Persuasive answers to common criticisms of IT certification

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Don't let the naysayers detract from your certification efforts.So you’re certified. Or you want to become certified. Are certifications worth it today? Do they still mean anything? And who really cares?  My argument is yes, certifications mean a lot, and here is why: Software and hardware technology moves fast, but not fast enough to outpace its fundamentals.

What I mean by this is that when you understand PMI’s Project Management Professional Guidelines, you have the core fundamentals for life. Once you know that “executing” comes before “closing,” you have the necessary tools to pass the test. Yes, I know there is a whole lot more to it than that, but the fundamentals will always be executed and need not be relearned.

It’s the same for the CISSP. If you understand PKI, then it’s all downhill from there. Even if the credential itself fades, or is no longer valid, you earned it and the fundamentals are something that will always be with you. Yes, technology changes rapidly — but the changes are mostly icing on the cake. The cake itself, the core fundamentals, will always be in your pocket. And who doesn’t love pocket-cake?

So why is it that some IT professionals speak against certification? Below are the five most common criticisms of certification, along with my thoughts about why they don’t hold water.

1) The groups that manage certifications are fly-by-nights

Some people will tell you that industry associations and other group that curate certification are sketchy. This is the “Who are these people anyway?” argument, and I beg to differ. PMI, for instance, at last count boasted a heathy 1 million members and climbing. You don’t get that big offering worthless pieces of paper and easy tests.

Certification organizations thrive by maintaining their dedication to high standards — by staying abreast of the latest developments and innovations in the field, and tailoring exams to be challenging enough so that only those who demonstrate a high level of proficiency will pass.

This argument sounds even sillier when you try to apply it to globally entrenched IT companies like Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle, and HP. It’s far from the only measure of legitimacy, but one good guideline is CompTIA’s IT Certification Roadmap. The annual Salary Survey conducted each year in October right here at CertMag is another.

If you can’t find your IT cert represented one of those two places, then it may potentially be dubious. Otherwise, the next time someone asks you whether the group behind your newest credential is legit, confidently tell them yes.

2) Employers don’t really care about certification

I hear this charge all the time and, when it comes to certification, I can’t imagine a more ignorant statement. I recently ran three job searches on Indeed.com: one for Project Managers, the second for cybersecurity personnel, and the last for network administrators. The results were surprising.

Guess what all the position descriptions — and I mean 100 percent — asked for in their “required” or “preferred” sections? That’s right, a certification. PMP for projects managers is almost always “required,” and the same is true of CISSP when it comes to high-level security jobs. For networking jobs, you’ll be miles ahead with a credential from Cisco, Amazon Web Services, or Microsoft.

HR departments are clearly on the lookout for certified job candidates, and many companies have implemented programs to encourage employees to pursue certifications. Oftentimes employees are reimbursed for the cost of training and exams. Some companies are even providing paid time-off for employees to study.

The next time someone tells you employers don’t care about certifications, ask whether they have any certifications. I’d be willing to be that most people with this attitude don’t actually have any certs of their own.

3) Certification is too expensive

The last time I checked, plenty of people were spending their hard-earned money in a variety of ways that have nothing to do with necessity. If you’re like most people, then you regularly spend money on frivolous things. Some people gamble or take extravagant vacations, some go out to eat, some buy clothes they don’t really need (or often wear).

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities. My only point is that if you think a certification is beyond your means, then consider funneling some of your petty cash into a cert that will last.

For example, my wife is always harping on me about my fast food meals. Like many an IT professional, my odd hours and dedication to the work don’t always line up with a healthy, balanced diet. While the cost of one or two drive-through meals isn’t that much, multiply it by 30 or 40 days and it won’t be long before you put on a few pounds instead of a certification.

All I am saying is that you can funnel or refocus any frivolous fund or money pot for a time to meet the cost of a valuable certification. It’s not that much money. So, lay off the cheeseburger, don’t go all-in with a pair of 2s, or put back that fourth magenta tie. Get certified instead.

4) Look, Ma, I can pass tests

Some passionately argue that certifications only prove you can pass a test. My opinion of this argument involves some strong words that don’t belong in print, but it boils down to this: If you don’t know the material, you can’t pass the exam.

Suppose that I asked you, “What color is the sky?” You would quickly (and correctly) answer, “Blue” — not because you know how to take my little pop quiz, but because you knew the answer. Not to oversimplify, but it’s really and truly the same thing with certification exams.

Are there some tips and tricks to taking an exam? Sure, but those are available to everyone to use. This means that most people can be as “good” as anyone else at taking an exam. But knowing when (or whether) to guess won’t get you a passing score. In the end, it will always comes down to an appropriately binary bottom line. You either know the material, or you don’t.

5) Certification is nothing but an ego massage

I’ve also heard claims that taking and passing a certification exam amounts to nothing more than a short-term ego boost. Of course it’s a short-term ego boost. But it also has a long-term impact on positive career opportunities and higher salaries.

Frankly, there’s no need to even rebut this critique. Embrace it instead. Setting and reaching a certification goal that improves your career and positively impacts your income is oh-so-satisfying, ego jolting, and downright motivating. Throw out all other reasons to get certified, and this one alone is enough for most people.

Don’t be detracted by naysayers

Don't let the naysayers detract from your certification efforts.To summarize, no matter how fast technology moves, once you’ve learned enough to dive into the pool and swim, you will always have a core understanding of the fundamentals. It’s the same with certification: Learn it, earn it, and you will always have it.

Certifications from reputable organizations are only going to increase in value as the amount of people joining that organization increases. Mounds of evidence show that employers do care a great deal that employees are certified, and willing to continue improving their skills after being hired.

Certification doesn’t cost all that much in money and time, and in the long run, the return is much greater than the cost. Sure you can be good at taking an exam, but passing that exam requires you to know the material — and it’s gratifying to know that your IT skills are up-to-date to and in-demand.

As always, thanks for reading, and best of luck in your certification endeavors.

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Nathan Kimpel

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nathan Kimpel is a seasoned information technology and operations executive with a diverse background in all areas of company functionality, and a keen focus on all aspects of IT operations and security. Over his 20 years in the industry, he has held every job in IT and currently serves as a Project Manager in the St. Louis (Missouri) area, overseeing 50-plus projects. He has years of success driving multi-million dollar improvements in technology, products and teams. His wide range of skills include finance, ERP and CRM systems. Certifications include PMP, CISSP, CEH, ITIL and Microsoft.

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