Friday, September 12, 2008

Do You Cert?

Another Piece of Paper

It seems like certifications have really taken off over the last ten years. Maybe because it's another revenue stream for vendors, or maybe because some employers have started to show interest in them, but either way it seems like there's a near endless list of certifications available form every vendor known to man.

I'll preface this by stating I'm a little biased on the topic, I've probably written around ten cert exams myself over the last 4 years. Although I have yet to personally pay for an exam (paid by employers/schools/user groups) I would definitely say I'm fueling the fire.

What's The Point?

I'll be painfully blunt about this next point. Certifications don't get you deep in a technology. When I see a cert on a resume all it really tells me is that this guy is at least a newbie (or better) over the entire technology. He's not necessarily a guru or even an intermediate unless he's also been working with the technology at least a couple years.

On the other hand I know he's been exposed and tested on (ideally) the entire breadth of the technology. That is, it's very likely that even though this guy may not be deep in all areas of the technology, at least he knows its boundaries and how what it's supposed to do. A simpler way of putting would be at least this guy knows what he doesn't know. Someone being aware of what they don't know or understand is a great starting point for Google/MSDN/Blogs etc...

Someone who's really well versed on a technology is even better at telling you areas of it that they're weak in than areas that they're great at.

The Benefit of Certifications

I'm not going to say that all certs are created equally. I'm sure there's some that are empty and cover pretty shallow technologies. However, any time you actually sit down and try to become a student of a technology, you're going to start learning it a different way. There's very much a paradigm shift from "I need this technology to create a widget" to "I want to learn this technology as a topic". No longer are we focused explicitly on task driven tutorials or how to perform something syntactically, but instead we start looking at the technology as a subject to be studied.

For me when it comes time to learn a new technology there's some key questions that I always want answers to:

  1. Where is this technology positioned w.r.t. to the existing tech stack? What are it's competitors/alternatives?
  2. What problem is this supposed to solve?
  3. What is the breath/scope of this technology?

While a lot of this information is available on the web, following a cert path is almost guaranteed to lead you down a well organized trail that ensures you at least glance at all the technology has to offer.

Always Learning

The most melancholy truth about IT technology is that it has a shelf life. Just like your cert it will be come obsolete over time and you'll be lucky if you can get 5 years out of it. That being said I feel I owe a lot of my technical know how to frequent certifications more importantly, going through the process of learning a new technology in a very deliberate way.

I'll always remember a math teacher who told us that the material we were covering was more or less useless.

"You're not in school to learn random topics. You're here to learn how to learn!"

For me, sitting down once or twice a year and plying myself against a topic is a way for me to continue to get better at learning. It's one skill that you'll always need in this industry.

Sharpening the Saw,
Tyler Holmes

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