Are certifications more important to your IT career than a college degree?
This feature first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
When I got pitched on this assignment, the tiny hairs on the back of my neck began to stand up. I must confess to harboring strong emotions about this topic.
Let me explain: I hold roughly 25 computer certifications, but I also hold three major college degrees, the last being a Ph.D. in MIS (Management Information Systems). I am an Associate Professor at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, the largest singly-accredited college in the nation, with more than 200,000 students earning degrees. Ivy Tech’s School of Computing and Informatics offers Associate Degrees in any of eight programs:
CSCI (Computer Science)
CSIA (Cyber Security)
DBMS (Database Administration)
ITSP (Information Technology Support)
NETI (Network Infrastructure)
SDEV (Software Development)
SVAD (Server Administration)
I know the rigor built into the courses for these degrees because I have been asked to write three of the statewide curricula myself, and the process can be grueling. Ivy Tech sure doesn’t cut corners on curriculum standards. So here you find me, sitting solidly on the fence that separates certifications and college degrees. Unlike some, however, I am proud of my perch on that fence. I see verdant green grass on both sides.
And I hate to answer a question — Am I better off advancing my career through ongoing IT certification, or by getting a college degree? — with a question, but why is there a fence separating these two areas in the first place? Why are we putting them in separate pastures when they’re actually one big field?
Both degrees and certifications become a part of you. One is not better than the other, but together they cannot be defeated. Would you think of making a cake with only one ingredient? Would you train for an Olympic event by using only one type of workout? Of course not. Then why are we pitting certifications against degrees?
Once you get into a job, above anything else, your employer will want to see you as a person who can get the job done, and do it in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. No one is going to turn up their nose at your good results because you lack certain credentials. With all that said, it bears pointing out that the IT landscape changes almost constantly. Keeping up with technology is important, and certifications can certainly demonstrate that you’re staying current.
The résumé — Who’s going to see your résumé? Chances are, an HR person is going to respond to a degree before a jumble of acronyms. After all, the term “bachelor’s degree” is universal, whereas MCP or CCNA are just scrambled letters to most HR personnel.
If you encounter an HR person who does mostly tech hiring, on the other hand, then you might get someone who knows all of the certifications and simply uses that as a criterion to filter candidates. For example, if you are applying for a job as a Windows Server admin, then you must have an MCSE to be seriously considered for the job. If a technical person is vetting résumés, then it just plain helps if you have some certifications. It’s a language every technical person speaks.
Perception — There are lots of good reasons to get a degree, both personal and professional. In the eyes of some employers, a completed four-year degree shows that you can finish what you start. On the other hand, degrees can become dated. Certifications have to be renewed as technology evolves. You may have earned a computer science degree 10 years ago, but that doesn’t ensure that you’ve maintained that level of proficiency. Only certifications will attest to that.
Time — What self-imposed timeline do you have? Let’s say you’ve been in a job for five years, and you haven’t been promoted because of a company policy requiring managers to have degrees. Then, by all means, you might want to explore the option of going back to school. If there is no formal policy, however, and you haven’t been promoted, then it may be because of something that neither a degree nor a certification would influence. In other words, don’t waste money on a four-year degree if the problem is that you’re a general pain in the butt or don’t show initiative on the job.
A solution may be to pursue a goal that could be achieved in a shorter time span, to demonstrate your desire to better yourself. And that could take the form of a certification.
The Power of Specificity — We’ve all heard stories like the guy who has a master’s degree in Computer Science but can’t figure out a simple problem that anyone with an A+ cert could nail. That could be an issue of specificity. Some IT shops only have the budget for a “tech of all trades,” but some have the luxury of being able to hire those with specialties, and that’s where a certification absolutely does some talking.
I asked Bill Vendramin, an experienced IT manager, what he looks for in a job candidate — a degree or certifications? His answer:
“If I am looking at a highly technical position (DBA, network engineer, etc.), then I lean more heavily toward certification. Someone with experience and a CCNA or CCIE for Cisco equipment, or Oracle certifications for database admin, goes farther with me than someone with a generic IT degree. However, if I’m looking at a managerial, administrative, or analyst position, the degree is more valuable.”
Vendramin, who also holds a master’s degree, went on to make these points about college degrees:
The non-technical topics in your degree curriculum will broaden you as a person by providing insights into topics outside of your chosen professional vocation. The people you will meet in college will ultimately become professional contacts. The wide range of personal and professional opinions and outlooks you will observe in college cannot be underestimated. There is power in having your university’s alumni as potential employers and mentors. Having a little fun in the process can’t be all bad.
Allow me to sum this up from my perspective. My college degrees are what GOT me my job, but it is my certifications that are allowing me to KEEP my job. Certifications continue to provide a value-added component to my employer. With a Ph.D., I don’t plan to seek another degree anytime soon, but I do see myself adding at least one certification each year to my résumé. I’m in IT. The learning simply cannot stop.