Skills Certs: What Do They Really Mean?

Being certified is better than not being certified. However, from Brian Jaffe's perspective as a hiring manager, relevant experience trumps certification every time.

In a previous column, I commented that I really didnt seek out certification credentials when I was recruiting to fill a position. With the launch of eWEEK.coms new IT certification and training site, Cert Central, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss this further.

All things being equal (and they never are), being certified is better than not being certified. However, from my perspective as a hiring manager, relevant experience trumps certification every time. The value of practical knowledge over theoretical knowledge—especially in the very non-theoretical world of corporate IT—seems obvious.

I know that certification isnt easy. Depending on the particular track, it usually requires an enormous amount of commitment, study, money and time. So when I see a resume that has such a certification, I think that this is a person who can commit to something, and stick with a difficult project through to the end. The temptation to abandon an effort of this sort is great, especially if its being done on ones own time, and own dime. The same can be said of those who have toughed-it-out for college degrees, etc.

However, aside from this sticktoitivness, Im not convinced that technical certification confers any real indication of an individuals talents, skills, ability or competency. Can it tell me what kind of performer someone will be? Whether he or she is responsible? A team player? Has appropriate interpersonal skills? Understands the importance of customer service? Is too proud to ask for help?

Certainly, a certification indicates that an individual has been exposed to all the appropriate concepts and ideas within a given technical discipline. And it shows that he or she has the ability to study for and pass tests. However, as someone who has crammed for enough tests in order to obtain two degrees, and one—probably now expired—certification, Im not convinced thats enough to carry much weight in my hiring decisions.

Of course, it isnt too difficult to ferret out the "Paper CNEs" (its rather sad that Novells lasting legacy will end up being this contribution to the lexicon) and others with "MT-SEs" ("empty," get it?). Asking about projects and experience is a start, as well as asking technical questions that delve beyond the surface, and require some independent thought to answer.

When I hire technical people, I often ask what kind of equipment the individual has at home. Sometimes I hear, "I have a PC with a dial-up AOL account." But the kind of answer Im looking for would be something like, "I have five computers, two running as servers, and three as workstations, with a broadband connection and a Linksys router. Im about to implement a wireless connection so I can take a laptop to the backyard, and I just ordered a static-IP address from my ISP so that I can host my own e-mail." (And, no, that doesnt mean I favor candidates with financial resources. Most of the people who respond in this way have been scrounging used equipment from a variety of sources for years.) To me, this person has a natural talent and interest in technology. This is not something that certification shows.

Training providers (and to a lesser extent, technology vendors) like to hawk certification programs as the magic key to unlock the golden riches of a career in IT. However, if youve been in IT long enough, youve seen your fair share of people carrying certificates to know that this isnt the case. And you know that the magic key for success in IT is pretty much the same as the magic key for success in every other field: hard work, dedication, smarts, the ability—and desire—to learn (and learn from mistakes), the capacity to see the big picture and the ability to work with others. In addition to these traits, the ones who have the most potential to succeed in IT are those who can see technology as a tool and not an end in itself. And, most importantly, those with potential to succeed in IT will have a natural talent and aptitude—essentially, a gift—for technology.

Of course, this is not to say that people should not pursue a certification. Like the Faber College (remember "Animal House"?) motto said, "Knowledge is Good." Having a credential certainly cant do any harm, particularly if you find yourself struggling with the paradox of not being able to get experience without a job and not being able to get a job without experience.

Should you pursue certification? Absolutely. Youre virtually guaranteed to learn something, and it may open some doors (especially to those employers who insist on only hiring certificate holders). Every credential you get helps differentiate you from your peers. And, in a job market like this one, it cant hurt to stand out. However, be sure that you have realistic expectations of what that certificate will do for you.

Brian D. Jaffe is an IT director in New York, an eWEEK contributing editor and co-author of the "IT Managers Handbook: Getting Your New Job Done." He can be reached at