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Does Certification Have Any Value?

Someone asked which certificate would be the better choice on Twitter today: Microsoft Certified Professional or Certified Scrum Master. My answer was very simple: neither because they're both utterly worthless. I've been very skeptical about any kind of software development certification for a couple of years now. More precisely, ever since I passed the ASP.NET WebForms exam with a 90% score even though I hadn't actually done anything with ASP.NET WebForms yet. I hadn't even bothered to do any exercises while preparing for the exam because I knew it just wasn't necessary. All you have to do is read the API documentation, memorize the details that you'd normally Google for and weed out the way-too-obvious bad choices in the multiple choice questioning of the test and that's it: you're certified, congratulations! Of course, you'll forget most of the details that you've memorized and you will not have learned anything really substantial that will serve you well for a long time. You'll certainly not learn anything important about how to develop high quality software or writing high quality code. And that should be rather important to you, no?

Of course, that doesn't mean that you have to approach it like that as well. You can indeed learn a lot about a certain technology while preparing for a certification exam, but the whole thing is completely devalued by the incredibly large group of people who do game the system and are only in it to add the certificates to their CV, or to demand a higher salary or rates because they are after all certified professionals. Never mind the fact that many of them never even bother to focus on learning fundamental principles that would benefit their careers as well as increasing the value they bring to clients/employers far more than intimate (temporary) knowledge of a specific technology that's probably going to be replaced by something new in about 4 years anyway. To those of you who've taken exams on WPF: how's that working out for you? Still debugging memory leaks I'm sure ;)

Even though a lot of people know this all too well, they'll still come up with arguments like "but it really helps when clients ask for certificates" or "certificates give me a leg up when clients need to go over tons of CVs". Sorry, but I'm not buying it. Well, I do know that some companies indeed consider certificates a benefit when evaluating candidates but I prefer to look at it from a slightly different angle: those kind of companies often employ people who got their certificates by gaming the system at a much higher rate than companies who don't care about certificates and prefer to focus on real experience and solid knowledge of important fundamentals instead. Simply put: if you choose to work for companies that value certificates, odds are very high that you'll be working with certified idiots.

If you're wondering whether you should invest time in getting certified, I'd advise a different approach. Don't bother with certifications and spend your time and energy on attaining knowledge that will last you far longer, and will even improve your abilities of quickly picking up new technologies. And the way to do that is pretty simple. Work on hobby projects. Experiment with multiple technologies. Study code from established projects and developers. And read books. Lot's of them even! If you don't know which ones, I've got a good list available here and you might notice that the majority of those books are technology-independent. They focus on fundamental principles and common knowledge that you'll be able to reuse no matter what technology you're using now or will end up using later on.

Of course, all of this does take more effort than simply showing up for a 2-day course where everybody gets a meaningless piece of paper or spending a weekend cramming API details that you don't actually need to remember to be productive at your job. But hey, if your goal is to improve your value, and not just your perceived status, it's worth it, right?

Written by Davy Brion, published on 2011-11-29 22:30:21
Categories: opinions

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