Formal Degrees vs. Certification

I’ve never been a fan of most certifications.  I’ve always been even less a fan of formal degrees in education, at least for technology-centric industries.  I’ve always argued that my body of work is my credential, and if a potential employer were to reject my application on the basis that I didn’t have a certain piece of paper, that short-sighted employer wasn’t the type that I wanted to work for anyway.

This article, however, goes even further to suggest that College is a waste of time for an even larger group of people than just the technology-centric industries, and hints at what certifications can accomplish, given that they evolve past most of my objections with them, which are echoed throughout the article.

I’ve never been a fan of formal degrees in education for my industry because my industry changes too rapidly.  By the time one finishes a four-year degree program, most of what they had learned in the first two years will be obsolete.  Sure, the person will likely get a somewhat solid educational base and learn some basic skills to build upon with continuing education and employment experience, but why waste four years of precious life to achieve that, when it can be done in one elsewhere?  Further, many liken a degree to a demonstration of perseverance and endurance.  I personally don’t want to hire someone who’s primary qualifications are that they can endure, or continue banging their head into a wall out of some misplaced perseverance; I want to hire someone competent that won’t have to rely on either of those traits in the first place.

My biggest issues with technical certifications are that, other than the notable exception of Cisco’s certs, many of them aren’t worth the paper they are printed on and don’t actually prove any form of qualification or competence.  In the IT and related industries, you generally have two classes of certifications: Vendor certs and Subject-matter certs.

Vendor certs are, as the name implies, awarded by a particular vendor for passing an exam which demonstrates in-depth knowledge and mastery of a particular product or proprietary technology.  An example of this type is RedHat’s RHCE.

Subject-matter certs are awarded by both vendors as well as other organizations, some who’s sole existence is providing certifications, which are intended to demonstrate knowledge and mastery of a particular range of subject matter.  Examples of these are certs such as ISC²’s CISSP and Microsoft’s MCSE, and these are the types of certifications that have generally fallen short.  Reports of hiring managers disqualifying applicants on the grounds that they have achieved the CISSP and the phrase “MCSE’s are a dime-a-dozen.” didn’t just spring up out of nowhere on their own, ya know.

Cisco’s certifications have been notoriously respected due to their hybrid approach of both of the above.  Sure, Cisco equipment is used directly as subject-matter, and some of that certainly distills down to knowing how to configure IOS on various devices, however the bulk of the Cisco-centric subject-matter is used to teach the overall technology, network protocols, and concepts.  Further, the certification exams generally include a practical component where applicants must demonstrate their knowledge and competence in a laboratory setting.

Another certification which was recently announced, and premiered at DEFCON 16, is Immunity’s NOP.  While having an extremely narrow scope of what it certifies, it is an entirely practical exam and you know what the person holding the certification accomplished to be awarded it.  I liken these types of certs to the recent innovation in video games dubbed “achievements”, which are essentially like merit badges for accomplishing very specific goals.

The core problem that many of these certifications have is that none of them are standardized, most are not peer-reviewed to ensure comprehensive coverage of their target scope, and many don’t require practical demonstration of the body of knowledge.  From the article:

No technical barriers stand in the way of evolving toward a system where certification tests would replace the BA. Hundreds of certification tests already exist, for everything from building code inspectors to advanced medical specialties. The problem is a shortage of tests that are nationally accepted, like the CPA exam.

This lack of standardization and low-barrier to entry for many of these certifications severely impacts their reputation as a legitimate credential.  If this can be rectified, perhaps I’ll change my opinion about the value that certifications provide.

The article suggests that through certifications a more meaningful credential of qualification can be created than what currently exists through formal degrees of education and the types of certifications that exist today, and which will also more accurately reflect how knowledge and skills are learned and applied throughout one’s life.  This paragraph from the article sums it up nicely:

Here’s the reality: Everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice. Those who are good enough become journeymen. The best become master craftsmen. This is as true of business executives and history professors as of chefs and welders. Getting rid of the BA and replacing it with evidence of competence — treating post-secondary education as apprenticeships for everyone — is one way to help us to recognize that common bond.

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