I often hear people complain about certifications and the need to "get certified." I have to confess, there have been times I've done my share of complaining (before I understood the value of certifications). After many years spent in IT (Information Technology), I'd like to set the record straight, once and for all.
Here's a short list of complaints I hear over and over again.
- "I know everything already... What else could I possibly learn?"
- "It's a waste of time."
- "I've got work to do!" (deadlines)
- "It's just a piece of paper. Why bother!"
Why bother with certifications, exams, or training? Sure, you can read stacks of books, mentor with someone well versed in a particular topic or spend years teaching yourself. If it's a hobby you're interesting in learning, this might be the ideal solution. However, when your career is on the line, or you want to pursue a new career, you don't have an endless amount of time to spend. Even worse, you might be learning from someone with poor teaching skills, bad habits, or a lack of knowledge.
I will argue with anyone making this bold and brash statement. I've sat down with instructors, educators, and subject matter experts and they all say the same thing. No matter how much they know, they're continually studying, reading, attending conferences, interacting with peers, and looking for more information in their area of expertise. It's how professionals stay on top of their field, and it's a never ending process. As we go through life, we realize just how little we know and how much there is left to learn.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard this, I would have enough money to buy a round of beer (or more) for all of you. I've run into a lot of people content with attending a class and calling it a day, never taking the next step of validating what they've learned (or didn't learn). Sitting in a classroom for five days doesn't mean you actually learned anything. These people waste everyone's time including the instructor, fellow students, and potential customers.
People who finish the training and go no farther fall into one of the following buckets:
- unaware of certifications and exams to prove competency
- think exams are too complicated or unnecessary
- don't have the time to study and sit exams
- their company is sending them on the training (for education purposes only) and managers won't invest in certifications or exams (fear of losing employees)
- scared of failing the exam (shame and ridicule from co-workers and peers)
Anyone who has sat in a training class knows there are different calibers of instructors (trainers) and courses. I sat in a weeklong Microsoft Exchange course where we spent a third of our time on non-Microsoft Exchange training (gaming). How do you validate your investment? Do you ask your employee questions, get a letter from the instructor, or send them to a customer site to see what they've learned? Typically, the boss sends you to a customer site. Were you paying attention? Have you set yourself up for failure? How much of this "on the job training" going to cost the customer?
Without validation, you're setting yourself and any customers up for failure. My first major project was implementing an email system for an urban municipality. The consultant originally hired spent several weeks looking busy and smart. Several weeks into the project, he stopped showing up for work. After a few frantic phone calls, we discovered he quit and moved to another city. As his assistance, the project was handed to me, the guy with very little practical experience or training on the product. The project would not have been successful if it wasn't for Microsoft stepping in with training, support, and assistance. From my first project, I learned the value of training and certification. Every member of the team assisting in the project had the skills, knowledge, and certification required to design, implement, and troubleshoot a Microsoft solution.
I could write a book covering all the projects I've fixed after someone who wasn't qualified or certified designed, implemented or tried to fix an IT solution. Without the proper skills and certification, you will quickly find yourself in a position of not getting contracts, or worse, losing your job.
If you're happy with status quo, then attending training and obtaining certifications isn't your cup of tea. But I'd like to let you in on a couple of insider secrets.
Certifications aren't a waste of time! This spring, I spent my free time attending a series of training sessions covering the basics of emergency and disaster communications. Although I've read tons of articles and books on emergency disaster communications, the instructor covered a wide range of topics ranging from refresher information all the way to topics brand new to me. At the end of each class, group discussions, questions, and a quiz reinforce the day's training. At the end of the course, an online review and exam reinforced the training. Successful completion of both gives me the confidence in my ability to communicate in an emergency (along with another certification).
Let me ask you this question. When was the last time you heard from someone who "self-taught" themselves as a paramedic, doctor, nurse, pilot or scientist? These certifications require training, practice, and stringent examination. You take it for granted pilots jetting you to a tropical resort or corporate event hold a valid pilot's license. You're not going to stop and ask her for proof before she takes to the skies, are you?
I've learned a lot from every training course, exam and certification. From project discipline, best practices, getting things done right from the start, to dealing with difficult situations (imagine an Exchange Server farm with 20,000 users dying in the middle of the day and the company doesn't have a tested disaster recovery plan). Nothing kills a project faster than wasting time going down the wrong path trying to get a corporate network back up and running after a disaster (man-made or otherwise).
I hold many certifications, spanning the IT industry, telecommunications, medical, the list goes on. And with every certification, I realized there is always something I can learn to improve my skills and abilities. Through self-study, attending courses and sitting exams, I continue to grow my skills, knowledge, and proficiency. Achieving an industry-recognized certification is valuable in every profession. A certification (piece of paper) can be your ticket to a dream job, is usually a minimum requirement for a career in IT and leads you down a life-long path of learning.
Who am I to say you need a certification. The only proof I have is my rewarding career in IT, starting on the help desk, achieving certifications, working on bigger and bigger projects, completing cross discipline certifications and eventually given more responsibility on projects for global companies. There really is value in certifications. Don't take my word for it, ask someone you know who holds an industry recognized certification.