Monday, 27 July 2009

Certification versus education

I came across this, rather thought-provoking post on the value and importance of certification. Although it is focused on MCSE certification, it did resonate a little for me regarding non-Microsoft certifications as well:

Commercial certification is now, very visibly, beginning to replace the older academic routes into the IT industry - so why has this come about? Industry now acknowledges that for an understanding of the relevant skills, certified accreditation from the likes of CISCO, Adobe, Microsoft and CompTIA is closer to the mark commercially - saving time and money. The training is effectively done through concentrating on the skill-sets required (alongside an appropriate level of related knowledge,) as opposed to spending months and years on the background detail and ‘fluff’ that degrees in computing are prone to get tied up in (to fill up a syllabus or course).

I remember when I started in IT, there were no certification course at all. Degree courses were pretty focused on the conceptual side of IT and I was very lucky to start my career with a bunch of people who were very good at implementing stuff because a) University taught me fuck all of use in the real world and b) I could easily have wound up working for incompetents, which would probably have set my personal standards a bit lower.

But when certification came along, we were all pretty jaundiced about it. And when I was employing people, I was much more interested in people who wanted to be good at what they did than people who had a bunch of letters, whether degrees or certifications behind their name.

And I still feel the same today.

However, I'm probably in a minority here and for all sorts of reasons, I reckon it now probably better for you to have both a degree and some kind of technical certification under your belt. It gives your employer some confidence that you have both a theoretical and a practical grasp on technology.

It sucks, really. I really don't believe in certification, but I know that in the highly competitive job market out there, having some certification is almost mandatory.


Fidel Cuntstruck said...

I'd agree with you, Degree qualifications have been devalued to the point of despair in an attempt by the majority of Universities to attract people and therefore funding. What possible use some of the qualifications awarded have in real life, I don't know. What I do know is that the old fashioned A level (I don't know what they are called now, I'm too old) gave a much better indication of a candidate's ability to reason, interpret and apply theory to a task than a degree in Marketing or some other such nonsense ever could. OK, the best Universities have always produced high calibre individuals, but surely that's only half the story, they still know little about life or how to interact as part of a team be it in a technical or creative role. The one thing that having a degree qualified candiate does offer is that the HR bods and those who select the candidate, have something to hide behind. If they pick a duffer it can't be down to the selection panel's failings if the candidate's qualifications "fit the profile" now can it?

Obsidian said...

Not a fan of certifications myself, I've seen people with excellent computing degrees with absolutely no business sense, and people instilled in the Microsoft Way Of Doing Things become utterly lost when faceplanted by the Multiple Bodges In Real Life Way Of Doing Things.

IT is frequently more about figuring out what the previous developers were thinking (or not thinking in some cases) than the actual technology. And there's no way of teaching that.

Obnoxio The Clown said...

I agree with both of you. I don't like certifications, but:
1. they cover the HR weasels' butts and
2. they don't show whether you've got any nous or talent.

Rampart said...

We have had some problems here with people here who have the entry level certifications but have obviously rote learned it and have no understanding what it means. Some of them have been so thick I do wonder if they have been having "help" with the online exams at the training centres.

I fully agree on the dumbing down of degrees however.

Optimistic Cynic said...

I completely agree. It's syntactical rote learning. They don't prove good programming skill, which is about having a problem-solving mind, tenacity and access to the right materials to implement it.

I once worked with an MCP (in MS Access) and he told a client that something COULDN'T be done in MS Access.

I thought for a moment and told the client that there was a way. I warned them that it was a bit Heath Robinson, potentially risky, but the client was happy with the solution.

A lot of companies just hire people with certs to get their "Gold Partner" level, which is again a form of certification (doesn't actually prove that your company can build systems for shit.

Ultimately, it's why small companies kill big ones. Big companies insist on back-covering expensive shit like gold partners and ISO9002. Small companies hire smart people with good reputations for less money.

Rampart said...

Sorry if I'm cynical about this but a few years back HR told me about a training companies scheme and how they would provide us with high quality juniors on work experience who all had Cisco certification. I would provide them with some training and they would help out with the grunt work.

To be fair the first one was excellent and he got a job in no time but what they sent following were real cr*p. One had described himself as a Linux expert but didn't know it could be installed from CD ! He turned out to be a junkie as well. Another had a bizarre knife fetish although the warning bells didn't go of with me until he made a picture of a commando knife his windows wallpaper.

Anonymous said...

My Comp Sci degree was well worth it.

Did I graduate knowing every nuance of Oracle, or the difference between GCC and MSDEV?

No, but I was armed with a metric fuckload of computer science theory, the ability to reason and methods of being structured in my approach.

Programming languages come and go but the theory remains. For example, if you understand how a linked list(*) works on paper it doesn't matter what programming language you use to implement it, as long as you are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of that language.

I interviewed about 20 people, all supposedly "senior programmers". About a third of them knew what a linked list was.

* Techie stuff, linked lists are one of the building blocks of many technologies.

AntiCitizenOne said...

> And when I was employing people, I was much more interested in people who wanted to be good at what they did than people who had a bunch of letters, whether degrees or certifications behind their name.

Totally agree, good IT people have an attitude and approach to problems that's not easily taught but some are born with.

MY IT degree, apart from the Database stuff, was totally useless! I did a whole course on "networks" without once say configuring a PC. It made it impossible for me to understand what they were on about! I then did a year out in industry and found it straightforward connecting PCs upto Netscape on Novell v3.1. There's something wrong with academia whereby it takes 3 years to teach something a IT boot-camp could cram into a month or two.

Obnoxio The Clown said...

Re: linked lists - they're not always a good thing.

The stories I could tell. ;o(

Obsidian said...

Thinking about it, experience doesn't always count.

I've encountered people with a lot more experience than me I wouldn't trust to trot off and code me something that output the old mainstay of 'hello world'.

There's the tech as well, I do a lot of .NET and in absolute terms I'm above average, but due to the sheer amount of goobers out there doing it, in comparative terms I'm sailing through the troposphere.

One thing I have noticed, Indian coders are all eager to keep on learning, Pakistani/Bengali coders reach a level and are content to stay there and just work 23 hours a day for more than one employer, and British coders just want to fuck off to the pub as most projects aren't managed as much as juggled.

On that note, I think I may just fuck off to the pub...

AntiCitizenOne said...

> I interviewed about 20 people, all supposedly "senior programmers". About a third of them knew what a linked list was.

That could be because they use the STL, and some (not me!) would argue that it's a good thing.

Anonymous said...

"I interviewed about 20 people, all supposedly "senior programmers". About a third of them knew what a linked list was."

No kidding?

A bit like those undergraduates who can't write English, I suppose.

After years of pooh-poohing credentials, I now find myself with an MCSE.

Why? Because it's the one thing that gets you interviews, that's why. After that I can generally manage on my real-world skills and knowledge.

Sad, but universal. Ass-covering is the reason; it's either a way of keeping the insurance company off your back ("was this person qualified to do this job?") or the employment tribunal ("why did you choose this person rather than that minority disabled whinging entitlement-bunny?")

RobW said...

I'm not sure it will ever truly catch on in IT. The industry moves forward so quickly that having a certificate against your name really proves little.

Jax said...

Notice nobody has mentioned Sun Certs?

my experience is that not having a degree in IT has not held me back - I have philosophy instead, which at least provides a talking point at interview. But once I took time out on maternity I really struggled to get back on the ladder. Doing a Sun Cert in Java brushed up my skills, gave me confidence, and improved my standings on the tech tests so many companies use now. Basically a foot in the door.

And as a team leader, I'd rather have someone without an IT degree than with, as I spend the first several months training them out of what they learnt at university. Unless they've been to an Indian university, in which case they generally appear to be excellent. Although you have to be sure they actually went and didn't do a distance learning degree, as those are nowhere near as practical.

Anonymous said...

I've been getting by for fifteen years on the strenth of having read (or worked, more truthfullY) on serious book (SICP).

Every few years as the tools and languages improve it pays off more and more. When I retire in 15 years I expect we'll be nudging into the world that Sussman and Ableson lived in two decades ago.

Pogo said...

Speaking as an old-timer, started as a junior stoker on a Univac 10/04 - they hadn't invented IT degrees when I was at uni, had to content myself with Physics, but at least we had a Ferranti Atlas to play with.

However, to get back onto the acceptability of degrees, certificates, whatever: many moons ago one of my, now retired, mates was a very senior IT guy with a big company and discovered an entirely new interview technique for "techies"... After a simple competence check he simply asked them, depending upon their age (remember we're talking old here!), if they liked "The Goons" and/or "Monty Python". He came to the conclusion that decent techies all had the sort of sense of humour that appreciated that style of comedy. So, if the answer was "yes", he hired them.

Since he told me that, I've applied it as a "test" of people in IT that I've bumped into - and he was right... Those with the "Python" SOH all seemed pretty useful, whereas those not so inclined I wouldn't have employed to make the tea. :-)

Eat your hearts out HR!

Anonymous said...

I think these new style credentials are becoming a necessity BECAUSE of the way a lot of higher education qualification are losing their value.
I'm speaking as someone who's only got 1 certification worth a damn, and I got that when I was 11. I'm perfectly intelligent, I was in the top 5 percentile in my county when at school, but the classes were being tailored for morons, and I dropped out.
These courses are going to rediscover people who made the same mistake I made. People who cannot stand learning at too slow a pace.