Certifications Alone Do Not Make the Pro

An interesting post appeared in a newsgroup that I monitor today. A desktop support technician in the United Kingdom lamented a colleague who had attended a two week MCSE boot camp and indeed earned that certification. Unfortunately he later encountered a number of simple issues that he could not resolve, including one with regard to network connectivity; it seemed he tried everything he could think of but never checked that the network cable was tightly connected. She of course had a good laugh at his expense (well deserved) and commented that at last we see the true value of certifications. She very quickly (and to my knowledge unbidden) clarified that she meant that her boss would see that certifications alone would never make an IT professional valuable.

She is right of course. Every Microsoft Official Curriculum course lists prerequisites for taking the course. For 2151 (Microsoft Windows 2000 Network and Operating System Essentials) it lists:

  • Proficiency using the Microsoft Windows interface to configure the desktop environment and to locate, create, and manipulate folders and files;
  • General knowledge of computer hardware components, including memory, hard disks, and CPUs; and
  • General knowledge of networking concepts, including network operating system, client/server relationship, and local area network (LAN).

In turn, course 2151 was a prerequisite for all subsequent courses. In other words, Microsoft Learning expects you to know these concepts, and will not teach them to you.

Let me repeat that last phrase for those who want to blame Microsoft Learning for the shortcomings of some MCSEs: There are basic computing and networking concepts that they expect you to know as prerequisites, and will not teach you.

This is one of the reasons that boot camps tend to make me nervous. If you have someone with strong computer skills, a background in troubleshooting, or even someone who has passed CompTia’s A+ and Network+ certifications, and you send them to an MCSE boot camp, chances are they will come out a more knowledgeable IT Professional. On the other hand, if you were to send a relatively intelligent person who picks up information and concepts quickly and can cram a lot of information into their consciousness over a relatively short period of time they will probably be able to pass the exams required to obtain the MCSE certification… but that will not necessarily make them an IT Pro.

There is a conundrum in the IT industry; you need to have experience, knowledge, and certifications to get many of the good jobs. The knowledge you can get from books, the certifications you can get once you have that knowledge by passing a number of exams, but the experience you will only get from working in the field. That is why companies cannot rely solely on a professional’s MCP Transcript, they also require a CV and a series of interviews. This often frustrates people who ask me why it is that even with their shiny new certifications they cannot find work. When I explain the situation to them they get even more frustrated and ask how they can get experience if nobody will hire them?

My advice to these people is usually very simple:

  1. Volunteer. There are community organizations all over the world with computers that are not being managed, and would be grateful to have an MCSE (MCSA, MCDST) working for them on a part-time basis if it would not cost them anything. Many people list day to day tasks on their CVs, but projects are what HR people in the know are looking for. ‘I implemented a domain-based network for Charity A in my neighbourhood; I migrated fifteen disjoint PCs into an Active Directory network with centralized management and monitoring; I instructed volunteers on the day-to-day tasks required of them. Going forward I am responsible for the monitoring, management, and maintenance of the computer centre while working with the on-site volunteers to give them a better understanding of the implemented infrastructure.’
    The project I just described might be a one week or one month project, depending on the systems and what goes wrong during the process. Dont worry about that, you will learn from it. In an interview someone looking at this curriculum vitae and ask if that was a paid position or a volunteer job; answer them honestly, say you spent the time learning, you passed the required tests, and acquiring the necessary certifications. You understand that this is not enough for the interviewer to hire you so you went out and found a charity that needed you so that you could gain the experience to be truly valuable to his organization. Rather than seeing this as a ploy, most interviewers will commend you for your honesty as well as for your industriousness.
    I am willing to wager that sometime soon the sample projects I listed above will find their way verbatim onto someone’s CV.If that CV ends up on my desk you can be sure I will be checking the reference!
  2. Accept an internship. Depending on the company it could either be low or no pay, but if you are willing to work for a company to prove yourself then one of two things will happen:
    1. You will prove your worth to them and they will hire you into a proper position; or
    2. You will have earned experience and a reference that can be added to your CV so that the next company will see that you have done something.
  3. Be prepared to accept a position that is a rung or two lower than you had hoped for. The truth is that if you went out and paid for either a boot camp or a series of certification courses you probably read somewhere or heard from someone (often the sales person who sold you the courses) that upon earning your certifications you will instantly be ready to take on the position of senior network administrator for Large Corporation B which commands a salary of Two Hundred and Seventy-Five Thousand Dollars. I am reminded of an anecdote where a graduate fresh out of MIT Engineering is interviewing for a job and he says ‘I am looking for a starting salary of $300,000, a company car, and four weeks vacation per year.’ The interviewer answers ‘Well we do have an opening for Senior Project Manager; the starting salary is $360,000, it comes with a corporate condo downtown, a company limo, and six weeks paid vacation when you can use our corporate facilities in Bermuda, Vail, or the French Riviera.’ The graduate is stunned and says ‘You’re kidding me!’ to which the interviewer replies: ‘Yes I am, but only because you started it.’
    We would all like to start at the top, but it is not realistic. Most companies interviewing for senior IT staff will require degrees, certifications, and five (or more) years experience. How do you get to the level where you can demand your own terms? Spend a few years gaining the experience; while you are doing that revisit point 1. Never stop studying. Take on projects that your bosses will look back on and realize your worth when it comes time to review you, or alternately will look appealing to the interviewer who reads it on your CV a couple of years down the road.

Over the past few years I have been a very vocal proponent of the value of certifications. I have worked and continue to work closely with Microsoft Learning to increase the value and to protect the integrity of the certification program. I honestly feel that certifications are an important aspect of an IT Professionals growth. I do not, on the other hand, feel that certifications alone are proof of knowledge or ability. I would never hire anyone based solely on certifications, and would not hire someone without proof of a firm knowledge of how things work in the real world. On the flipside of the same coin I would probably not hire an IT professional with the real world knowledge but who lacked the certifications.

I have said before and will say it again: Certifications are not proof of knowledge. They are a demonstration that someone has the respect for his or her profession to pursue not only the knowledge but the credentials which attest that they are not simply computer guys, but IT Professionals.


10 responses to “Certifications Alone Do Not Make the Pro”

  1. Hi,
    This is very interesting .I like this. I will come back and read again and get the more information .

  2. Hello Mitch. I read in your article “…probably not hire an IT professional with the real world knowledge but who lacked the certifications.”
    I am one of those IT professionals.
    I have been working on networks and servers for the same company since 1995. Started in IT back in 1985. Training and getting certifications was never a high priority. All the pressure was on getting real world work done on existing systems. In the early days there were few certifications to be had. You learned what you needed to know, when you needed to know it, just by reading the manuals and calling the manufacturers tech support if you got stuck. Now we are expected to know how to work on technology we may never encounter in order to get a job working on systems we already know.

    1. Hi Cameron,
      You make a lot of very interesting points in this article, but the one that stands out is that you have been with the same company for sixteen years. That is nearly unheard of in our industry, and power to you! I am sure that as long as you are in your current position you know all of your systems and wouldn’t need the certs… but if your CV was on my desk it would mean that your safety zone was gone. It would mean that you needed to find a new job, and the job that I might be hiring for DOES require some of those tools that you have never encountered.

      The new generation of certifications – the MCTS and MCITPs – help somewhat. While MCITPs are more job-based, the MCTS certs are task-based… so if you work with AD you don’t need to know IIS. However I understand that no cert will be custom-tailored to an individual.

      In any event, as long as you stay in the role and current in the technologies that you need, then I understand that certifications are likely not as relevant to you. However if you do have to step out into the job market, I want to leave you with this thought… when you explained your situation to me it made sense, and I might have even given you an interview. However if I had given the HR manager or a headhunter a series of criteria to look for, you never would have had the opportunity to make your case to me. They look for keywords, and if you don’t have it you don’t get to bat, let alone on base.

      I will leave you with this thought… The great composers of the Rennaissance did not study the classics, they were too busy inventing them. I also learned computers way back when, but realized that I had to adjust to the realities of the modern world… and I didn’t invent anything so when I do apply for jobs (contracts) I cannot say ‘I wrote Hyper-V’… so I have to demonstrate to them that my knowledge of server virtualization is superior to that of the next candidate, and the first step to that is certifications 🙂

      1. Mitch thank you very much with your answer to this gentleman. you have clearly explained everything that is needed to know about I.T certifications. all you need first is a foundation and then certification will follow depending on your job or daily duties. without an IT foundation the IT certification is not worth its value.

      2. Mitch:
        You might want to know that what you wrote about, not getting in front of a hiring manager due a lack of certs, turned out to be very true for me in my recent job hunt. (job was sent offshore). It was not until I had an interview with, no managers present, that I was made an offer.
        Recruiters had been able to get me some interviews with IT managers based solely on my experience but I had been unable to “close the deal” without certs. On my last interview, the IT manager could not make it to my interview. She sent 3 of the technical staff I would be working with. The interview seemed to go very well since they mostly asked me to solve problems they had solved already or how to approach some they had not. The next day I was made an offer without ever talking to the person I would be working for! When I eventually did meet her, I thanked her for the opportunity and asked why I was selected. She said I was the only candidate that all 3 had ever agreed on. I have been on the job about 2 months and so far everything is going great.
        I see the value of certifications. I probably would have spent less than 6 months looking for work.

  3. […] a gentleman named Cameron wrote a very insightful response to an article I write back in July (Certifications Alone do not Make the Pro, July 20, 2011).  He points out that as he has been in IT for 26 years, he actually pre-dates […]

  4. Aww! Yeah, 10 years of maarirge, and kids really does have a way of blocking our memories. I love those days when I remember why I fell in love! 🙂 I'm so happy for you!

  5. […] Certifications Alone Do Not Make the Pro « The World According to … […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: