Certifications are a topic that are sure to come up during everyone’s career in the IT industry. Whether you are a rookie looking to break into the industry or a veteran who is looking to move into a different type of role, the possibility of getting a certification will weigh heavily in your decision making process. While to some this may seem daunting, there is plenty of information available on the web that can help you along your path. But the real question to consider is, are these certifications even really worth it?
Reasons to certify
There are many different reasons to consider getting certified. For someone who is new to the IT industry, a certification is something that can be put on a resume in place of work experience. At some point, everyone has to start somewhere, so lack of work experience is something everyone has to contend with at some point early on in their career. Little real world experience certainly may make finding the perfect job a good bit harder, but having a certification on your resume should show a potential employer that you have taken the initiative to learn a topic and prove your proficiency in that topic.
If you have been in the industry for a while, maybe you’ve been stuck doing the same thing for a few years and you are looking for a reason to break out into a new role or work with a different type of technology. One way to show your employer that you are serious about moving on to a new technology or role would be to seek out a certification. That could be the catalyst to help you get to that next step in your career.
Of course there are also professionals out there who strive to be SME’s (subject matter experts). For anyone who has already zeroed in on a particular technology, going through the full certification path all the way up to the highest level that a particular vendor offers is one way to help prove your SME status.
For myself, I work at a VAR, which means I kind of have had a combination of reasons. A VAR partners with many major vendors in the IT space, and sometimes the level of VAR status (silver, gold, platinum, etc.) depends on the number of employees who are certified. Due to that, I’ve been assigned to achieve certifications in the past solely so that my company can hit our goals. Some of these have been certs that I probably would not have chosen if it were up to me, but some of them have been very worthwhile and even propelled me to seek out further certifications along that path. At the same time, I have taken it upon myself to go for a couple certifications on my own that were already areas of interest to me, just to be able to get started on a new path and round out my skills a bit more.
Levels of certification
With most vendor certifications, there is typically a track that defines the different levels that are available. Using VMware certfications as an example, the VCA (VMware Certified Associate) is the entry level certification. The next step up is the VCP (VMware Certified Professional), which typically requires a VMware training class as a pre-requisite to take the exam. The path is rounded out with the VCAP (Advanced Pro) and VCDX (Design Expert), which increase in complexity and involvement as you move along.
A VMware SME would more than likely have already achieved at least one VCAP certification and may be working towards a VCDX. Someone looking to get started with VMware technology would be exploring the VCA options with a goal of gaining some basic knowledge to work towards something like a VCP. Most vendors have similar certification paths geared to different technical levels and skillsets.
Total cost of certification
Like everything else in life, certifications ain’t free! Most, if not all certifications cost anywhere from $100-$500 and in some instances even higher for the upper level certs just to schedule an exam. On top of that, many exams require prerequisites that either include other certifications, or some type of training class that also costs money. Putting aside the financial aspects, there is also the time it takes to prepare for a certification. Some employers may allow you to study during work hours, but for others, the preparation for an exam may come at the expense of personal/family time. Like anything else, you get out what you put in, so if you are like me and you really want to pass that exam on your first attempt, you will put in a lot of preparation time to make sure that you are extremely confident once you sit the exam. All of that preparation does come at a cost, but if you see the word ‘PASS’ at the end of the exam, it will all be worth it.
So are IT certifications actually worth it? Like many other things, the answer is it depends! I’d argue that in general, actual work experience is much more valuable than a certification. While a certification is great to have on paper, it doesn’t teach you how to think on your feet and how to deal with customers in a professional environment. A certification can’t simulate how you will respond when you click a button on a Friday afternoon and the customer runs in 2 minutes later asking why you just kicked everyone out of their desktop sessions. Trust me, I speak from experience on that one, and anyone who has been around IT long enough has as well. A certification could certainly get your foot in the door for an interview, but it is your experience and mastery of the subject matter that will help you through the gauntlet of questions that are thrown at you during the interview. If you only focus on what is required to pass one certification exam, you may find it harder grasp the big picture.
I’ve been lucky in that I work for a specific type of employer that also benefits from my certifications. Due to that, I haven’t had to bear the financial burden that others have to consider when scheduling exams. I get to expense my classes/exams and in some instances, get to prepare during work hours. This has led me down a few certification paths that have been beneficial to me and allowed me to take the initiative to explore further than was originally required. I’ve also had to bear the stress of taking exams I didn’t really care for just to meet a deadline, which is not particularly fun.
At the end of the day, certifications definitely have their place for some people in the IT industry. They can be very valuable for someone just starting out, as they could be key to getting your foot in the door. And they can definitely be a spark that gets you more deeply involved with a specific technology or even vCommunity. What a certification will NOT do though is fully prepare you to succeed in your job. Many IT professionals have been extremely successful without any certifications at all. It is the experience gained from working in technology within a professional environment that is truly the most valuable asset towards building your career. IT certifications can be part of that, but treat them more like the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself.