The Certification Debate

  • Nice comments and I think most people see certs similar to me. It's a nice addition, but not necessarily an indication of skill.

    I'd like to see an independent cert, preferably by someone like PASS. If you think it's a good idea, send a note to the PASS board. Maybe they'll build one!

  • PASS certification is definitely a good idea. As long as they covered a separate part of the skill-set, such as troubleshooting techniques.

    I am now a certified MCTIP 2005 (Steve, you also need 70-444 as well as 443 and MCTS) but most of the people posting to this board will have far greater experience than me and able to code more scripts which run faster in less time than it would take me. However an experienced DBA should be able to pass these exams. Otherwise it means they don't truly understand the technologies involved.

    Are they worth the money. If you can put them on expenses, yes. They also mean your CV is more likely to be found by recruitment consultants. They are an excuse to mention keywords like SQL and DBA more often

  • >> I am thinking of starting a training program for developers which teaches the actual skills required to be a good programmer, <<

    I agree with all you said, and I'll be the first to sign up for your training, Jasmine.


  • To your point about checking skills, that's what the tech interview/lab is supposed to do if it's part of the interview process. Over the last few years I've helped interview both IIS administrators and DBAs for my organization and I start with a basic set of questions that I have rated at various levels of proficiency. I got that idea from Randy Dyess (, actually. Once they get past the general "Do you know this? Have you done that?" questions, I then have scenario questions or the like.

    For instance, for the IIS administrator interviews I did earlier this year, I had a simple IIS log file (okay, simple if you've ever spent time reading the W3SVC log format). I asked task completion items like, "The organization's standard is IE 6.0 SP1. Find any entries which indicate a person is not using a standard browser." Intermixed was a Firefox hit as well as a IE 5.5. If they point to the first thing that says "Mozilla," we have a problem.

    The log also had 401 and 500 response codes in it and I'd ask, "Looking over these log entries, do you see any which would indicate a person wasn't able to access the page? If so, why weren't they able to do so?" The 401 corresponds to an unauthorized attempt and the client must provide credentials. This is a tricky one because typically a web browser will hit, get the 401, and then hit again with authentication credentials and you'll see the 200 right after that. If a person spots the 401, that tells me something about their expertise. If they see the 200 right after that and can explain what happened, that tells me more. And when they see the 500, they should say, "There was an error with the server. Do we have anything in the application or system log that corresponds?" If they see the 500, again, one level. If they see it and ask about it, another level.


    K. Brian Kelley

  • For an IIS Admin position, the facts are important to know, but all that stuff is simply memorization skills - knowing the codes and the file format. What I'm more interested in would be, if someone had never seen a log like that before, would they be able to figure out how to read it and how to use it. For an IIS admin, knowing that stuff is important, but I think "programmer skills" are something that is almost impossible to define in the first place, so you can't test for that in the way that the certifications are done. I am impressed when somebody has a certification, but I think a person needs more than that in order to be a good programmer.

    Too many people fall into the trap of learning the test material and then getting into jobs they can't do. They assume that the certification will give them the skills to do the job, but it doesn't, it only gives you the knowledge. I'm less concerned about the whole situation with hiring than I am concerned about folks getting proper educations for what they want to do. Taking a certification course and then going in to the workforce is likely to leave you a little short, yet that's what people do, and the 'college' advertising often promises you a good job (sometimes explicitly). That's not a promise they should be making - if you only know the facts and don't have practical experience, you're going to have trouble in your job and get frustrated. I've seen this happen, and it's shameful because the person thought they weren't cut out for the job, and they might have been if they had the proper training. It's a real shame when someone can't pursue the things they want to, simply because they don't have the proper training.

    I found this thread on another site:

    It's interesting because the newbie comes in asking what skills he should have to be a game developer, and he lists a specific set of factual knowledge. The experts on the site then direct this person to what the true skill set is, problem solving, problem definition, algorithm design, and basic job skills like communication and teamwork. All of these are crucial regardless of the technologies and languages you are using. These skills will allow a person to be a good developer for the long haul, because no specific knowledge set is going to be any good in a few years. The newbie seems reluctant to take the word of the experienced people, but he comes around eventually.

  • I disagree... you can know the codes and you can read the file format, but you have to understand what they are telling you. The 401 example is one good one. If you have an understanding of how the client server authentication occurs (which is more than just simple memorization), than you know what to look for and what should be happening. If you see it, you know that's not your problem child. It's extremely important because if you've got one person not connecting right and you spot the 401 and don't understand to look for the 200, you've just told the development team that the person isn't authenticating properly, and then people start crawling over the browser, looking at its settings, etc., rather than spotting the 500 error meaning the user is doing something (possibly, since no one else is experiencing an issue) to cause the app to crash out. Again, it's a problem solving thing.

    And as for developers, one of the things a former manager I had did was the following: had a fully setup PC with the normal tools, full MSDN library load, etc. He then had several tasks he wanted completed (establish a database connection using particular credentials, bring back the data and display it so, take user input, etc.). Nothing fancy or terribly difficult, but the person had to actually sit down and do it.


    K. Brian Kelley

  • Yes, that's true, and a valuable skill. I'm talking about something else though... something that has nothing to do with any specific technology. It's that magic quality that tells me the person is going to be a good developer no matter what technology or language I throw at them. I've never met a language I couldn't learn, a technology I couldn't master, or a program I couldn't write. I'm looking for that ability, because it means the person will be useful next year - they will never be obsolete no matter what gets invented in the future. On the other hand, I don't want to train somebody in C#, no matter how much promise they might have. That's where the certification matters, but it doesn't tell me how they are going to perform when they are asked to solve something they've never seen before. I guess I'm saying certifications tend to imply something that they don't give. The implication that a person is going to be good at the job simply because they're certified, is wrong.

  • The last part I wholeheartedly agree with in most cases. The Microsoft certifications certainly. However, should someone have completed a RHCE or a CCIE, then I know they've got to be good. Those have bonafide lab exams and you have to prove you know your stuff. I hear what you're saying about knowing that a person is going to be good no matter what gets tossed at them, but I think that is hard to pick up even in an interview. That's where the credentials check on the resume can help, but it's certainly no guarantee.


    K. Brian Kelley

  • I have never heard of those. I would suppose what I'm saying only applies to those ones with the multiple-choice tests. I stick to mostly the Microsoft world. Seems to be the place where you can make the most money and least likely to be deprecated any time soon. At least I'm confident that if MS goes belly-up sometime, I will have the abilities to be able to continue doing what I love, because I have those basic skills that serve you in any environments or languages.

  • RHCE - Red Hat Certified Engineer

    CCIE - Cisco Certified Internetworking Expert

    Both have a written exam just to get to the lab test. Cisco's CCIE lab used to have a reported 2/3 failure rate on the first attempt. At over 1K a shot, you get the idea.


    K. Brian Kelley

  • Not sure about RHIE, but a friend got his CCIE a few months ago. He had to take a written test, a long one and then had a year to take the lab. The lab was most of a day, with engineers giving him problems or broken devices he had to reconfigure. He missed it his first time and then waited so long studying that he took the written a second time before passing his second lab.

    He's a smart guy, probably smarter than I, but I also know he spent way more time getting his CCIE than I did for my MCSE.

  • We can discuss certification as much as we like but the problem is that you cannot generalize.

    If you are sitting in a stable job and not intending to move soon - certification is not going to help much.  You won't really learn anything relevant to your current job and the street cred that you have amongst your collegues is more important.

    If you are looking for work, sometimes certification will help and sometimes not.  If you find your next job by word of mouth, having a certificate won't neccessarily do much.  If you are using job/cv boards where pimps (recruitment agents) trawl for buzzwords a certifcate may help you turn up in the search.  Maybe 20% of the pimps use certification in their search criteria, maybe more - if you are prepared to ignore those 20% of the opportunities then skip the certification.

    Some HR people use certification as a filter - not a good thing, but they don't actually have a clue and it helps them screen candidates.  Again, you may not get your foot in the door because of buzzword screening.

    If you are doing consulting assignments certification may help as part of the sales pitch.  If you are uncertified and pitching against someone who is, the pointy-haired manager may choose the other guy.

    I don't think certification helps much once you have reached the interview (or even the job) if the interviewer has done their work.  As an employer I am keen on certs (though not all) because it demonstrates *something* - which differs from person to person and I establish the *something* in the interview. 

    For example if someone is sitting in front of me telling me how wonderful he/she is I ask "Why are you not certified?", to which I normally get some lame answer and ask,

    "You say that you don't see any value in the certification?  When did you last actually look at the content outline for (some) certification?  What - never?  So you don't actually know whether you are better or worse than the certified people, do you?". 

    This rattles them a bit and I finish off with "Well, if you are as good as you say you are, then you should be able to pass the exam with virtually no studying right?  Okay, as part of your probation we'll pay for the exams but if you are not certified within one month of starting you're fired!  How does that sound?" 

    The good ones are cool with it, the rest panic and start with excuses about not enough time 'cause their mother in law is sick and so on.  Certifications and discussions about certifications are *really* useful in an interview situation.

    Certification does have some value, it just differs from person to person and across situations.  If I know a technology upwards, downwards and backwards then I don't see the *harm* in becoming certified.


  • What about someone like me, who has studied for the certification, know I can pass it, but just don't feel like shelling out the dollars for a cert that's going to be obsolete in a couple years anyway? The only harm in that case is to my pocketbook. I would do it if someone else paid for it, but I wouldn't take a job if someone gave me an ultimatum of being fired if I didn't pass a test. I'd agree to be fired if I wasn't performing, but not being certified doesn't mean I can't perform.

    Also, there are a lot of things on the SQL 2000 tests that never come up in real life. Things that I've never encountered a need for in 10 years of working with it, through many different versions. I don't see the value in filling my head with a bunch of crap that I'm never going to use, simply so I can pass a test. It's "nice to know" kind of stuff... useful only in extremely rare times, and good for impressing people at SQL Server conferences. I mentioned this in a previous discussion, but I think it's way more important to know the things you're going to be doing every day, than to know the dark nooks and crannies you're never going to go into. (I get bored with that stuff, so I do know the details, but I wouldn't 'not hire' somebody for lack of that knowledge, if they had the basics down pat)

  • I'm probably not the poster boys for certs since I have an NT 4.0 MCSE and never did complete my MCDBA, for many of the same reasons you've listed. I did, however, complete my GSEC (hands on security credential... operational equivalent to a CISSP). What the GSEC (and the material for the GCIH, which I haven't had the time to complete) reminded me was yes there is a lot of trivial stuff out there when you study for a cert. Undoubtably. I was having to know the Novell stuff and got a ton of Novell questions for my Windows tests when I didn't support Novell... but there's alway stuff you go over and you learn for the first time or learn even better as a result of preparing for a certification. I mean if you do it right and study the material and not just go looking for brain dumps (we all know people do it). And for that reason, certification can be a valuable upside for the individual, regardless of how much experience we think we have.


    K. Brian Kelley

  • yeah I agree with that. Any learning experience is a Good Thing

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