Certifications versus Degrees

As I peruse the articles I have written over the years that were not originally written for my blog (or, as is the case here, that was originally on my old blog, was republished elsewhere, and did not get transitioned over to the new site after the moves) I am finding a number of articles that are still relevant and, I hope, will still be interesting to people looking to start out on a career in IT. -M

<October, 2009>Last week I was invited to speak at the Microsoft across America event held at Miami Dade College for their CIS Faculty on the subject of Microsoft Certifications. The Q&A Session was quite lively, and I was asked one question that stuck out in my mind:

If we are getting a degree why are certifications important?

This is a fairly common question that I am asked on a regular basis, and the answer is quite simple. A degree will give you a solid foundation in the theorem behind computers. You can take this degree to any employer today, next year, or in twenty years and it will demonstrate that you completed a program, and that you understand the basics. Certifications are different, in that they demonstrate a solid understanding of the current technology, whether that be Active Directory, Exchange Server 2007, SQL Server 2005, or Windows Vista. They are proof that no matter when you finished your schooling you continue to keep current with the platforms.

A good friend of mine has a degree from Concordia in Computer Engineering. He is a highly intelligent man and a very successful management consultant. When he has trouble with his computer he calls me… it doesn’t matter if it is related to hardware, the OS, or applications, he calls me because since he got his degree in 1970 computers have changed somewhat… whereas thirty years ago he was able to program the most advanced mainframes, and some of his programs are still in use by companies today, today he knows how to do everything that he needs to do – including his banking, booking travel and other on-line shopping, and most everything (basic level) with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. In other words, this Computer Engineer (he will always have the right to the title) knows roughly the same as my mother does, but with a much greater understanding of the theory behind it. I am sure he can also (if prompted) still do basic binary and hexadecimal math; if you ask him to check the IP Address of his computer he might or might not be able to do so, and if so only because I walked him through it once.

Does this mean that a degree in computers is useless? Nothing could be further from the truth. The theoretical knowledge that you earn in school is absolutely invaluable to having a deeper understanding of the practical knowledge any IT professional or developer needs to succeed. So then you might ask why certifications are important. Simply put, certifications demonstrate that, whether you have that education or not, you have a thorough understanding of the tasks and job roles based on the current technology.

Every certification course and book that I have ever read or written has a section at the beginning called prerequisites that will state what you need in order to fully grasp the contents. A degree is the foundation for all of those concepts, plus a great deal more. So don’t drop out of your IT program in college just yet… and if you don’t have that basis remember that you have a lot of background reading to do throughout your career if you want to keep up with the competition.

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