Certification vs. Qualification

18. January 2016 Opinion 0

I hold several certifications in my field of expertise: a number of Microsoft certifications, as well as Cisco, WatchGuard, IBM and other technologies.  Before all of that happened, I also earned my bachelor’s in mathematics and philosophy from University, as well as a shiny Master’s degree from a private college.

My education on its own qualified me for exactly the same set of jobs I could have obtained directly out of high school—in my field this basically means level 1 helpdesk. The difference when I graduated was this: I had amassed several thousand dollars of student debt.

Don’t get me wrong—I loved higher education, and if I had not done all of it, and added IT certifications to that list—I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.  My first “real” job offers came from companies who valued certification, and even with all the education and other experience I had acquired, they openly admitted during the interview process that my active work in obtaining more and more certifications helped them take my resume more seriously, and moved me to the top of the interview list.

So what does certification require? A study guide or a book, some practice exams, and a few weeks of study. Oh, and usually about 150 dollars to go and take the exam. That’s about it.  Does studying for and passing these exams make you any better at the job?  In my experience, technical and sales exams do very little to prepare you for real life situations that you will run into on the job.  And I know that I’m not the only person to hold this opinion.

So what is the point?  Certifications don’t matter after all?  I think the answer is more complex than that.  While I can’t speak to certifications outside the field of IT, I imagine the same holds true for many industries: certifications are often the only objective way that we have to measure competence.  If nothing else can be said about passing a paper exam (or even a simulation-based one), it is this: you probably have to know enough.

I think of certification as a kind of “baseline” or “litmus test.”  In my opinion, it represents a kind of basic level of knowledge. Take the CCNA for example: even if you’re not going to be working primarily with Cisco-based devices in your job, if you have the word “Network” listed anywhere in your job title (Network Technician, Network Engineer, Network Support Specialist, etc.), then you should be able to pass this exam, at a bare minimum.

If you can’t, then you may not be qualified for the title you’re wearing. Since a lot of people frequently fail this exam, I know this is a harsh statement. But I stand by it. It is an entry level certification. Even if it takes two or three tries, you should be able to pass it once you’ve got a good foundation and understanding of the basic principles of networking, and a very cursory understanding of Cisco IOS commands.

That having been said, a certain set of letters appended to your name does not magically qualify you to hold a particular job title, either. At the end of the day, experience and work ethic are going to trump everything else. You need to show up and do the work, and do it well. Every. Single. Day. You need to be able to adapt and problem solve when things go south. You need to be able to keep it all together under pressure. And if you can solve enough problems, you will eventually find that you are truly qualified for the higher level work and the fancier job titles. In other words, you just need to build up a track record.

Nobody really cares if you earned your CCNA, your MCSE or even something more substantial like an MBA.  They may or may not help you get your foot in the door, and in and of themselves, these things don’t matter until you can back them up. I have heard plenty of horror stories from managers who hired “paper certified” individuals with glowing credentials only to find out they couldn’t hack it on the job.

The lesson? Certification is not equivalent to qualification. If you want the latter then you need to get to work.  If you are after the former, it should be for the right reasons. Maybe you want to send a message to your employer or your customers about your competence and dedication, for example.  But if you don’t walk the walk, as they say, then I’m afraid that all the certification in the world isn’t going to help you. The inside needs to match the outside. Period. The world is too transparent now. If you can’t deliver on your promises, people will be able to figure it out pretty quickly, and once the word is out, that’s it for you.  Better find a different line of work.

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