It takes patience to get rich quick with certification
This feature appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Certification Magazine. To view the print version, click here.
Will certifications earn me a lot of money? I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen that question, or some variant of it, raised on a discussion forum or LinkedIn group. Generally, the person asking is just graduating college or is looking to change jobs and wants to know whether earning a certification will dramatically increase their earning potential.
I have been an Oracle Certified Professional since the beginning of the program. Since January of 1998, I have passed 22 exams and currently hold 15 Oracle certifications (many of which are upgrades to later releases). I also hold Linux+ and Security+ certifications and have been a Certified NetWare Engineer and Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (both long since lapsed). You may be shocked to learn that not one of those certifications has ever earned me a nickel.
Dozens of times over the years since I received them, I have pleaded with my certifications to get out of the house, find a job and show me the money. Every single time, they just sit there in the filing cabinet like so many inanimate pieces of compressed tree pulp. The sad truth is that if you want to earn a lot of money, then you will have to choose a career path and do it on your own.
Did you enjoy my punch line? I know that it would be more amusing to me if I did not have a nagging mental picture of a reader with no work experience who has just become, for example, an Oracle Database 11g Administrator Certified Associate. I envision him reading that paragraph and saying something like: “Very funny … now when does this article get to the part about how to land a job with a six-figure salary now that I have this certificate?”
In my experience, there is a lack of perspective in the expectations some people have for the power of Oracle certifications, or any other certifications, to alter their career and earning prospects. College students spend $50,000 and four years earning a university degree in the hope that they might find a job starting at $50,000 per year when they graduate. Certification candidates spend $500 and a few months to become Oracle Certified Associates and many expect to start making $70,000 to $80,000 per year as soon as the certificate arrives in their mailbox.
Just in case anyone is getting the idea that I do not feel certifications have any value, recall the counts from the second paragraph: 22 exams and 15 certifications. And that’s just the Oracle certs. Either I believe they have value, or I have a strange addiction to certification exams. Each one that I pursue consumes a significant chunk of my leisure time. For that matter, I have other things to spend money on than exam fees. What I hope to convey is the need to take certification exams for the right reasons, and to have realistic expectations of the effect they can have on your career.
I have been working with Oracle for close to 19 years. My income has been rising fairly steadily through most of that period. What I am paid now would almost certainly meet the definition of “a lot of money” by most people asking whether certifications will increase salary. What I was making 18 years ago, however, almost certainly would not have met their definition. In fact, when I first started working with Oracle Corporation on their support team, I took a pay cut to do so. I felt that the job I was leaving behind at the time had no future. I was sure that learning about the Oracle database would result in decades of employment. Taking a pay cut was the best career move I ever made.
The salary for any job that you take during your career will have floor and ceiling values. For a cashier in a fast food restaurant, the two are very close together and very low. When a position requires more expertise, either physical or mental, both values will be higher. Working as an Oracle database administrator requires a considerable amount of knowledge. This makes the floor and ceiling values fairly high and also quite far apart.
What moves someone up from the floor value for a given job is how skilled or knowledgeable they are compared with other people in the same field. One of the best ways to become a better DBA is to work as one five days a week for many years. The longer someone is an administrator, the more they learn about how to maintain, diagnose and tune the Oracle database.
When studying for certification exams, however, novice DBAs (and experienced DBAs to a lesser degree) can learn about aspects of the Oracle database they have not yet encountered during their daily routine. This means that preparing for certification exams will accelerate the process of acquiring knowledge about the database. An Oracle professional who actively works to become better at doing their job will also become more valuable to employers.
As you become more skilled, most employers will recognize this and raise your salary accordingly. If you find yourself working for an employer who does not recognize the effort you put into increasing your knowledge, then certifications fit really well on resumes. This can help you find an employer who will recognize your skills. If you become very knowledgeable about your specialization of choice, then you should be able to find an employer willing to pay for that knowledge.
Certifications are not the only way to gain that knowledge, but they are a very visible way to gain it because you get professional recognition for having completed them. Certifications may not be able to earn you money directly, but used wisely, they can certainly help to increase your earning power over the course of your career.