One of the benefits I get from conferences like Microsoft TechEd is reconnecting with friends and colleagues that I only see at these shows. David and I have been friends for a couple of years, and when we discovered that we were both staying over an extra night we decided to splurge and drive a ways to Tampa for dinner at what is in my opinion the best steakhouse and among the best restaurants in North America – Bern’s Steakhouse.
Of course it is slightly over an hour’s drive each way, so in addition to the 2.5 hours we spent in the restaurant we had plenty of time to discuss all sorts of topics, some personal but many business and technology related.
David works on the Microsoft Windows team at Microsoft. His current area of focus is virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), which is a subject that have been talking about to user groups for the past six months. We definitely had a lot to discuss!
He was telling me that in a past job he ran an entirely VMware-based virtualization infrastructure, which makes sense because at the time most virtualized datacenters were running VMware. He told me he thought it amusing that to this day a Google search of his name comes up with a presentation he did years ago at VMworld.
Speaking at VMworld is a very prestigious gig, on a par to speaking at Microsoft’s TechEd or MMS. I would have thought that in order to be invited you would have to have at least a VMware Certified Professional (VCP) cert. He told me that he wasn’t, and the reason for it was VMware Learning’s requirement that you take their course before you sit their exam, and since he knew the product well enough to run a datacenter for the City of Las Vegas, it was a tough sell to his boss to get them to give him the week off as well as pay for the class and exam. It was not a battle he was ever able to win, so he never got VMware certified.
We started talking about his employer’s position, and that it was, after all, a reasonable one. In the case of an IT pro who is already proficient on a technology, certifications are for your next job, not for your current one.
Some people are able to learn a technology on their own better (and certainly cheaper) than they could from a class. Is this always true? Of course not… it is only true of some of us.
If you know a technology and you have proven it in a production environment for your employer then although it may be reasonable to spend a couple hundred dollars on an exam that is done in an afternoon, there is little value in paying thousands of dollars for a course that takes you away from your job for several days to a week.
So if my previous statement is true, that certifications are for your next job, then what value should a company see in an IT education and certification budget and plan for its employees?
There are a number of answers to that question, and depending on the individual in question one of the following answers should help.
1) An IT professional may know version X of a technology, but that does not mean that they will know version X+1. For example, I am certified in Network Infrastructure on Windows 2000 and 2003, but I still studied for and wrote the exam for Server 2008. Why? It covers new technologies that most of us could not simply read about and then implement following best practices. New roles and features such as virtualization, Remote Desktop, and IPv6 meant that I had a lot to learn. A company who has technologists working on legacy products would benefit from a course that teaches the new technologies, as well as a good refresh to the old ones.
2) When employees change roles – even within IT – education can prepare them for that new role. I know plenty of IT pros who have been promoted out of desktop support into the server side, but knowing the one does not mean you automatically know the other.
3) Certifications are the proof that you have the respect for your profession to learn the material the right way, and then take the time to sit down and write a test created by a panel of subject manner experts (SMEs) and prove it. They are also a good way to learn where you are weak. Whether you pass or fail the exam your score report (from a Microsoft exam) will let you know what aspects of the technology you are weak on, so you can go back and study those specific parts more. The first exams I ever wrote (Windows 2000) simply said ‘Fail’ or ‘Pass’, which meant I never learned how close I was to succeeding, nor what I had to brush up on in order to do that.
4) Technologies change, job roles change. Over the past ten years desktop deployment specialists have had to learn components of Windows Server, Active Directory, Windows Deployment Server, Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, the Windows AIK, and of course System Center Configuration Manager. Individually some of these are easy enough to self-learn, but for most of us they take a good deal of learning to get right. Hacking around in Active Directory or System Center production environments when you don’t know what you are doing is just a bad idea. A class, especially one led by a leading trainer who is also a consultant and can discuss real life scenarios and experiences that can point out shortcuts and pitfalls to be aware of is often worth so much more to the company than the cost of the class.
5) There are companies that require industry certifications by virtue of corporate policies or external regulatory bodies. Although many certifications do not expire, they do eventually become irrelevant. A professional who was hired based on Server 2003 certifications nine years ago was cutting edge, but as the infrastructure is migrated to Server 2008 or Windows Server 2012 those certifications are now meaningless, and with the changes in the industry (such as the advent of the Private Cloud) they may be required to recertify as an MCSE: Private Cloud (for example) in order to remain within scope of the policy or regulations.
The list can go on and on, but the simple fact is this: spending one million dollars is not a waste if you can prove that your return on investment (ROI) will be two million dollars. If you are struggling to convince your employer/manager/director that they should be sending you for certification training, you simply have to show them what that ROI will be. However remember to balance that with what it would cost them to replace you with a newer model with the current certs! Experience and tenure are important, but the era of corporate loyalty is behind us, and I have seen too many times professionals talk themselves out of their jobs by telling their boss how much they have to spend on certification and continuing education.