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It’s About the Journey, Not the Exam

By Andy Warren,

Today we have a guest editorial from Andy Warren as Steve is on vacation.

When I started in IT in 1998 I took the Windows 95 exam. I felt like I learned a lot, so I took more exams, eventually taking just about all of the ones available in the 2000-2001 timeframe. I never thought passing the exams made me qualified as an ‘expert’. I thought taking them would help my career and it did, but more because I chose to exert the effort than from any notion that having passed them made me more valuable. I thought they would look good on my resume and I guess they did, but the next time I made a job change it was to go solo and then it didn’t really matter. I took them because they drove learning, but the goal was the certification.

The last time I took an exam was 2007 because I was writing an SSIS chapter for an exam prep book and I wanted to see the SSIS coverage. Try distilling SSIS into 30 pages! At that point in my career exams felt like a treadmill and I thought that I could better invest time, money, and energy in other directions. Certainly in 2007 or so the value of certifications had been degraded some from the heady early days. By that time I had learned to drive my own learning more effectively and I was interested in things that didn’t always align with the exams. The net was I largely stopped paying attention to them.

Now it’s 2013 and I haven’t taken an exam in a long time. I’m still reasonably current, strong in some areas and not as much in others – something I’m sure most of you can identify with.  Looking at the market and talking to recruiters I still hear them asking about certs, but it doesn’t feel serious – more like something to ask to rule out candidates at best, and more likely as filler in the position description, but maybe I’m too cynical about that!

You might be surprised to hear that I’m planning to take one of the SQL exams next year. The goal of passing the exam is just to have a current bullet on my resume, right now I feel like listing certs from 2000 to 2005 doesn’t convey the idea that I’m engaged – better to just leave them off. Having a current exam listed is just a way to reduce friction if the day comes when it matters.

The difference between today and five and even ten years ago is two parts. One is that I’m not setting off to play capture the cert. I’ll take one or two exams and that will be enough, and I don’t have any plans to jump back in on the 2014 exams – maybe when 2016 or 2017 exams are out I will. The second part, far more important and far more interesting, is that I’m not nearly as interested in passing the exam as I am in learning. I looked at the areas covered by the exam and right away saw some areas where I know I need to learn. I took the Transcender exam and identified more. Those have been added to my learning list and when I feel like I understand them (which isn’t the same as mastering them but is more than having never touched them), I’ll go over and take the exam.

Should you take an exam or go for a cert? Look at the exam content. Be willing to learn some things you’re not sure you will use. Be willing to not take an exam if it doesn’t map closely enough to your career needs. Passing the exam will feel good, but the value is the journey.

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