems and cannibalized Java. Now it’s called Java Programmer OCP.
We were given time to study the big SCJP guide as a group and take the practice tests. After a couple of weeks, I got bored and unmotivated. The practice test questions just asked a bunch of dumb-ass gotcha questions, digging into some obscure Java crap that mostly didn’t matter in my day-to-day work. So I gave up and never took the test. This was back in 2005. I worked steadily as a Java developer until 2016.
In that time, I met a Business Analyst who was SCJP certified. I have to admit that I was a little jelly. Maybe I should’ve pursued the SCJP certification. But then I found out that he wasn’t even a developer. Ever. And that just kind of ruined tech certifications for me. All it did was prove that the dude could pass a test. It didn’t prove at all that he could write code, let alone solve complex software engineering problems.
One of the last times I touched Java was in 2018. I wrote some seriously kick-ass code that translated the Bamboo Java API to YAML. At the time, Bamboo allowed you to define builds using YAML for very simple build plans; however, Atlassian advised the use of its Bamboo Java API for more complex build definitions. Not everyone at my organization knew or wanted to learn Java, so using YAML provider a very simple way for developers to codify their Bamboo build plans without having to learn a whole new language to do it.
So what does this prove? That I can solve complex software engineering problems without being Java Certified.
Do I think that tech certifications are worth the time, effort, and cost? Nope. If certifications are treated as a way to get credentials, then that implies that you can just buy credentials, doesn’t it? In the end, such “purchased credentials” don’t showcase your skills and problem-solving abilities in using a particular technology or platform.
Want to stand out in the job market? Learn by doing, and share those learnings with the world. That, more than anything will prove to be worth more than its weight in gold.
If you still feel the need/job pressure to get that tech certification, get some real-life experience under your belt first. You’ll be much better off for it.
And now, please enjoy this cute picture of my pet rat below.
Peace, love, and code.