I was inspired to write something after reading this comic about certifications, which expresses a sentiment to which I heartily agree. Of the people I’ve met, those who are most adamantly opposed to getting certified in a field tend to be the sort of people who have the easiest time getting work in the tech industry. They often hold computer science degrees, got hired as engineers by their friends and progress in their careers through a network of other relatively privilege. These people have a commonality; they benefit from systemic discrimination. They will likely not struggle to get hired as someone else with the exact same qualifications might.
I’ve also known many great engineers who, despite not getting certifications themselves, acknowledge that it can be a great path forward for other engineers. But in general those who are telling you to ‘never get certified in anything’ are unaware of the privilege they have in the industry.
But who should get certified and in what?
After nearly a decade in this industry and devoting a lot of time mentoring people who are from underrepresented groups in tech, I have a few pieces of advice in the best certifications to get, how best to get them, and how to succeed.
Before you pursue certification, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Are the number of openings in the field growing?
- Do you know more than one person who’s struggling to find work in the field?
- What does the Bureau of Labor Statistics say about this kind of work?
When my friends are considering a career choice I always give the same advice: “healthcare or software.” Both are fields that are growing much faster than the number of new applicants.
I’ve known some very smart people who, when complimented on passing a difficult certification test, have said “well thank you but I had to study quite a bit” as if time spent studying lessens the achievement. I’ll say this clearly: most certifications that are worth having will require study - even if you know the subject. To pass even the most basic AWS certification I had to study like a schoolgirl for a week!
I mentioned as an example a certification in React. I’m not certain there is a useful React certification, but even if there is, the first thing you should consider is a portfolio. In general if you’re seeking a new job or new responsibilities at your current job, an example project is a much better demonstration of your skills than a certification. Once you’ve built a couple cool demonstration projects, then it’s time to get certified. This does not apply if:
- You’re already being paid to do the thing. Lots of certification seekers are actually trying to get paid more for something they already do.
- The thing you’re trying to get certified in doesn’t lend itself well to portfolio projects, e.g. databases, erudite ops tools, or expensive enterprise tools with no free tier.
I’ve seen several certifications with extremely general topics: “cloud engineering” or “operations” that all share the same warning signs. The description is nebulous, the organization is small and shifty about to whom they are affiliated, and the subject area is so broad it could be anything from writing python web apps to laying ethernet cable. Sadly, fly-by-night operations selling worthless slips of paper are all too common. It’s one of the reasons not to pursue certification in area that you (or your mentor) don’t know anything about: it’s easy to get scammed.
The Trailhead Course for Heroku Architecture Designer is the other side of the coin. Offered by the company that owns & develops the product, Salesforce, this certification is well recognized by those utilizing these tools.
These are not singular examples. In general it’s best to work on certifications that are closely related to a single product or service. Employers have reason to pay attention to someone with Salesforce certifications, but someone with an “operations” or “cloud” certification isn’t as obvious a fit. Do they have any demonstrated knowledge of the tools we’ll be using? You can imagine the other questions.
As I mentioned before, lots of people getting certifications are trying to get a raise or a promotion at their current job. Unless you work for a very large corporation there probably won’t be any official policy about rewarding certifications, so it can feel like a gamble to spend money on the certification and a prep course. It can be a gamble, and you should never be gambling your own money. If your employer won’t pay for the related exam, it’s a great indicator that they don’t respect the certification in the first place, or your ambitions to improve.
My advice in this situation is to get on LinkedIn and start talking to recruiters. Any organization that doesn’t invest in developing its workforce probably doesn’t value its workers. Find one that does!