To Certify or Not to Certify? That is the question (Part 3 of 3)
Part three of Meeting the Curve Head On
By Aaron Cox
In my previous two articles in this series I covered the critical nature of Meeting the Curve Head On by building a personal professional development plan focused on where technology will be, and not where it is. In the second article I addressed how the 3 key components to any development plan Education, Experimentation, and Relationships can provide structure and accelerate your growth. In this article, the last in this series the focus will be on certification, Has it lost its value? Or is it the key to opportunity in the age of cloud?
Early in my career certification was a key measuring stick used for job applicants, promotion, and validation of consulting or engineering partners. For that reason alone a whole industry sprang up overnight helping people become "paper certified", knowledgeable enough to pass the test, but not always capable of doing the job. Over the years it watered down the market to the point that certifications became interesting but less often required, faith in the ability of certifications to validate true skill had fallen. Slowly companies slowed investing in certifying their employees and most people focused their professional development on experience over certification.
Experience over certification
Personally I believe there is no replacement for experience, all the training in the world will not replace experience. However, the hitch with experience is it is normally gained through "on the job" activities. On the job experience takes a significant amount of time to accomplish depth, and during a 7-10 year technology cycle taking a few years at the front end of the cycle to develop experience still pays off. However as we see a shift to 2 - 3 year innovation cycles, waiting for a project to come your way that provides the opportunity to learn may take too long for most individuals to develop key skills.
Experience through certification
As I discussed in my previous article experimentation is critical to your development. It provides hands on experience and familiarity that cannot be gained in a classroom or through a study manual. Used properly it can provide similar value to "on the job" experience, allowing you to become familiar with the technology and how to build and manage a working solution. Although experimentation can do wonders for your skill, it's hard to validate in a way an employer or customer can digest.
Over recent years cloud providers have adjusted their approach to testing, rather than keeping the test criteria a hidden secret they have partnered with a large number of training and skill development partners to help them build training and lab exercises that are relevant to the required skills, and then in return the providers have increased the difficulty of their tests a higher level than many legacy certifications. This creates circumstances that make it difficult to be certified without depth. This results in certified resources that are more experienced and more competent, raising the qualification bar for those who are certified. This provides power to you, the individual, by formalizing your training and experience through certification. That formal acknowledgement of your skills brings justification to the work you have done to prepare for certification. In return this allows employers and customers to build more faith in the value of these certifications. How are providers increasing difficulty? First and foremost, through scenario based testing, in a future article we will tackle how to prepare for scenario based tests, however this is where experimentation and/or experience becomes critical.
The market wants what the market wants....
What is the likelihood that certification will provide more opportunities for your career? My advice here is anecdotal and not statistical, just about every IT publication has provided stats on what the market wants, which is the more certified you are, the more employable you will be. As someone who for years has run teams focused in this space and been responsible for hiring and training consultants, architects, and engineers to address client needs for public and private cloud, I want to share some direct advice everyone can relate to.
Regardless of how you feel about certification there are several factors that are driving a market that simply prefers people who have invested in certification and there is huge momentum behind that market belief.
- Demand is outpacing the growth of the available talent pool, in both public and private cloud. Employers need a waterline to ensure they can separate the pretenders from the capable.
- Next (GCP), Inspire (Microsoft), and re:Invent (AWS) in the previous 12 months had countless sessions that had heavy discussion on the need for certification. Employers and customers are listening.
- Cloud Providers are heavily influencing IT organizations, there are many "pretenders" who have not invested in expanding their skills in cloud who have led IT organizations down a dark road with public cloud and that are producing negative results. Cloud Providers know that clients must have a great experience to retain them, therefore they apply pressure to their clients to only engage with partners that provide certified resources to improve their client's experience. This tilts IT groups to not only require service providers to be certified but also to require new hires to have similar credentials
- All public cloud providers are maturing their partner programs and they are using certifications as a higher bar to maintain, let alone earn partner status.
- If you work for, or want to work for a managed service provider, consulting firm, outsourcer, etc. each of those organizations highly value their partner relationship with the cloud providers. In order to remain partners they must meet stringent terms requiring the quantity of certified people (not just quantity of certifications) and will focus their hiring to maintain those requirements. Want to be an attractive hire to them? Be certified.
Our market and career opportunities are changing quickly, certification is not a cure all and will not ensure you landing a job, but it's another important arrow in your quiver and helps formalize and validate your efforts to grow and expand your skills. However if you want the true value of certification it's not about finding the easiest path to passing the test and receiving the paper you hang on your wall, it's about truly immersing yourself in the content and focusing on professional growth. If you skip that step you will find it will show quickly. Don't cheat yourself or your career. Invest the time, provide the effort, and be ready for what is next.
Part 1 - Meeting the Curve Head On